On Aug. 2, a group of unidentified men savagely attacked a Pakistani immigrant in Athens, leaving him hospitalized with a broken jaw and multiple bruises. Five days later, Ashkan Najafi, a native of Iran, was severely beaten and stabbed 12 times in Piraeus, a port city south of Athens. He required at least 60 stitches.
These are but two reports of the criminal xenophobia bubbling across Greece. While the anti-Semitic, ultra-right-wing members of and sympathizers with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party are largely responsible for the violence, Greece’s political leaders, law enforcement and judicial system have clearly failed to stem the tide.
Greece is not the only European Union member facing a surge of ultra-right-wing, anti-immigrant groups. However, its deep economic slump, dire poverty, massive unemployment fostered by austerity policies and lack of comprehensive immigration laws have turned Greece into an advanced laboratory for institutionalized racism in Europe.
Over the last few years, nongovernmental organizations have attempted to raise awareness of the racist attacks perpetrated by members of and sympathizers with Golden Dawn across Greece. Confronting resistance from authorities over the extent of the problem, investigations led by Human Rights Watch, Doctors of the World and the Greek Council for Refugees found sustained attacks against immigrants and refugees. Similarly, the Racist Violence Recording Network, a project by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece, documented 151 hate crimes against refugees and migrants in 2012 and 143 similar incidents in 2013.
The slight decline in indiscriminate violence has been attributed to the prosecution of Golden Dawn leaders, including the jailing in September 2013 of its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos. But these show trials present a misleading image of a Greece that is successfully combating xenophobia. In the last European elections, Golden Dawn gained nearly 9.4 percent of the vote. Other evidence reveals that ultra-right ideologies have penetrated state institutions.
The police appear to be at the forefront of state-sponsored racism in Greece. Migrants and refugees I interviewed in Athens this summer complained of arbitrary stops, intrusive searches and racial slurs by police officers. In 2012 the Greek police initiated Operation Xenios Zeus, designed to track immigrants residing unlawfully in Athens. It led to the arrest of some 85,000 foreigners, of whom only 6 percent were undocumented. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights questioned the constitutionality of Xenios Zeus, stressing that the police were engaged in “illegal activity” on behalf of Golden Dawn. Despite this warning, Greek police launched a similar operation in July, Operation Theseus, mainly aimed at curbing illegal immigration.
The judiciary has also failed to tackle xenophobia. Worryingly, some judges appear to be aiding ultra-right causes. In the past few weeks, a naval court in Piraeus closed an investigation into the responsibility of the coast guard for Afghan refugees who were drowned during an illegal pushback attempt in January. Similarly, a court in Patras acquitted farmers who had shot Bangladeshi workers after they demanded six months of unpaid wages. Many human rights organizations, including the Greek Council for Refugees has criticized the multiple procedural flaws that led to these two alarming judicial failures.
Racial discrimination appears to have been tolerated by the newly elected Greek parliament and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ government, according to a new report by the nonprofit group Human Rights First. After months of fierce opposition, an anti-racism law was finally passed on Sept. 9 in order to adapt Greek legislation to international standards. The bill tightens criminal sanctions for hatred, discrimination and violence but has glaring holes in enforcement.
“The bill does not include measures to encourage reporting of violent hate crimes or to ensure appropriate action by the police and judiciary to counter hate violence,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Foreigners are increasingly leaving Greece. A survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the number of registered foreigners in the country fell from 610,800 in 2009 to 440,100 in 2012. This trend is backed by recent reports in the media and interviews I conducted with African immigrants and asylum seekers — all of whom emphasized their desire to leave.
Several European jurisdictions have responded to the crisis by providing temporary or permanent protection to those fleeing Greece. For example, in May, Belgium granted asylum to Mamadou Bah, a Guinean political refugee and citizen of Greece, who had been tortured by Golden Dawn members and the Greek police.
Not everyone is so lucky. The most vulnerable individuals face a perilous journey north toward less hostile nations such as France, the United Kingdom and Sweden. “Some of them have died of hunger or thirst after having lost their way in the mountains,” a Guinean immigrant, Mamadou Diallo, told me.
Tales of immigrants from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and many other conflict-affected countries who head to Greece only to face persecution there say as much about the state of their homelands as the failings of the European Union. EU leaders appear unable to draw viable common plans to effectively respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding at its borders.
Besides, anti-immigrant ultra-right parties have gained popularity across Europe by capitalizing on growing social and economic discontent and are gradually having their ideologies legitimized at the ballot box through electoral populism.
In Sweden, a country long regarded as a model of tolerance, the right-wing Sweden Democrats party nearly tripled its support in the last European elections from a mere 3.3 percent of votes in 2009. In the United Kingdom, the populist U.K. Independence Party gained 27.5 percent of votes in a historical blow to both Conservative and Labor.
But perhaps the most alarming case was France, where Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front won 25 percent of votes, crushing both the ruling Socialist Party and the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement. Plagued by massive unemployment and a spiraling governmental crisis, France is experiencing the diffusion of an “authoritarian ethnocentric syndrome,” according to a report by the National Advisory Commission on Human Rights, characterized by a surge in anti-Semitism and a continuing rise in Islamophobia. In addition to structural discrimination in the job market and intrusive identity checks by police, French civil servants increasingly share anti-immigrant prejudice.
Extremist factions such as Identitarian Bloc and Nissa Rebela are advocating for a remigration, or reversal of migratory flows, meaning the removal of Muslim first- and second-generation immigrants from the country. On Sept. 7, members of ultra-right groups demonstrated in large numbers in Calais, a ferry port in northern France and home to hundreds of displaced people looking to reach the United Kingdom, calling for the deportation of refugees and making Nazi salutes, reminiscent of Greece’s Golden Dawn marches and rallies.
The EU must urgently design a comprehensive framework for providing asylum seekers with access to legal aid, medical care and emergency shelters, especially along the Mediterranean and the English Channel, where lack of preparedness and sometimes authorities’ complacence have fueled xenophobic attacks against immigrants. It must also strongly warn member states that anti-immigrant hate speech by elected officials is undermining European values forged in the aftermath of World War II. If it fails, Greece, the cradle of European civilization, will simply be the advance front of a new decivilizing process across Europe.