Following three days of anti-immigrant violence in Athens, questions are being asked about possible far-right involvement in the murder of Bangladeshi migrant worker Alim Abdul Manan.
The attacks on immigrants started on Tuesday 10 May after Manolis Kantaris, a 44-year-old Greek man, died after a stabbing in what appeared to be a street robbery in the Kato Patissia neighbourhood of downtown Athens. Residents blamed the killing on the institutional neglect of their neighbourhood and an ‘immigrant crime wave’, although to date, no evidence has emerged that immigrants stabbed Kantaris. On 12 May, following a 2,000-strong demonstration which was quickly overrun by ultra-nationalists, riot police were called in as far-right youths rampaged through immigrant neighbourhoods, clubbing and pummelling victims to the ground. On the same day, in the Patissia district, 21-year-old Bangladeshi worker Alim Abdul Manan was chased by two men on a motorbike who then stabbed him and fled.
Arguably, no other European country is suffering more from the financial crisis than Greece. Unemployment is running at 16 per cent, and 150,000 small and medium-sized businesses are said to have closed down in the last year alone, with downtown Athens, where the violence erupted, particularly badly hit. The EU and IMF $146-billion bailout is accompanied by a restructuring of debt repayments and a soaring rise in the cost of living amidst draconian cuts in public spending. Many people are said to be leaving Athens, where half of Greece’s 11 million population lives, preferring to live in rural areas, where the cost of living is cheaper. Amidst all this turmoil, the neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi party has gained ground. Since the 2009 European parliament elections, both Chrysi Avgi and the ultra-nationalist Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) have scored well in the Agios Panteleimonas neighbourhood of Athens, where many migrants live in squalid conditions in abandoned buildings, parks and garages. In fact, in local elections in November 2010, Chrysi Avgi, which scored 5.3 per cent of the vote in the Athens municipality as a whole, obtained twenty per cent of the vote in the Agios Panteleimonas neighbourhood.
Institutional neglect and rising far-right activity
Greece is notorious for its failure to build structures to aid migrant integration as well as its absence of a properly functioning asylum system (the acceptance rate for asylum applicants in Greece runs slightly above 0 per cent). It has long since been the subject of critical reports form Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, amongst others, and in 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ruled against returns to Greece under the Dublin Convention because of squalid conditions in detention, while several countries, including Norway and Sweden, suspended returns of unaccompanied child asylum seekers under the same Convention because of Greece’s total absence of reception arrangements for children. Chrysi Avgi seized on the chaos caused by years of institutional neglect, and the fact that migrants from Asia and Africa live in squalid conditions in the capital, to blame the economic crisis on undocumented migrants, as well as migrant workers, who they describe as a drain on the economy. The government and the police have not done enough to counter hatred promoted by the far Right, which has escalated since the autumn of 2010 when Chrysi Avgi won a seat on Athens Central Council. Athens-based journalist Androniki Kitsantonis, in a well-argued piece in the New York Times (12 January 2011), was amongst those drawing attention to repeated stabbings of immigrants in city squares, and reporting that groups of vigilantes, some as young as 14 were stalking immigrant neighbourhoods, attacking migrants who were too scared to go to the police. Other terrifying incidents include an attack on a dozen Iranian asylum seekers on hunger strike who were rushed to hospital after an explosive device was thrown at them. A day later, another Iranian hunger striker, a woman, was attacked outside her home in central Athens by two men on a motorbike who hit her in the face and the back with a bat. Synagogues and makeshift mosques – usually situated in garages or basements of apartment blocks – have been bombed, burned and vandalised. In the most serious attack, at the end of October, assailants locked the door of a basement prayer house and hurled firebombs through the windows, badly injuring five worshippers. Even prior to this, in May 2009, far-right activists were causing chaos. Dozens of far-right demonstrators hurled stones and fireworks at a disused courthouse in Athens occupied by immigrants, injuring five people. This followed a march by Chrysi Avgi, where protestors carried banners reading ‘Foreigners mean crime’ and ‘We have become foreigners in our own country’. There were also clashes between the police and demonstrators from the Muslim community, protesting at the police’s failure to protect a makeshift mosque in the area which was torched, as well as an incident where a police officer reportedly tore up the Qur’an.
Athens police do not seem to see the importance of firm action against racist and far-right crimes. Even when Chrysi Avgi activists sprayed a painted cross merged with a circle on the wall of one firebombed prayer site, the police refused to see any connection. Instead, they told journalists that the violence was not so much racist as complicated. Migrant crime, including muggings of Greeks, was a major problem, police spokesman Thanassi Kokkalakis told the New York Times, adding that ‘chaos’ stemming from a ‘constantly growing population of immigrants’ fuelled the aggravation which was then exploited by extremist groups. The police’s failure to acknowledge that racist attacks demand investigation and action adds weight to criticisms of the police within Athens’ growing Pakistani community. Some of this criticism surrounds several unexplained deaths of migrants following altercations with the police, which the Institute of Race Relations has documented since 2009. In 2008, a 29-year-old Pakistani undocumented migrant, earlier pursued by police who had clashed with asylum seekers queuing at the Aliens Board in Votanikos, near central Athens, died in unexplained circumstances. Police claim that he accidentally fell into a riverbed. Two more bodies have since been found in the same stream of Votanikos. On 3 January 2009, the body of Husein Zahidul, a migrant from Bangladesh, was found and two months later, in March, a 24-year-old man, named only as Mazir, died after two months in a coma, having been found in the same stream. In October 2009, Mohammed Kamran Atif died after being left in a coma following a violent arrest.
Police fail to protect migrants
Following the events of 10-12 May, police are once again accused of failing to protect migrants against the violence that followed the killing of Manolis Kantaris. Nobody was arrested, but residents blamed immigrants, with the far Right quickly over-running what seems to have been a residents’ rally called to protest the murder, chanting ‘Foreigners out’ and ‘Greece for Greeks’. Far-right nationalist youth clad in black then marched through migrant areas, targeting homes and businesses, and smashing store windows. The violence reached a fever pitch on Thursday 12 May when Pakistani community representatives say more than 100 Asian and African immigrants were attacked by several hundred rampaging youths dressed in black, some wielding bats. According to a Pakistani community spokesman Irfan Tamur Mohammed, some seventeen migrants were hospitalised and dozens of immigrant-owned shops were looted. He accused the police of failing to protect immigrants and their businesses. On the same day, the body of 21-year-old Alim Abdul Manan was found stabbed to death in the Patissia district, where the far Right is strong. No arrests have been made and there has been no indication from the police that they consider it a racist crime. Government spokesman George Petalotis stated that irrespective of the original crime, the ‘spectacle of knifed immigrants in hospital cannot be accepted by Greek society’. And Athens mayor Giorgos Kaminis warned that ‘There is the serious threat of Athens becoming a war zone similar to the likes of Beirut during the 1970s’.
Chrysi Avgi – action needed
Many will portray the violence as an inevitable result of the damage done to the social fabric by unchecked irregular migration and the economic insecurity and plummeting standard of living brought about by the debt crisis. But to do so is an insult to all those who do not react to poverty and insecurity by collectively blaming all immigrants for crime. Another reaction to the violence would surely be to question institutional failures, particularly those of the police who have failed to crack down on neo-Nazi inspired violence and other racist crimes, and have on some occasions been the perpetrators of anti-migrant violence. An additional response would be to question the pivotal role that Chrysi Avgi has played in stoking up hatred by creating a hate-filled environment, on the streets and even within the city hall. In January 2011, its leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, accompanied by eight bodyguards, apparently armed, gave a Nazi salute at a council meeting. The genesis of the spate of attacks on Muslim worshippers since 2009 can be found in Chrysi Avgi’s campaign against a long-delayed government plan to construct a state-funded mosque in the capital. An estimated 400,000 Muslims in the greater Athens area pray in 130 windowless, airless basements or warehouses that operate as makeshift mosques in the absence of any official mosque in the Greek capital. In November 2010, at the celebration of Eid-al-Adha at the front entrance of Athens University’s Propylea building, members of Chrysi Avgi played loud music, threw eggs and jeered during the hour-long service.
Following the violence of 10-12 May, the government has announced a new scheme to improve safety in downtown Athens. Let us hope that it is not too little and too late and that, most importantly, it challenges the hate and division promoted by Chrysi Avgi.