The world was alarmed by scenes of violent clashes between protesters and police in the central Syntagma Square earlier this year. Protests and strikes in Greece are generally peaceful and frequent. But lawlessness and crime are on the rise in Greece’s capital, Athens. The debt crisis means that revenues for the city are down 20 percent, though Athens is actually in better shape than the rest of the country. According to a Guardian article; Athens’ mayor Giorgos Kaminis says that a “mass influx of often desperate refugees” has only exacerbated the rise in crimes including robberies in the city:
…. a little further up the road [from Athens' city hall] Somalian prostitutes proposition pedestrians at all hours; a little further down, … beggars … cry “I’m hungry”, young men crouch in doorways doubled over with needles in hand.
“Where to begin?” asks Kaminis, sitting back in a low leather chair in his sparse sixth-floor office. “There is a flagrant lack of respect for the law, be it prostitution, human trafficking, drug dealing or organised crime. Some 7,000 addicts are on waiting lists for hospital care. Around Patission [a central avenue] there are areas that are so lawless you cannot even go after 6pm.”
Positioned on the edge of Europe and sharing a land border with Turkey, Greece is, like it or not, a gateway for migrants. 90 percent of the 128,000 people who entered the European Union illegally in 2010 came via Greece. People come from Asia, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan; immigrants currently comprise 15 percent of Greece’s 11 million people (and half of Greece’s population lives in Athens). But with $413.6 billion (€300 billion) worth of debt — 150 percent of Greece’s GDP — and a government propped up by international bailouts and about to make drastic cuts to jobs and pensions for state workers, Greece is ill-equipped to assist undocumented immigrants.
In March, 300 migrant workers went on a hunger strike to protest the Greek government’s denying them legal status. After six weeks, the Greek government offered them temporary residence permits that will be automatically renewed every six months; individual cases will also be investigated, says the BBC.
The New York Times‘s magazine has some photos of an Athens the tour buses don’t take you to, of a police drug raid and a right-wing anti-immigrant group called the Golden Dawn. Where this photo of “one of the most affected neighborhoods in the center of Athens” was taken is not noted, but I think it might be Omonia, an area that tour guides informed my students (I’ve taken students from my college to Greece for the past three years) to avoid.
I do have to say, my students being from urban areas where crime is not uncommon, they’re used to being on their guard; Athens, a friend pointed out to me, is still far more safe than other European cities (and many American ones). The issue is whether rising crime in Athens might hurt Greece’s tourism industry, which currently accounts for about 15 percent of its economy — and what will happen to the many migrants seeking a better life if not in Greece, than in Europe. Earlier this week, the BBC reported 25 bodies from the engine room of a boat that landed on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. The men are believed to be from Somalia, Nigeria and Ghana; the boat also carried 271 other people. Riots recently broke out at migrant centers in the southern Italian port of Bari, outside of Rome and on Sicily.
Greece currently rejects 99 percent of asylum claims. In a 2010 report, UN special rapporteur Dr Manfred Novak said that Greece’s asylum system was described as “dysfunctional.” Police stations in Athens are currently used as detention centers for migrants. While the Greek government has “wanted to improve the situation it lacked the funds to do so” and still does, even more now.
In the wake of the horrific attacks two weeks ago in Norway, many politicians in Europe have defended right-wing terrorist Andrew Behring Breivik, saying that he was “defending Western civilization“and revealing the dangers of “wide-scale immigration.” But as unrest and economic crises continues around the world, people will still seek a better life in countries other than their own: The violence in Norway is a tragic reminder of the need for tolerance, integration and acceptance of diversity, not hate that breeds fear and violence.
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Photo of migrant strawberry pickers in Ilia by noborder network