ATHENS: Immigrants abound in the neighbourhood around Athens’ Agios Panteleimon church, but for now they are keeping out of sight.
Washed up here after fleeing poverty and violence in Asia and Africa, they now face beatings, insults and exclusion fuelled by Greece’s own economic hardship. Nazi graffiti have spread and weeds have taken over the children’s playground at the foot of the church.
“They closed the square because of the strangers who came there, the Muslims,” explains one passer-by at the playground’s barricaded gate, as local kids play football and elders backgammon, with scarcely a foreign face in sight. “They” are far-right local vigilantes — some of them supporters of the Golden Dawn party that entered parliament after winning seven percent of votes in Greece’s election on May 6.
They rule the streets in neighbourhoods such as Agios Panteleimon, a once-upmarket district gone to seed, and drive many to seek refuge in centres such as one run by the aid group Medecins du Monde.
Kamal, an Algerian immigrant in the centre, who says he is too scared to go out at night after being beaten up twice, once by “men in black”, and once by the police.
“The threat is still there and the situation is getting worse,” said Nikitas Kanakis, a local leader of the aid group, at the shelter, also a distribution centre, packed with immigrants and Greeks alike queueing for medicine.
“The members of Golden Dawn feel more powerful and more accepted by the population,” Kanakis added.
“They promise Greeks social progress. They want to impose an agenda of fear, and virtually all the other parties are playing their game.”
A new general election is set for June 17 and Golden Dawn is expected to stay in parliament, albeit at a reduced strength, polls show.
The charity says immigrants regularly suffer beatings and members of his staff have been threatened and intimidated on their own premises.
“A Pakistani man came yesterday with his head swollen and his eye bruised after he was hit in the street,” said a doctor at the centre, Aspasia Michalakis. “He hadn’t come to be treated earlier because he was afraid.”
Three years of financial and economic chaos have fuelled a backlash against immigrants.
In the western Greek port of Patras on Tuesday, police fired tear gas against hundreds of people, hooded and armed with iron bars and handmade bombs, who tried to attack migrants over the fatal stabbing of a Greek man.
A 30-year-old Patras resident was fatally stabbed outside his home on Saturday following a dispute with three men, believed to be Afghan nationals. A 17-year-old Afghan has been arrested over the case.
In a separate case, one of Golden Dawn’s parliamentary candidates, Themis Skordeli, is awaiting trial on charges of taking part in the stabbing of three Afghan immigrants in September.
A court postponed her trial, along with that of two other candidates, on Wednesday for the sixth time. It is the first case of its kind to come to trial in over a decade.
Greece’s eastern border with Turkey is one of the main ports of entry for unauthorised migrants into the European Union. Greek official estimates of the number of legalised migrants in Greece last year vary from 784,000 to 970,000. Along with economics, immigration was high on the agenda in the elections. The rise of Golden Dawn was “a shock for the country,” said Ketty Kehayioylou, a local official of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
“But the phenomenon did not happen overnight,” she added. “The economic crisis, the presence of illegal immigrants, the lack of assistance and structures to receive them, created a lot of frustration and made fertile ground” for xenophobia, she added.
In Agios Panteleimon, immigrants keep a low profile but say the rounds of elections have channelled the anti-immigrant energy in a different direction and tensions have dipped in the neighbourhood.
“For the past couple of months there have been far fewer attacks. They are attacking us democratically now,” said Yonous Muhammadi, an Afghan member of the Greek Forum of Refugees, who has himself been attacked in his office.
“It is not that seven percent of people in Greece are fascists: May 6 was a protest against austerity,” he said.
“But with the media coverage, Greeks are beginning to understand what Golden Dawn’s ideology really is,” he added. “It will not have the same success in June.”
It is little comfort to one Iranian migrant sheltered by Medecins du Monde. “If the fascists win again, we are dead,” he said.