Migrants Find Greece Can Be Cruel

(Photo/Nikos Pilos) Detention center in Amygdaleza, just outside of Athens

Nikolia Apostolou – Newsweek

ATHENS – It was one of his usual journeys. Late every Thursday, Shehzad Luqman would bicycle through the streets of Athens to the house of a farmhand, a friend who would often give him fresh produce. On Jan. 17, Shehzad set out on his bike, met his friend, but never made it back. Residents along a portion of Shehzad’s regular route say they heard the sound of a crash, cries for help, and a motorbike speeding away.

The 27-year-old Pakistani immigrant was dead; he had been stabbed in the chest by two neo-Nazis in their 20s dressed in black, according to eyewitness accounts.

The next day, protestors laid siege to the city center. With Shehzad’s body in a wooden coffin in the middle of the throng, immigrants and Greeks protested side by side against the rising tide of xenophobia that has engulfed their country.

Shehzad, who came to Europe seeking a better future, was a casualty of the Greek economic crisis. Six years of negative growth have left the country devastated, its economy resembling that of a country at war. Unemployment, 11 percent in 2007, is now 30 percent—and it’s nearly double that for young Greeks.

All this has fueled anger in the streets and resentment especially toward immigrants who mop up the low-paying and few jobs that are available. Hate crimes are on the rise, making life for refugees and labor fleeing war zones or poverty in Asia and Africa even grimmer.

In such circumstances, Shehzad’s killing was not unusual. “This attack was not an isolated case,” says Amnesty International’s Marek Marczynski. “We have seen a dramatic escalation of racially motivated attacks over the recent past.”

According to official figures, some 700,000 legal immigrants make up 6.5 percent of Greece’s population. The size of the Pakistani community, one of the largest, is estimated to be about 80,000-strong; only 30,000 of them are in Greece legally.

Wariness of outsiders and immigrants, especially Muslims, has been longstanding in Greece. The fear of foreigners reshaping the fabric of Greek society is manifest in the capital’s absence of mosques for tens of thousands of Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

While there are mosques in other cities of Greece, Athens remains one of the few European capitals without a proper mosque. And so Muslim immigrants have improvised, setting up scores of makeshift mosques secreted away in garages or abandoned warehouses.

Yielding to pressure from the European Union, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has lately announced that he will ensure a mosque is built. But this belated concession carries another cost.

It gives the far-right more visible targets. Last winter, during the last prayer of the day at a makeshift mosque in an immigrant neighborhood of Athens, two men in black first lobbed a pig’s head inside the structure and then set the mosque on fire. Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack.

Rights groups accuse the police of doing too little to solve hate crimes. Some have even accused law enforcement officers of being affiliated with extremist organizations. The role of the media is not glowing either. In an attempt to shift attention away from the country’s economic malaise and continuous tax increases on the lower- and middle class, the media and the government often parrot the agenda of right-wing groups.

In fact, since the crisis started, the rhetoric of the far-right has come to dominate the public discourse. In order to woo and assuage angry voters, the government has tried co-opting them by implying that immigrants are in some ways responsible for the high unemployment Greeks face. As a result, extremist organizations that once operated in the shadows have been emboldened into greater prominence.

In line with the hostile public mood, last year the police undertook a large-scale operation to sweep clean the streets of Athens and other major cities of immigrants. Policemen continue to stalk the cities in large groups, stopping dark-skinned persons and demanding to see their papers. Even those who have their papers in order face a hard time, glowering bystanders only seeming to encourage the police to detain everyone being subjected to summary interrogation. Even hapless tourists have gotten caught in the net.

In all, some 80,000 immigrants were detained by police last year after the operation began, according to the menacingly-named Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen, until their papers were cleared. Of these, some 4,500 were undocumented immigrants who were promptly exiled to detention camps. There, they waited for their cases for asylum to be processed failing which they faced deportation.

For those who enter Greece now, as a toehold to access other European countries, life is often hell. The entry to Europe is fraught with danger. Hundreds of immigrants have drowned attempting to make the crossing between Turkey and Greece.

Those who make it are often treated as criminals and jailed in inhumane conditions, in small cells with no toilets. From the foothills of the city, you can see all of Athens: an ugly sea of cement by day transformed only by the city lights into something vaguely beautiful by night. The Guantanamo-style internment camp, with its white prefab containers, wired off from the rest of the city is a prominent eyesore.

Earlier, about 1,000 immigrants in the camp went on hunger strike, demanding their release. “We’re human beings, not animals,” one of the protesting detainees said in a recorded message provided to the Greek media by an NGO. “They’re keeping us here because we don’t have papers. They treat us as if we’re murderers. They can’t keep us here for the rest of our lives. We’re 1,700 people in here. We can’t put up with this anymore.”

Inside the camp, there are immigrants who entered the country illegally as well as refugees and asylum seekers. But it also houses those who couldn’t manage to have their working permits renewed.

The NGOs providing legal assistance to the detainees paint a horrific picture of the camp’s conditions. Hygiene and health care are not available, they say. And for one whole month, detainees were not provided soap. Even the police union has stepped forward to warn that the conditions are abysmal and could turn dangerous if the mental well-Gbeing of the detainees is further tested.

On Aug. 10, a riot erupted at the camp. After 10 detainees managed to escape, the captors clamped down on everyone inside. The detainees were punished by being forced to stay in their humid cells without electricity. The “privilege” of yard walks was rescinded.

Last October, a little before dawn, about 150 Pakistanis were shoved into police buses and whisked off from the camp to the airport for expulsion. The majority of these Pakistanis were leaving voluntarily, unable to cope with the poisonous political environment in Greece, where parties like Golden Dawn have become part of the mainstream.

A tall, tired-looking young Pakistani, Mohammed Arshad, was taken from the camp—where he had waited anxiously for his deportation for four months—in handcuffs. “I haven’t been to Pakistan for the past five years,” Arshad told Newsweek on the police bus to the airport. “I’m married with two children and my family is in Pakistan. I’ve only been back to Pakistan once,” he said in passable Greek.

Arshad had come to Greece a decade earlier. He painted houses and did construction work: “I used to work every day, even on weekends.” He lost his job last year and struggled to get his work permit renewed to stay on in Greece, but he was bilked by conmen profiting from the desperation of immigrants.

“I went to a lawyer in Athens and paid €2,500 to get my papers to stay for two years,” he said, “but they turned out to be fakes.” Arshad went to a second lawyer to sue the first one. He was asked to pay €1,200 for the job. “They needed more money, but I didn’t have any more money.”

Arshad maintained that he had all the qualifications to get his work permit renewed, but added that the law requiring 120 days of work to qualify for it is “too strict and unfair.” He worried about what he would do for a living once he was back in Pakistan, which has its own economic troubles. Two stone-faced policemen in plainclothes escorted handcuffed Arshad onto the unmarked plane chartered by the Greek government for the mass expulsion. They flanked him on the seven-hour flight to Pakistan.

Even for some immigrants who remain in the country, Greece is fast losing its appeal. Manzoor Hussain, 40, thought his Pakistani name might sound too long or too foreign and wind up impeding his prospects. So he became known as Sakis by his neighbors and customers in Athens.

Every day for 12 years, Sakis would open his convenience at 6 a.m. and work until 11 p.m. His 12-year-old daughter, Zara, would help mind the shop after school by stocking the shelves and helping customers. (Sakis’ wife died from cancer when Zara was 2.) The shop was doing well enough for father and daughter to get by.

Then, in June 2012, Sakis closed his shop for the last time. The taxes had gotten too high and business had slumped dramatically. So, like thousands of other small shop-owners in Greece, Sakis decided to call it a day. That last day, he put stacks of soda cans and chips and other perishables in nylon bags to take home.

The rest of the inventory he gave away to friends and old, loyal customers for free. In a few short hours, the shop was bare. “This shop was my life,” he says. “But during the crisis it became like a jail to me. It just raised my debt.”

Zara tried her best to cheer up Sakis as they wound up the family enterprise that hot summer day. Zara was born in Greece, speaks Greek without an accent, and is a straight-A student who hopes to become a doctor. In a few weeks, she would move to London and stay with her aunt. There is no future in Greece, she said at the time. Schools, hospitals, universities are all buckling under the strain of unending austerity cuts.

“I’ll stay back for a few months,” her father, Sakis, had told Newsweek. “I’ll try to get a job. If nothing works, I’ll go to London too.”