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GREECE: State Itself Becoming Xenophobic

Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, May 18 2009 (IPS) - "I can see migrants are the source of many problems," says Maria Nafpliotou, an employee at a music store in the city centre. "Nobody is happy to see them living around here, but I doubt slaying them is a solution."

She says this as she looks out into Omonia square at a demonstration called last week by a group of far-right organisations going under the name 'Residents committees against the invasion of aliens in our country'.

The hundreds of demonstrators flew the Greek flag, played music by Wagner as did the Nazis once, and sang radical marching tunes. 'Blood, Honour, Golden Dawn' went one slogan, Golden Dawn being the name of the most notorious fascist group in the country. The demonstrators attack foreigners, journalists or just anyone who dared show disapproval of the demonstration.

Police stood passively between the extremists and leftist counter- demonstrators, restricting themselves to calming down the angry mob now and then. Their casual way of dealing with the neo-Nazis was unmistakable.

Such demonstrations are not common in Athens, and could be dismissed as isolated events were it not for growing signs over the past few months of an imminent wave of xenophobia in Greece.

Several violent attacks against economic migrants have been reported around Athens city centre during the last month, most notably targeting the Pakistani community.

"The debate about deterioration of migration into a crisis is increasingly taking place in a very negative climate," says Spyros Rizakos, legal representative of the NGO Aitima based in Patra city 250 km southwest of Athens. Thousands of refugees from Afghanistan and Somalia live there in inhumane conditions.

"Nobody discusses what drives thousands of people to such abject conditions, and what the responsibility of the Greek state is for that," Rizakos told IPS. "We illegally do not implement European directives for reception and integration, and have effectively shut the majority of migrants out of asylum procedures; this country is literally a workshop of social exclusion for foreigners."

Following widespread social unrest in Athens, beginning with the riots last December, authorities have become more insensitive to human rights issues, Rizakos says.

During the last few months a connection made by mainstream media between the constant arrival of thousands of migrants and an increase in criminality in some districts of the capital they concentrate in has prepared the ground for tougher measures.

"The truth is that the situation around the city centre has deteriorated immensely during the last few months," Georgia Dusia, human rights activist with the leftist organisation Network for the rights of Refugees told IPS. "We sometimes fail to accept the reality on the ground out of sympathy and pro- migrant views, but it is better to be aware and to acknowledge reality. There are places in this city cut out of society. People are scared, politicians capitalise on the situation, and we need to respond to that."

The Ministry of Interior has announced plans to move thousands of irregular migrants to detention facilities. Many squatting in rundown buildings in the Athens city centre will be moved to a disused military facility in Aspropirgos, west of Athens.

And a large number of Afghans have abandoned a makeshift camp next to Patras port following the announcement of plans to transfer them to a new 'closed' camp which will be policed on a 24-hour basis.

It was also decided at an emergency meeting last week of officials from the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, defence, the merchant marine and island policy, and of the police and coast guard, to set up a new coordination body for the protection of national borders.

One of the first measures will be to involve the military in detaining migrants, and strengthening surveillance of borders against arrivals. This will be done with a budget of 200 million euros up to 2013, 148 million of which will come from the European Union, for policing equipment and new technologies.

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