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GREECE: The Centre Is Falling Apart

Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, Dec 10 2010 (IPS) - The experience of walking through Omonia Square in downtown Athens can send shivers down the spine of even the calmest of visitors. In recent months, increased incidents of street crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution have turned the square into a site many citizens go to lengths to avoid.

Several of the residents admitted to IPS that they don’t visit the Omonia Square area at all. Many avoid crossing through the square’s streets even by car.

“What you see in the narrow streets around Omonia is beyond comprehension,” said Tasia Triantafillopoulou, a freelance accountant who works in the area. She defines the area as being plagued by “poverty and lack of humanity and…so much violence.”

People begging for change, underage girls offering their bodies to passersby, and illegal sales of smuggled products create a picture of the many socially- excluded individuals that strive for survival by any means possible.

The biggest problem in the area is drug trafficking. Groups of migrants loiter in the square, carrying out discreet transactions with substance abusers.

Buyers can be seen walking to the steps of nearby buildings, where they prepare and inject the narcotics in plain view of passersby.

Marina Vichou, human rights activist and former member of the local municipal council, says the condition of Athens’ streets has deteriorated rapidly since the beginning of the year.

“The increased insecurity, caused primarily by the economic crisis, has inflated xenophobia and left open space for organised extreme right groups to appear as the liberators of public spaces from ‘foreign invasion’ in devalued neighborhoods of Athens.

“Lately (the groups) have established their presence and collaborated with some inhabitants – especially youngsters of Albanian origin – in violent attacks that are increasingly racist, targeting mostly people of Asian or African background,” Vichou said.

In the last domestic election, held at the beginning of November, the neo- Nazi organisation Golden Dawn won an astonishing margin of the vote: over five percent in the capital, which guaranteed the party a seat on the Athens municipal council.

Dimitris Psarras, reporter at the national daily Eleftherotypia, explained how right-wing extremists have targeted individuals who feel exposed by the state’s inability to provide a safe and secure environment. “With this vote, many residents rewarded Golden Dawn for establishing a special protection regime of storm troopers under the toleration of formal authorities in their neighbourhoods,” Psarras wrote. He added that this tactic is used as “a solution to the constant flow of foreigners into their neighborhoods.”

The large numbers of people descending into poverty does not bode well for easing racial tensions in Greece, says Nikitas Kanakis, head of the Athens organisation Doctors of the World.

“Implementation of strict austerity by the government is causing large-scale withdrawal of state services from social welfare. This pushes more people to worse living standards and to a direct competition of locals against foreigners,” Kanakis told IPS.

The organisation’s base in the heart of Athens, where medical services are offered to the public free of charge, has registered a 30 percent increase in individuals seeking assistance. The number of Greek citizens seeking aid from Doctors of the World has risen from seven to 15 percent in the past year.

“There are cheap solutions that authorities could implement despite the recession,” said Kanakis. “Opening public sleeping quarters and public toilets in the centre to take people off the streets would help to steam off the pressure.”

In the absence of effective social services, other forms of regulation have sprung up to take their place.

“Ethnic communities are organising, and antagonising each other,” said Kanakis. “Today we are experiencing the birth of street gangs; we treat six or seven incidents of violent attacks every day.”

With increasing violence and gang activity, the number of visitors to Athenian squares like Omonia – it is not the only such – look set to decline. Hope of cleaning up destitute areas grows dimmer each day.

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