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A short history of anti-immigrant violence in Greece: Deaths, Pogroms & Disappearances

June 9, 2012

The Greek centrist daily TO VIMA is reporting that from last September till this June there have been something like thirty unsolved disappearances in the  sans-papiers (undocumented) immigrant community in Greece. This is one disappearance every week. In Athens alone in the first three months of 2012 there have been more than 500 racist attacks. But for those Athenians who have been open to see the other side of the shop/café/club side of the city, this picture of violence is a hardly surprising one. What is surprising is that the mainstream press has decided to pay any attention to an issue that Greek society has ignored for decades.

Anti-immigrant violence had been steadily on the rise in Greece ever since the country – for centuries a source of significant out-migration itself – started attracting increasing numbers of immigrants. First it was the post-1989 Eastern Europeans, and most of all immigrants from Albania. The fear of the ‘barbarous Albanian’ (the robber, the rapist, the killer) haunted the nights of all respectable Greek ladies and fed the blood-thirst of the macho nationalists. The Albanians remained the number one target through to the start of the 2000s, even as new groups of immigrants started arriving to the country.

‘You can only get born as a Greek, you can never become one; we will spill your blood, you Albanian pig’, was a chant heard during a military parade on the 25th March 2010 national celebrations. ‘They call them Scopians [Macedonians], they call them Albanians, I will make my clothes with their skin’ was another one. The unit responsible for this were the much-feted Underwater Special Forces, who started chanting their seemingly familiar military chants after they passed Syntagma Square, where all the politicians and the media were gathered, and as they started coming close to Omonoia Square, a mile further down, which is typically the centre of immigrant culture and trade. In the ensuing trial only two members of the unit were  found guilty, given 3 months and 15 days of suspended prison sentences.

Albanians were also the target of the first racist pogrom in post-1974 Greece. In September 2004 – the year of the Athens Olympics and Greece’s only euro triumph (in football) – following a football match in Tirana between the national teams of Albania and Greece, Kristallnacht came to Greece: a night of terror across the country, spilling over even to the normally peaceful islands – still in the tourist season – resulting in one Albanian’s death in Zakynthos (Zante) and many dozens injured.

But the 2000s saw a significant change in the history of immigration in Greece. There were two key reasons for this: Greece’s entry into the eurozone which fed its consumerist and construction boom and made the country a more attractive destination, and the EU Dublin Convention of 1997 which made asylum applications much more difficult and put the onus to process them on the Schengen-Zone member-state that was the immigrant’s first point of entry. Due to its geographic position Greece hence became almost automatically a major destination for immigrants. By 2004 the talk was that in a country of 10 million, there were at least 1 million immigrants, most of whom were sans-papiers (undocumented), exactly because of the increasingly prohibitive policies of fortress Europe and due to the Greek governments basic inadequacy. 500,000 of these immigrants were from Albania but increasingly new groups came to pre-occupy the media and the Far Right: Afghanis, Somalis, Nigerians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

In 2009, even before the neoliberal austerity tsunami of the Papandreou government came to push social relations to their limits, the list of immigrants who had met a violent death in Greece was already a long one. Five deaths a year was an average estimate circulating, but found only in the leftist media. Key perpetrators were the usual Far Right groups, and the police – hardly a surprising combination, considering the recent election results that showed that policemen in Athens voted up to 50% for the new-fascist party of the Golden Dawn.

A turning point was in May 2011, following the murder of father-to-be Manolis Kantaris by two immigrants who tried to steal his photo-camera. The killing set-off an unprecedented week of anti-immigrant violence in Athens that shattered the small immigrant communities and downtown ghettos. Since then, Athens has been in racial turmoil, with whole neighbourhoods lost to the neo-fascist vigilantes of Golden Dawn and other similar groups. The euro-crisis and the ensuing neoliberal onslaught have accelerated all the pathogenic aspects of racial relations in Greece. Pogroms are now so frequent that they often go unreported and uncommented. In its above-mentioned article, VIMA cites ‘rumours’ of recent clashes between hundreds of neo-fascists and immigrants in central Athens. ‘Rumours’!

Since the 6th May elections and the entry of Golden Dawn in parliament, tensions keep on rising. On 22 May, following the killing of Thanasis Lazanas by an Afghan immigrant in the port city of Patras there were widespread demonstrations led by the fascist Golden Dawn. (It is worth noting that in this case, as as also the case with the killing of Kantaris in 2011, the immediate families of the victims explicitly denounced any efforts made by the far-Right to exploit the deaths of their loved ones. Their pleas went under-reported). Patras is the main port linkimg Greece to Italy and it is there that most immigrants are heading to. Unlike Athens, where if you live in the ‘right’ areas you see hardly any immigrants, Patras is full of really desperate sans-papiers – desperate to reach Western Europe as much as to leave Greece. So, it is in Patras that tensions are at their highest, and where the failures of the state to make even the most basic intervention in a undeniable problem of its own making are most blatantly clear. For years now one of the commonest scenes when driving through the city is seeing dozens of immigrants waiting at every set of traffic lights on the roads leading to the main port. When the lights turn red and the traffic stops, all immigrants swarm around the lorries, trying to get in them, under them, on them, hoping that their grip holds till the lorry is safely parked inside a ferry going to Italy. And then the lights go green, the lorries start moving and the people start dropping like leaves. And the cars pass by.

Even more recently, on June 7th (the same day of the Kasidiaris punch-up on national TV) in the Athens suburb of Paiania, a 25 year old vet student killed with a shotgun an Albanian following the armed robbery of his house, in which his mother was threatened with a knife. His vigilantism was widely celebrated and few hours later the Golden Dawn troopers were parading uninterrupted through the streets.

Greece is no extraordinary country in its racism; it is a microcosm of wider European and Western attitudes, adapted to local circumstances. It is also not unique in its collective unwillingness to acknowledge that something is deeply rotten not just in the Greek state but in the Greek society in general. What is unique about Greece is that it is now the key testing ground of the 21st century version of the neoliberal Shock Doctrine, which accentuates all sorts of inequalities, feeds violence, and dehumanises whole societies. Racism and the Far Right are automatic outcomes and natural auxiliaries of this sort of politics. They need to be crushed Now; and Greece is the place to do it, Now.

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