Tensions Mount As Immigrants Squat Athens’ City Centre

Tensions mount as immigrants squat Athens' city centre – Feature

Posted : Thu, 11 Jun 2009 14:17:48 GMT
Author : DPA
Category : Europe (World)

Athens – Blocks away from the Greek capital's historic district, thousands of illegal immigrants have taken over abandoned buildings, church courtyards and parks, eking out a squalid existence amid piles of human waste and rubbish, without running water or electricity. Athens' municipal authorities say the situation has been allowed to spiral out of control, as several residential areas in recent years have been transformed into slums as illegal immigrants are drawn into drug and prostitution rings.

Meanwhile aid workers insist the thousands of illegal immigrants living in abandoned buildings, parks and garages – a symbol of Greece's immigrant crisis – pose an increasing health hazard to the city as diseases such as hepatitis are rife.

“We are looking at time-bomb about to go off in the centre of Athens,” said Nikitas Kanakis, head of the Greek section of the medical charity Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) whose clinic currently in central Athens houses 80 immigrant families.

“These people have no where to go. The government needs to establish a comprehensive immigrant policy and to immediately create a night shelter for these people so that they at least have somewhere decent to sleep.”

Anti-racist and aid groups fear that tensions have escalated in recent months. Residents in the neighbourhood of Aghios Panteleimonas near central Athens are increasingly angry over the large population of immigrants, most of whom are from Afghanistan.

Many locals have called for the foreigners to be removed and extreme-right groups have exploited the situation, sparking violent incidents.

Recently far-right groups staged an anti-immigrant demonstration outside an abandoned eight-storey courthouse in central Athens, which was being squatted by more than 500 people, sleeping on cardboard and using the buildings' corriders as toilets.

Left-wing groups staged a counter-rally nearby and riot police were deployed to keep the two sides apart. Arsonists later torched a makeshift mosque in the area.

Sitting at the crossroads of three continents – Europe, Africa and Asia – Greece has become the main transit point for immigrants seeking entry into the European Union. The number of illegal immigrants arriving in the country has surged over the past year.

Alexandros Zavos from the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute estimates that 120,000 will be picked up after covertly entering Greece in 2008, a 500 per cent increase on 2003.

“I believe that in the past few years the EU has began to understand the magnitude of the problem. These immigrants do not come here with the purpose of staying in Greece, because their goal is to go somewhere else in Europe and at some point this will happen,” Zavos said, adding “we cannot continue to stop them here.”

While thousands of new arrivals attempt to stow away aboard a ferry bound for Italy, believing they have better chances of asylum, the majority end up heading to Greece's main cities in search of work.

Refugee advocates and human rights groups, such as New-York-based Human Rights Watch, have slammed Greece for its treatment of migrants, accusing the country of illegally deporting migrants and often misleading them about their right to apply for asylum.

Last year fewer than 1 per cent of the 25,000 people who applied for asylum from the Greek government were successful, far below rates of 18 per cent in Germany, 11 per cent in Italy and 4 per cent in Spain.

Recently the government has proposed the creation of temporary reception centers for the capital's booming population of illegal immigrants in disused military camps on the outskirts of Athens, and felony charges against people-traffickers.

Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos has also proposed the intensification of police sweeps in central Athens and the recruitment of hundreds of more border guards to keep out illegal immigrants. He also wants closer cooperation with foreign embassies to arrange the deportation of migrants.

Naim Elghandar, the president of the Muslim Union of Greece, says the Greek government must come up with another solution aside from deportation.

“These people need to be able to work and to contribute something back to society and should not simply be left out in the streets or sent back to their countries who are at war.”