By Andy Dabilis
Sitting alone on a filthy cement barrier that is the centerpiece of Omonia Square near the heart of Athens, Victor Ochiaghe, 20, an asylum-seeker from Ghana, looked around to see he was the only apparent immigrant in a place which a week ago housed thousands of them.
They were gone, rounded up by police and headed for some planned 30 detention centres, including unused military bases that the country is setting up to house undocumented immigrants. This is ahead of an election that will give Greece, caught in a crushing economic crisis, a new prime minister.
Government officials said the plan is imperative to meet EU mandates to keep out undocumented immigrants. But critics said the sweep is a campaign ploy because anti-immigrant extremist parties are rising in the polls.
Ochiaghe said the police had long been after immigrants. “They were arresting before the elections. They are fascist. When they see me, they kick me,” he told SETimes, holding in his hands a few coins and a pink card from police. The card is proof that he is a registered asylum seeker — rare status in a country where only about 1 in 10,000 applications are granted.
Many of the immigrants to Greece are from Africa — as well as the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan — and settle in the seedy Omonia Square area, where many hotels have closed because of the crime level. Many Greeks blame them for the once-attractive tourist area turning into a rotary of prostitution, open drug dealing, and human trafficking.
The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIMEP) estimates there are 1.1 million immigrants in Greece’s population of 11 million. About 400,000 are believed to be undocumented.
Citizens Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis said he had to react because Greece was facing ejection from the EU’s Schengen zone, which allows open access between borders unless the country policed its borders tighter. He said with so many illegal immigrants — about 57,000 were recorded last year by the EU’s FRONTEX border patrol trying to sneak into Greece — the country is hard-pressed to handle the influx.
He said they were being detained to check for health problems and contagious diseases and that Greece would use 250m euros in EU funding to build the centres and house 30,000 immigrants. “Whoever [illegally] enters the country will be given hospitality and will be immediately asked to return home,” Chrysohoidis said at a news conference. “Unless they are refugees … in which case they have a sacred right to asylum.”
Professor Thomas Maloutas, vice president of the National Centre for Social Research in Athens, called the roundup appalling.
“It will not solve any problem,” he told SETimes. “Whenever a country tries to solve social problems with police force and detention, what is usually created is more tension, more conflict and more arguments for extremist parties.”
Mayor George Kaminis, like other mayors before him, was under fire to clear the area and the police sweep coincided with his idea to renovate the city’s centre. Police also have gone after immigrants selling counterfeit goods and evicted squatters from abandoned buildings.
As he walked through Omonia, George Papaikoyou, 32, a corrections officer in a Greek prison, said he was glad so many immigrants had been arrested — 500 in one day alone recently. “They must send them back,” he said.
He said there are 2,400 prisoners being held where he works and he estimated 2,000 are not Greek. “It’s a good idea but they are doing it for the elections,” he told SETimes.
Greece’s two major parties, the New Democracy conservatives and PASOK socialists, are uneasily sharing power in a coalition government formed after former Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned five months ago. That was in the wake of two years of protests, riots and strikes against austerity measures demanded by international lenders in return for lifeline loans to prop up the failing economy. The parties have rapidly fallen out of favour with voters and are so desperate that they’re taking back former party members booted out for opposing austerity.
New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras said “Our cities have been taken over by illegal immigrants. We have to reclaim them.” Even those born in Greece and now second-generation citizens should have their rights reviewed, he said.
Ketty Kehayioylou, the public information officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Athens, told SETimes her office is concerned that asylum-seekers might be at-risk of being returned to danger.
She said the financial crisis and the presence of so many foreigners in Greece have created an emotionally charged problem. “In times of instability, it is easy to look for scapegoats; there is fertile ground for radical and extremist groups to exploit the situation,” she said.