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Migrant workers feeling the economic squeeze in Greece

Migrants, especially those with a different skin colour, are even more vulnerable to economic pressures than the rest of the population and are also increasingly being targeted by violent, extreme right-wing groups that thrive on the desperation that comes with growing poverty.

ATHENS // While Greek political leaders were still working frantically to form a new coalition to save the country from bankruptcy last Sunday afternoon, dozens of Asian and African street hawkers scattered in a panic in the central Athens neighbourhood of Metaxourgeio.

"The police, they just catch us for nothing. Life is very difficult here for us," said Rasul, a young immigrant from Bangladesh, gesturing at two policemen strolling down the crowded street, seemingly oblivious of the illegal petty trade and the undocumented immigrants.

Migrants, especially those with a different skin colour, are caught in tough situation in Greece: even more vulnerable to economic pressures than the rest of the population and also increasingly being targeted by violent, extreme right-wing groups that thrive on the desperation that comes with growing poverty.

"The people are angry here in Greece, people are depressed. They have to find somebody to put the blame on and the easiest targets are the migrants" said Joe Valencia, who came 20 years ago from the Philippines and who now volunteers for the migrant organisation Kapasis Hellas.

"They have no rights, especially the thousands of asylum-seekers, undocumented migrants."

As with many other Greek issues, the problems are concentrated in Athens, a city where almost a third of the country's 11 million population lives and that hosts by far the largest number of migrants, often in inner-city neighbourhoods.

Struggling with gaping budget deficits and an inability to keep paying the country's debts, Greeks have been living under austerity measures for several years now, sending unemployment soaring to about 17 per cent and causing a steep increase in poverty.

Dimitris Parsanoglou, a sociologist at Panteion university in Athens, has seen the situation deteriorate over recent years.

"There has been racism in Greece, in the 1990s, it is not a new phenomenon. But the visibility of right-wing violence has gained pace in the last two years," he said.

He gestured at a fenced-off playground outside the imposing Agios Panteleimonas church in central Athens, "look at those kids, they cannot play in the playground because neo-Nazi's closed the park to prevent immigrant children from going in."

On the pavement outside the playground, right-wing slogans are painted in the blue and white national colours: "immigrants out of Greece" and "Greece our homeland".

The violent right-wing action two years ago to cleanse the park of migrants was a watershed in the growth of extremist action in Athens. In municipal elections a year ago the extreme right-wing neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, won 5.3 per cent of the vote and gained one seat on the council, both unprecedented.

And the United Nations refugee agency warned in a report on Greece this year that "there has been a dangerous escalation in phenomena of racist violence targeting indiscriminately aliens, based solely on their skin colour or country of origin".

It took aim at the situation in Athens in particular.

"In certain areas of Athens, cruel and criminal attacks are nearly a daily phenomenon staged by fascist groups that have established an odd lawless regime."

Mr Valencia from the immigrant organisation said violent incidents in Athens have recently targeted Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Filipino migrants. The violence was particularly bad after one Greek man was killed in a heavily migrant neighbourhood in May.

"Anything can explode anytime; people are angry, distressed, losing hope and they're trying to find a way to vent their frustration," he said.

The phenomenon is easy to notice and not difficult to explain, said Mr Parsanoglou, the sociologist.

"It exists clearly in districts that are in decay, where unemployment is rising, poverty is rising and there is a decay of the welfare infrastructure. Many Greek people feel that their district is declining because of the very strong concentration of immigrants."

He added the police often turn a blind eye to violent right-wing activity, either because they are understaffed and stretched or because they have no clear policy to deal with such developments.

Estimates of Greece's migrants vary but the number officially stood at more than 600,000 in 2006 and is thought to be about one million now, or just under 10 per cent of the population.

Like most other Mediterranean countries in Europe, Greece is a gateway for the swelling flow of migrants from Asia and Africa seeking a better life in the European Union. It also receives numerous migrants through Eastern Europe and neighbouring Turkey.

The situation actually worsened for Greece after the 2003 European Dublin II agreement on migrants. It stipulates all migrants without permanent resident status will be sent back to their country of entry into EU.

"Because Greece is a geographical gateway, there are many people who are, between brackets, imprisoned here," said Mr Parsanoglou // IS THIS THE ACTUAL QUOTE?//.

Viktoria square in central Athens is crowded with migrants on a sunny Sunday afternoon. They play cards, chat with friends and enjoy the sun with their families.

Ali Khan is 23-year-old and came two months ago from Jalalabad in Afghanistan.

"There are many Taliban in Jalalabad," he said. His parents sent him to Europe to try get a study visa and hope that he can send for them later, he said.

"I have tried to leave three, no four times to go to Holland," he recounted in serviceable English. "I was stopped every time, in Romania, Bulgaria, and sent back here.

Greece does not offer him anything, he said. There is no work and no money: "Many of us only eat once a day or less." He called the atmosphere in Athens "very tense".

In one of the typical contrasts of Athens, the square is lined with sidewalk cafes where more affluent Athenians enjoy a drink.

"Violence against them is wrong," said Andreas Dimitripoulos, a 44-year-old flower arranger who was nursing a beer, pointing at the groups of migrants.

"But they are a problem. They work for cheap and take our jobs. But I blame the government, not them."

Mr Valencia, from the Philippines, acknowledged the sentiment sadly.

"Now, they are not only blaming migrants for criminality but also for unemployment."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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