Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
Greece Tackles Its Image as a State of Racists

The Guardian

Poll underlines urgency of anti-discrimination bill

Greeks found guilty of discriminating against religious or ethnic groups will face up to a year in prison under legislation presented by the Athens government in attempts to quash a rise in racist incidents.

The measure, included in a new anti-discrimination law, follows a rash of confrontations with the growing immigrant population. One attack prompted a protest by Pakistani migrants in Athens.

"This is a law whose aim is to try to guarantee the equal treatment of all people," said the justice minister, Philippos Petsalnikos. "More work needs to be done to ensure the smooth integration of immigrant communities."

The bill, which aims to bring Greece in line with EU anti-discrimination standards, is expected to be approved by the Socialist-dominated parliament before the end of the year.

Coming on the day in which the Simon Wiesenthal Centre issued a travel advisory to Jews thinking of visiting Greece in the wake of a spate of anti-semitic incidents, the poll revealed evidence of Greeks being the most xenophobic people in Europe.

The poll, commissioned by the European Social Survey, showed most Greeks believed immigrants caused unemployment. More than 79% said they should be deported if caught committing a crime. By contrast, only 41% of Britons held the same views.

More than 10% of Greece's 11 million-strong population are thought to be immigrants. Although the vast majority are Albanians, increasing numbers have begun to arrive, illegally, from the developing world.

With Greece's proximity to the Middle East, most say they see the country as the easiest backdoor entrance to Fortress Europe.

But human rights activists say "institutionalised intolerance" is such that the state has failed to assimilate the immigrants adequately, despite pledges to give many of them work and residence permits.

The new law follows a rash of embarrassing incidents over the treatment of immigrants, including the refusal of state-run hospitals to offer them healthcare. While the media, politicians and church leaders regularly indulge in racist invective, classified ads in Athens frequently state "no foreigners" for home rentals.

An Albanian boy, whose top grades had earned him the right to carry the Greek flag at a national parade, was prevented from doing so after nationalist protests.

At least 25% of pupils in Greek schools are believed to be the children of immigrants, according to polls.

Last week the Pakistani owner of a video store was badly beaten, along with a Pakistani bystander, by about 20 youths on motorcycles outside his Athens shop.

The xenophobic attitudes have been increasingly blamed on the absence of a civil society in Greece and the lack of an anti-racist education in a country where children are still taught to take immense pride in their "ethnic purity".

"It's not that Greeks are implicitly racist, they have just never been taught anything different," said Panayote Dimitras of the the Greek Helsinki Monitor.

"Greece is at the point where most democratic European countries were before the second world war."

While human rights groups welcomed the anti-discrimination bill, they questioned whether the country's ultraconservative judges and prosecutors would be prepared to implement it. "It's an important step but by itself it means nothing if the courts don't change their mentality and are allowed to ignore it with impunity," Mr Dimitras said.

Immigrants under siege

· Many villages impose night-time curfews on immigrants' movements, with some communities setting up vigilante groups to enforce the restrictions. There have also been incidents of border guards shooting at Albanians trying to enter the country
· Greek newspapers often carry anti-semitic, anti-Albanian and anti-immigrant letters and headlines. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Greece's 120,000-strong Turkish Muslim minority often complains of discrimination
· Courts invariably refuse to prosecute cases involving racial hatred or incitement to violence
· Hospitals regularly refuse to treat immigrants
· Immigrant school children - accounting for 25% of pupils across Greece - are not allowed to take lead roles in national parades.