By Hans Lucht
On the morning of 25 May, Kelly from Ghana was on the bus going to a pickup place at the outskirts of Athens, where African immigrants and asylum seekers go to look for work, when he was attacked by a mob. He saw them from afar, standing at the bus stop – a group of about 10 young men – but thought nothing of it. They were probably going to one of the demonstrations, he supposed. But as they entered the bus, they pulled out bats, iron rods and knives, and attacked him.
As Greece struggles to avoid economic meltdown, dark-skinned immigrants and asylum seekers have become scapegoats in racially motivated attacks that, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, have become an almost daily occurrence in Athens.
Last week, in cases pertaining to asylum seekers caught entering the UK and Ireland, the European court of justice upheld that asylum seekers could not be sent back to Greece because they risk being subjected to "inhuman or degrading treatment".
Ninety per cent of undocumented immigrants enter the EU via Greece. The Greek response has been to announce the construction of a barbed wire wall on the Turkish border, though the EU has made clear that such a wall will receive no funding. The influx of migrants has not been welcomed by some segments of the Greek population. Thus the extreme rightwing party Golden Dawn won its first ever seat on the Athens city council in November 2010 on an anti-immigrant agenda.
On top of the many struggles they face, asylum seekers like Kelly now live in constant fear of attack. I met Kelly while doing anthropological fieldwork in Athens in February of this year. He was a friend of a friend, and he had agreed to show me around the west African immigrant quarters, where he and a group of several hundred young Ghanaian migrants and asylum seekers had settled, looking for a route into Europe.
Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were living in extremely difficult circumstances, struggling to find food, and shelter. Like living dead, they slept all day to avoid hunger. Many survived on the discarded fruits and vegetables they collected in the market place, and what they could find in rubbish bins. Some slept outside, and those that had a room would share it with up to 10 others.
Even under the current difficulties, Greece must make sure that the most vulnerable people have access to basic necessities, including medical assistance, food and shelter. And Europe must acknowledge that this situation is too big for Greece to solve on its own.
A fence on the border to Turkey will not solve the problem. Lessons from the Mediterranean sea show that when extra pressure is applied on the clandestine routes the prices generally surge, and the risk of losing human lives increases. This year alone, about 2,000 people have drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, while southern EU countries quarrel about who is responsible for saving them, and the rest of the EU countries look the other way.
What is needed is a strong, common European response to how the situation of the thousands of asylum seekers living under dismal and dangerous conditions in Greece can be solved. Too many EU countries hide behind the Dublin regulation, which states that asylum seekers should seek protection in the first country they arrive in even though that country, as in the case of Greece, cannot offer them that. But the Dublin regulation should not be an excuse for deserting the values that Europeans are rightly proud of, and seek to export to the rest of the world.
Leaving asylum seekers at the mercy of violent nationalist extremists is not an acceptable option.
Kelly knew he had to avoid the guy with the knife that came straight at him. He somehow managed to wrestle the knife from his hands – he's a big guy and a boxer in Ghana – while the others assaulted a black woman sitting behind him. Suddenly the attackers decided they'd had enough, and disappeared. "The lady was beaten very badly," Kelly said. "Blood was flowing down her face. She tried to call for help in their language. But nobody came. They were all afraid." After the attack, the Africans went their separate ways, filing no report with the police.
One day, taking a short break from fieldwork, Kelly and I visited the Acropolis, and discussed its significance in European cultural history. Kelly, disappointed with his miserable life, said: "The Greeks used to be first in democracy – now they're last."