Masked men on motorbikes patrol the streets of Greece’s streets, attacking immigrants and driving off. Mobs armed with improvised weapons beat them in public squares. Neo-Nazis have been elected to Greece’s parliament, with slogans like “Foreigners out!” and “The garbage should leave the country!”
“People coming from war zones are scared to go out at night in Athens for fear of being attacked.”
— Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch
In the wake of Greece’s financial crisis, the country has a racism crisis.
Just a few years ago, Greece was like any other country. Immigrants were broadly tolerated, in the same way as the rest of the Western world. In Greece, we’re seeing a preview of what will happen when the economy tanks in the rest of the world.
There have been over 200 attacks with racist overtones in the last two months, according to human rights organizations. In 2009 there were roughly 12,000 incidents of violent crime in total. Assuming this level has stayed roughly constant, that would mean one in 10 violent crimes in Greece are attacks on immigrants.
“People coming from war zones are scared to go out at night in Athens for fear of being attacked,” warned a senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, Judith Sunderland.
“Once, right-wing thugs only came out to attack immigrants at night,” writes Laurie Penny in The Independent. “Now they do so in daylight, unafraid of the consequences because there rarely are any.”
“There’s a huge pogrom underway now that has been organized by Golden Dawn gangs, with fascist and racist attacks in neighborhoods and in subway and bus stations,” warned Petros Constantinou, from the United Against Racism and Fascist Violence Movement. “Right now we have dozens of injured, stabbing victims.”
But accurate statistics on the racism are hard to find. The crimes don’t get recorded because the police are part of the problem.
The Racist Violence Recording Network, set up by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, held a pilot program on recording the violence in Greece during the last three months of 2011. They found 63 incidents, though they noted that these “are not even the tip of the iceberg.”
Out of these 63 acts of violence, 18 were carried out by on-duty police officers.
Penny reports that “in some urban districts up to 50 percent of Greek police” voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Human Rights Watch reported that victims told them the police discouraged them from filing official complaints about the attacks. They threatened to arrest and deport illegal immigrants that wanted to push for police action. Others were told they would have to pay €100 file a complaint. “These gangs are operating with virtual immunity,” said Sunderland.
So far, the government’s main response has been to try and keep more immigrants out. It increased the number of police patrolling its Turkish border from 500 to 2,500 this August as it cracks down on illegal immigration.
Greece shows how quickly a nation can turn to violence once the economy tanks. It had its share of problems before the economic crash—Greece is, after all, the main gateway of illegal immigrants trying to get into the EU—but nothing on this scale.
When unemployment is low and public services are well funded, many people tolerate illegal immigrants. But when youth unemployment is over 50 percent, public services are collapsing and the police are struggling to do their job, people look at immigrants differently.
“I was never a racist but I’ve become one. Why can’t we send them all home”
— A Greek in Athens
”I was never a racist but I’ve become one,” one Athenian told Human Rights Watch. “Why can’t we send them all home?”
The surge in violence follows a terribly familiar pattern. “Some political commentators have drawn comparisons between Greece and the Weimar Republic in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century,” wrote Deutsche Welle.
This is what happens when you reach 50 percent youth unemployment. Society begins to unravel. The destitute masses search for someone to blame. Racial minorities are the easiest scapegoat to attack.
But another powerful force is at work: self-love—the most fundamental component of human nature. We naturally love self—our own lives, our families and extended families, even our nation.
When things are going well, human nature is usually happy to tolerate immigrants. We feel good about ourselves and appear tolerant and sophisticated to others.
But when things go bad, we resort to defending our lives, our family and our nation, against others. Immigrants are others and so become enemies. Fear of poverty, sickness and starvation becomes more important than appearing tolerant.
This pattern is about to be repeated around the world. The West may seem tolerant now. But our nations aren’t morally superior to the Greeks. They will follow the same path as the economy collapses.
Watch for this change, especially in Europe. Already, old scapegoats are being blamed again. Anti-Semitism is rising.
Greece is a preview of all of Europe. The economic crisis will revolutionize Europe Its foreign policy will take a radically new direction, mirroring the surge in anti-immigrant violence that will sweep through countries.
Greece is teaching us once again that as jobs and money vanish, so does tolerance. ▪