Three face justice in Athens for attacks on foreigners

News Stories, 27 September 2011

© UNHCR/K.Kehayioylou
The 24-year-old Afghan asylum-seeker at the centre of an Athens court case was treated in hospital for a stab wound to his chest.

ATHENS, Greece, Sept. 27 (UNHCR) Three people went on trial in Athens Tuesday in a rare criminal case against xenophobic violence and the first charges related to a series of vicious attacks on Asian and African migrants in the Greek capital.

The trial of a 44-year-old woman and two men aged 31 and 47 was adjourned to 12 December. They are charged with group assault and causing serious injury in connection with the Sept. 16 stabbing of a 24-year-old Afghan asylum-seeker. Each charge carries a possible prison term of three months to five years on conviction. This is the first trial of this nature since 1999 when a Greek man was given two life sentences for shooting nine migrants.

"The fact that these people have been brought to trial is positive," said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of UNHCR's office in Greece. "It takes courage for foreign victims to go to the police since many feel they will be attacked again."

Attacks on immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers have become an almost daily occurrence throughout August and September in the Agios Panteleimonas and Plateia Attikis neighborhoods of Athens where many foreigners live.

"The attacks become more serious day by day and increase dramatically," Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Afghan community in Greece, wrote recently in a letter to Prime Minister George Papandreou. Muhammadi stressed, however, he did not believe the attacks to be typical of "Greek democracy and hospitality."

Earlier this month, as Greek Minister of Citizen Protection Christos Papoutsis was receiving Afghanistan's Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Jamaher Anwary, three Afghan asylum-seekers were attacked in front of their apartment building. One of them, Aziz*, was stabbed in the chest.

Aziz says he was approached by about 15 men and one woman, who shouted: "Where are you from? Go back to your country immediately! Leave! Out of here! Go to hell! You are not wanted." He spoke from his hospital bed last week as he lay recovering from his wounds.

"They barely missed his heart," says his Afghan friend Ahat, keeping watch by his bedside along with Greek co-workers from the company where Aziz has worked for the last six years.

Some say Greece's economic woes have fueled racist attacks against foreigners. "It is a huge challenge to tackle racist violence in conditions of social and economic crisis," Kostis Papaioannou, president of the National Committee for Human Rights, told UNHCR. He added that most racially motivated crimes are not even investigated or recorded as such.

"In times of social and economic instability it is easy to look for scapegoats," said UNHCR's Tsarbopoulos. "The state and the Greek society should show zero tolerance towards racist violence."

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Athens

*Name changed for protection reasons

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Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

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A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

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Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

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