Douglas Kesse, a Ghanaian asylum seeker who recently landed in Greece, was bewildered by how he was received in the cradle of Western Civilization. Reflecting on the epidemic of anti-immigrant attacks, he told human rights investigators, ”As human beings, we shouldn’t be treated like this…. I am not an animal to be chased with sticks.”
When anti-immigrant violence flares up in our communities, it may seem irrational, crazy, sometimes outright barbaric. But there’s one universal rule that holds true around the world: xenophobic riots, purges, and state crackdowns throughout history have hewed to a chilling logic; people respond to real threats–primarily economic instability or social upheaval–by lashing out at make-believe threats–like the neighbor who came from Mexico to build your other neighbor’s house. This is hardly unique to the U.S.: the anti-immigrant hatred that has erupted across Europe is actually a chilling parallel to the bigotry exhibited toward immigrants in places like Arizona. And in a place like Greece, where economic crisis is tearing society apart, it’s open season for xenophobia.
Human Rights Watch has published an extensive report on anti-immigrant violence in Greece. The report documents the stories of dozens of immigrants, many of whom have fled chaos and conflict in their home countries only to find themselves transplanted to a collapsed economy engulfed in anti-immigrant reaction.
Xenophobic violence has been a longstanding problem in burgeoning, diverse cities like Athens–and Greece has always been a destination point for refugees and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa and the Middle East. But the recent spate of attacks on immigrants reflect a profound cultural shift in Greek society colored by the economic crisis. Whether it comes in the form of partisan politics or street thuggery, populist rage naturally seeks catharsis in blaming outsiders, an enemy you can chase down the street, as instead of social forces beyond your control. HRW reports:
Victims of serious attacks included migrants and asylum seekers of nine different nationalities and two pregnant women. Patterns emerge from the victim testimonies: most of the attacks take place at night, on or near town squares; attackers, who include women, work in groups, and are often dressed in dark clothing with their faces obscured by cloth or helmets; bare-fisted attacks are not uncommon, but attackers also often wield clubs or beer bottles as weapons; most attacks are accompanied by insults and exhortations to leave Greece, and in some cases the attackers also rob the victims.
Among the migrants and asylum seekers Human Rights Watch interviewed, Ali Rahimi, an Afghan asylum seeker, was stabbed five times in the torso outside an apartment building in Aghios Panteleimonas in September 2011; Mehdi Naderi, an undocumented Afghan migrant, has a prominent scar on his nose from a December 2011 attack in which he was beaten by a mob with sticks and an iron bar near Attica Square; and Afghan refugee Maria N.’s left hand was ripped open in August 2011 when two men on a motorcycle hit her with a wooden club with iron spikes as they drove by.
For a country that has in recent years edged into the Eurozone club (albeit barely), Greece is looking pretty retrograde:
Yunus Mohammadi, the president of an association of Afghans in Greece, told us he started showing newer arrivals a map of Athens with a red line around areas they should avoid. “This is exactly what I used to do in Afghanistan with the Red Cross about places people shouldn’t go because of fighting,” Mohammadi said. “And here I am doing the same thing in a European country.”
Not surprisingly, in light of Greece’s overall social breakdown, HRW criticizes the Greek criminal justice system’s failure to protect immigrants’ rights. The report calls out the entire European Union as well, for imposing neoliberal economic measures as well as border policies that channels many migrants into Greece. More broadly, in the post-9/11 era, discrimination against Muslims and people of color has been rampant across Europe despite the continent’s image of “tolerance.”
There’s a curious lesson here for Americans: nativist attacks in Greece reflect economic frustration, but that’s not the whole story. For all its austerity-induced financial woes, Greece and Europe will continue to draw newcomers from much more desperate places. Anti-immigrant sentiment reflects more ingrained fears of losing a sense of community and relevance in society, along with decline in material well-being. As in the U.S. and other European countries, xenophobia in Greece is nurtured not only by the populace’s disillusionment, but also social climate in which populist right-wing movements have surged lately–promoting a political culture that blatantly legitimizes racism and prejudice. (That said, the success of Greece’s far-right extremists in recent elections has been countered by the growing support for the radical left coalition Syriza, which raised a relatively pro-migrant agenda in the recent elections.)
Conservative-leaning European leaders have routinely denounced “multiculturalism” as a vice, suggesting that diversity itself creates social divisiveness. Though the media fixates on high profile incidents like the mass killings in Norway by white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik, more often, it’s not the caricature of bigotry that is fueling racism; it’s the paranoia toward the Other that festers just beneath the surface and infects every institutional fiber of the state. Here in the U.S., we can condemn Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s outrageous anti-immigrant crackdowns, but he’s a symptom of a lesion that runs deep in America’s political culture.
For people who are largely ignorant of the systemic causes of inequality–who may feel betrayed personally by the system but see the institutional oppression of other groups as somehow deserved–social disruption generates a collective neurosis. When privilege is so arbitrary, it makes sense to become hyper-protective of whatever you have. With that kind of mentality, people tend not to act ethically, but they do, in a way, act rationally. So completely have they internalized the injustice that rules them, it has become second nature.