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




UNHCR country pages

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award 2015

Aqeela Asifi, an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, has been named the 2015 winner of UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award. Asifi has dedicated her adult life to educating refugee girls. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, hundreds of girls have now passed through her school, equipped with life-long skills and brighter hopes for their futures.

Asifi fled from Kabul in 1992 with her young family. They found refuge in the desolate Kot Chandana refugee village in the south-eastern Punjab province of Pakistan. Adjusting from life in a capital city and working as a teacher, to living in a dusty refugee village was difficult. She was especially struck by the total absence of schools for girls.

It took time but eventually Asifi was allowed to start a small school under a tent. Over the years the school expanded and received the hard-won backing of community elders. Asifi's dedication has helped guide more than 1,000 girls through to the eighth grade and encouraged more schools to open in the village. Another 1,500 young people (900 girls, 650 boys) are enrolled in six schools throughout the refugee village today.

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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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