Refugees in Greece still exposed to racist violence

Tina Stavrinaki with RVRN members during a press conference in Athens in April 2016 presenting the 2015 RVRN annual report. © UNHCR/Yorgos Kyvernitis

We observe today the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in memory of dozens killed on 21 March 1960 after police opened fire at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid “pass laws.” On the occasion, we spoke to Tina Stavrinaki, Assistant Coordinator of the Racist Violence Recording Network in Greece. Tina Stavrinaki is a lawyer who specialised in International Human Rights Law and helped set up the network in 2011. She has been the Assistant Coordinator of the network since 2015.

RVRN is an umbrella network of 46 civil society organizations coordinated by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Greek National Commission for Human Rights[1]. The participating organizations provide medical, social and legal services to victims of racist violence or victims of other hate – or bias- motivated violent attacks, or have been established by the groups which are usually targeted by racist violence themselves.

  1. The Racist Violence Recording Network, RVRN, came to be in 2011 on the initiative of the Greek National Commission for Human Rights and UNHCR Greece. What do you think are RVRN’s greatest achievements since then?

Based on a reliable methodology of recording hate crime incidents, RVRN has published seven annual reports, providing the fullest assessment of hate crime quality trends in Greece. The eighth report for 2018 will be released soon. Our findings contribute to making hate crimes visible and promote legislation which combats hate crimes in practice. RVRN identifies and advocates to address gaps in access to justice for victims of hate crimes. For example, when in the past unregistered asylum seekers or undocumented migrants filed a complaint or reported a hate crime, they ran the risk of detention and deportation due to lack of residence status. Following strong advocacy by RVRN, this gap was addressed through guarantees for the protection of victims and essential witnesses, so their detention and deportation decisions are suspended. A special regime is in place for during the trial. Building bridges between police, judicial authorities and victims has been our continuous objective. For this purpose, RVRN maintains close cooperation with the police and prosecutors and shares information on support services provided by the RVRN members. This practice has been quite successful, as victims are supported by NGOs and some practical gaps of support provided by the authorities, such as the lack of psychological support, are mitigated. The RVRN is recognised by the EU and OSCE as a good practice and has been invited on several occasions to share key elements of its successful coalition practices. Institutional recognition of its effectiveness has been reflected in the composition of the National Council Against Racism and Intolerance, under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, in which two representatives of the RVRN participate. Last but not least, through its composition and rules of operation, the RVRN reflects the inclusive, tolerant and mutually empowering society we all fight for.

  1. What are the major findings of RVRN reports over the years? What are the main trends identified about racist violence in Greece?

During the years 2011-2013, the main trend was violent attacks by extremist groups, motorcycle or foot “patrols”, dressed in black, acting as self-proclaimed vigilante groups. These groups attacked refugees and migrants in the streets, squares or public transportation stops. The RVRN has recorded a significant decrease of these attacks following the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas [Greek anti-fascist rapper] in September 2013 and the subsequent prosecution of members of Golden Dawn.

However, violence by racist extremist groups has not been eliminated. Older and newly-formed organised criminal groups assume responsibility for racist attacks against refugees, migrants and LGBTI organisations, as well as against their defenders. The poor living conditions for refugees and migrants on the islands have contributed to the rise of xenophobic rhetoric in the local communities, with extreme manifestations in certain situations. However, local communities don’t seem to approve or follow those who trigger tensions and incite acts of violence.

Special reference should be made to incidents perpetrated by employers against refugees and migrants. In these cases, the victims suffer extreme labour exploitation, are deprived from basic means of subsistence, receive death threats and are subjected to physical violence when they ask for their pay.

We have also recorded many assaults against LGBTI persons, which include verbal abuse and personal injuries and come in patterns of every possible variation. LGBTI persons, including refugee LGBTI persons, often suffer repeated assaults in their own homes, by their own family or people, while they are also targeted in their neighbourhoods.

  1. Mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies is the theme for this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. How worried are you about the spreading of such phenomena in Greece and in Europe and their impact on refugees and migrants?

Political discourse and global polarization with regard to the reception of refugees and migrants have a direct impact on the rise of xenophobia and violence. The RVRN data for 2018 confirm our concern for a broader acceptance of racist violence by the society. Approaching the European Parliament election in May the more the agenda is set by nationalist populist parties, the more far-right, neo-Nazi and extreme nationalist groups are strengthened everywhere in Europe. We know that these groups build alliances amongst themselves and try to spread their hateful ideologies around the world. Social media are used to mainstream messages of intolerance and oversimplify complex issues related to the protection of refugees and migrants. It is clear that we must increase our vigilance and prepare adequate responses to combat racism and violence against refugees, migrants and their defenders.

  1. What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The position of the RVRN Assistant Coordinator is an exciting job with many rewarding aspects. I have the unique opportunity to work closely with all the communities and to learn from my committed and courageous colleagues how to translate theoretical human rights obligations into concrete measures. RVRN has played an important role in empowering groups in Greece that have been targeted due to national or ethnic origin or on other grounds. It is an honour to represent them and to convey the victims’ messages to the authorities and the society at large. This feeling helps me cope with the cruelty and ugliness of racist violence.

[1]RVRN Membership during 2018: Aitima, Solidarity Now, Antigone -Information and Documentation Centre, University of Aegean Anti-Racist Observatory, Arsis, Doctors of the World (MdM), Amnesty International, Network for Children’s Rights, Network for Social Support of Refugees and Immigrants, “Pleiades – Hellenic Action for Human Rights”,  Hellenic League for Human Rights, Hellenic Red Cross, Greek Council for Refugees, Greek Forum of Migrants, Greek Forum of Refugees, Human Rights Commission of the Bar Association of Rhodes, Positive Voice, Medical Intervention, Caritas Athens, Caritas Hellas, DIOTIMA – Centre for Research on Women’s Issues,  Center for Life, “Babel” Day Centre, Center of Life, Centre for the Support of Repatriated and Migrants – Ecumenical Refugee Program, Network for the Support of Refugee and Migrant Rights (Patras), World Without War and Violence, LATHRA? – Solidarity Committee for Chios refugees, METAction, Rainbow Families, Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, Group of Lawyers for the Support of Refugee and Migrant Rights (Thessaloniki), Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece, Association of Afghans United In Greece, Association of Social Workers of Greece, Greek Transgender Support Association, Lighthouse of the world, Forum of Migrants in Crete, Refugee Support Aegean, Act Up Hellas, ASANTE, Colour Youth – LGBTQ Youth Community of Athens, Generation 2.0 RED, HIAS Greece, HumanRights360, Melissa Network, PRAKSIS. The Greek Ombudsman and the Migrants’ Integration Council of the Municipality of Athens act as observers to the Network.