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Pakistan’s Greek Tragedy

by Nikolia Apostolou
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Detention center in Amygdaleza, just outside of Athens. Nikos Pilos.

Detention center in Amygdaleza, just outside of Athens. Nikos Pilos

For migrants seeking a better life, Greece can be cruelly inhospitable.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was one of his usual journeys. Late every Thursday, Shehzad Luqman would bicycle through the streets of Athens to the house of a farmhand, a friend who would often give him fresh produce. On Jan. 17, Shehzad set out on his bike, met his friend, but never made it back. Residents along a portion of Shehzad’s regular route say they heard the sound of a crash, cries for help, and a motorbike speeding away. The 27-year-old Pakistani immigrant was dead; he had been stabbed in the chest by two neo-Nazis in their 20s dressed in black, according to eyewitness accounts. The next day, protestors laid siege to the city center. With Shehzad’s body in a wooden coffin in the middle of the throng, immigrants and Greeks protested side by side against the rising tide of xenophobia that has engulfed their country.

Shehzad, who came to Europe seeking a better future, was a casualty of the Greek economic crisis. Six years of negative growth have left the country devastated, its economy resembling that of a country at war. Unemployment, 11 percent in 2007, is now 30 percent—and it’s nearly double that for young Greeks.

All this has fueled anger in the streets and resentment especially toward immigrants who mop up the low-paying and few jobs that are available. Hate crimes are on the rise, making life for refugees and labor fleeing war zones or poverty in Asia and Africa even grimmer. In such circumstances, Shehzad’s killing was not unusual. “This attack was not an isolated case,” says Amnesty International’s Marek Marczynski. “We have seen a dramatic escalation of racially motivated attacks over the recent past.”

According to official figures, some 700,000 legal immigrants make up 6.5 percent of Greece’s population. The size of the Pakistani community, one of the largest, is estimated to be about 80,000-strong; only 30,000 of them are in Greece legally.

Wariness of outsiders and immigrants, especially Muslims, has been longstanding in Greece. The fear of foreigners reshaping the fabric of Greek society is manifest in the capital’s absence of mosques for tens of thousands of Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. While there are mosques in other cities of Greece, Athens remains one of the few European capitals without a proper mosque. And so Muslim immigrants have improvised, setting up scores of makeshift mosques secreted away in garages or abandoned warehouses.

Yielding to pressure from the European Union, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has lately announced that he will ensure a mosque is built. But this belated concession carries another cost. It gives the far-right more visible targets. Last winter, during the last prayer of the day at a makeshift mosque in an immigrant neighborhood of Athens, two men in black first lobbed a pig’s head inside the structure and then set the mosque on fire. Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack.

Rights groups accuse the police of doing too little to solve hate crimes. Some have even accused law enforcement officers of being affiliated with extremist organizations. The role of the media is not glowing either. In an attempt to shift attention away from the country’s economic malaise and continuous tax increases on the lower- and middle class, the media and the government often parrot the agenda of rightwing groups. In fact, since the crisis started, the rhetoric of the far-right has come to dominate the public discourse. In order to woo and assuage angry voters, the government has tried co-opting them by implying that immigrants are in some ways responsible for the high unemployment Greeks face. As a result, extremist organizations that once operated in the shadows have been emboldened into greater prominence.

In line with the hostile public mood, last year the police undertook a large-scale operation to sweep clean the streets of Athens and other major cities of immigrants. Policemen continue to stalk the cities in large groups, stopping dark-skinned persons and demanding to see their papers. Even those who have their papers in order face a hard time, glowering bystanders only seeming to encourage the police to detain everyone being subjected to summary interrogation. Even hapless tourists have gotten caught in the net. In all, some 80,000 immigrants were detained by police last year after the operation began, according to the menacingly-named Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen, until their papers were cleared. Of these, some 4,500 were undocumented immigrants who were promptly exiled to detention camps. There, they waited for their cases for asylum to be processed failing which they faced deportation.

Hussain at his empty store in Athens, June 14, 2012. Nikos Pilos.

Hussain at his empty store in Athens, June 14, 2012. Nikos Pilos

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or those who enter Greece now, as a toehold to access other European countries, life is often hell. The entry to Europe is fraught with danger. Hundreds of immigrants have drowned attempting to make the crossing between Turkey and Greece. Those who make it are often treated as criminals and jailed in inhumane conditions, in small cells with no toilets. From the foothills of the city, you can see all of Athens: an ugly sea of cement by day transformed only by the city lights into something vaguely beautiful by night. The Guantánamo-style internment camp, with its white prefab containers, wired off from the rest of the city is a prominent eyesore.

Recently, about 1,000 immigrants in the camp went on hunger strike, demanding their release. “We’re human beings, not animals,” one of the protesting detainees said in a recorded message provided to the Greek media by an NGO. “They’re keeping us here because we don’t have papers. They treat us as if we’re murderers. They can’t keep us here for the rest of our lives. We’re 1,700 people in here. We can’t put up with this anymore.”

Inside the camp, there are immigrants who entered the country illegally as well as refugees and asylum seekers. But it also houses those who couldn’t manage to have their working permits renewed. The NGOs providing legal assistance to the detainees paint a horrific picture of the camp’s conditions. Hygiene and health care are not available, they say. And for one whole month, detainees were not provided soap. Even the police union has stepped forward to warn that the conditions are abysmal and could turn dangerous if the mental wellbeing of the detainees is further tested.

On Aug. 10, a riot erupted at the camp. After 10 detainees managed to escape, the captors clamped down on everyone inside. The detainees were punished by being forced to stay in their humid cells without electricity. The ‘privilege’ of yard walks was rescinded.

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast October, a little before dawn, about 150 Pakistanis were shoved into police buses and whisked off from the camp to the airport for expulsion. The majority of these Pakistanis were leaving voluntarily, unable to cope with the poisonous political environment in Greece, where parties like Golden Dawn have become part of the mainstream.

A tall, tired-looking young Pakistani, Mohammed Arshad, was taken from the camp—where he had waited anxiously for his deportation for four months—in handcuffs. “I haven’t been to Pakistan for the past five years,” Arshad told Newsweek on the police bus to the airport. “I’m married with two children and my family is in Pakistan. I’ve only been back to Pakistan once,” he said in passable Greek.

Arshad had come to Greece a decade earlier. He painted houses and did construction work: “I used to work every day, even on weekends.” He lost his job last year and struggled to get his work permit renewed to stay on in Greece, but he was bilked by conmen profiting from the desperation of immigrants. “I went to a lawyer in Athens and paid €2,500 to get my papers to stay for two years,” he said, “but they turned out to be fakes.” Arshad went to a second lawyer to sue the first one. He was asked to pay €1,200 for the job. “They needed more money, but I didn’t have any more money.”

Arshad maintained that he had all the qualifications to get his work permit renewed, but added that the law requiring 120 days of work to qualify for it is “too strict and unfair.” He worried about what he would do for a living once he was back in Pakistan, which has its own economic troubles. Two stone-faced policemen in plainclothes escorted handcuffed Arshad onto the unmarked plane chartered by the Greek government for the mass expulsion. They flanked him on the seven-hour flight to Pakistan.

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ven for some immigrants who remain in the country, Greece is fast losing its appeal. Manzoor Hussain, 40, thought his Pakistani name might sound too long or too foreign and wind up impeding his prospects. So he became known as Sakis by his neighbors and customers in Athens. Every day for 12 years, Sakis would open his convenience at 6 a.m. and work until 11 p.m. His 12-year-old daughter, Zara, would help mind the shop after school by stocking the shelves and helping customers. (Sakis’ wife died from cancer when Zara was 2.) The shop was doing well enough for father and daughter to get by.

Then, in June 2012, Sakis closed his shop for the last time. The taxes had gotten too high and business had slumped dramatically. So, like thousands of other small shop-owners in Greece, Sakis decided to call it a day. That last day, he put stacks of soda cans and chips and other perishables in nylon bags to take home. The rest of the inventory he gave away to friends and old, loyal customers for free. In a few short hours, the shop was bare. “This shop was my life,” he says. “But during the crisis it became like a jail to me. It just raised my debt.”

Zara tried her best to cheer up Sakis as they wound up the family enterprise that hot summer day.

Zara was born in Greece, speaks Greek without an accent, and is a straight-A student who hopes to become a doctor. In a few weeks, she would move to London and stay with her aunt. There is no future in Greece, she said at the time. Schools, hospitals, universities are all buckling under the strain of unending austerity cuts.

“I’ll stay back for a few months,” her father, Sakis, had told Newsweek. “I’ll try to get a job. If nothing works, I’ll go to London too.”

From our Sept. 6, 2013, issue.

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5 comments

Notis Koundouris September 17, 2013 - 3:05 pm

Greece is the “gateway’ to Europe for anyone coming from Asia , the Former USSR republics and not only.Hundreds of people almost daily are crossing over with the help of Turkish traffickers.Its done with speed boats , truck loads, bus loads and ….Greece now has over 1.000.000 emigrants in a indigenous population of 10.000.000 people,with disastrous consequences.Crime rates on all fronts have risen to unbelievable record heights and things have gotten even worse since the Syrian conflict began.Greece has repeatedly appealed to the E.U for assistance as its a member state but the EU treats this as if it was exclusively a Greek problem.If emigrants manage to cross from Greece to other European countries and then they are caught , they are not sent back to their homes , they are sent back to Greece!!!Greece being in dire financial straights, simply has no means what so ever to sustain such populations or find other solutions.We are having a vast number of crimes committed by emigrants and the populace has just had enough.That is also one more reason why the Extreme right has risen to such high levels of popularity.This solution that the Greek government has adopted is by far not a decent one.Its a tragic one but something had to be done even if its a poor start.I sincerely hope that these camps will be a thing of the past soon.By the way……many many other European countries have illegal emigrants in camps.At least Greece has offered emigrants to put them on planes , give them 300 euros in their hand and send them home.But few opt to leave.

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sherosays September 17, 2013 - 7:53 pm

Xenophobia is a Greek word which proves the point.

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anestisgk September 18, 2013 - 5:14 pm

Agnostophobia we have in Greece my friend…not Xenophobia. We don’t fear of you because you are not Greek. We don’t care even if you are Swiss. We fear of you because we don’t know WHO, WHERE you are from and WHAT you did there where you are coming from (you are UNKNOWN=AGNOSTOS in Greek). Don’t confuse the little Greek you think you know…

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Xenos November 15, 2013 - 9:30 pm

Why a nation of 150,000,000 people has plenty of money to be a nuclear power, but cannot afford to take care of its own people that allegedly is trying to protect with Weapons of Mass Destruction? And last, but not least: Why is Greece used as Pakistan’s scapegoat?

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Far from truth October 10, 2014 - 5:17 pm

Most of Pakistanis are coming illegally for Greece not the rest of Europe,and the same goes for another muslim nation the Bangladeshis.We know for sure that after the crisis,which started in 2007 and afftects us worst than any other nation in the world,it started with a huge invasion from Pakistan.Almost all of these have come here dreaming to get rich,to marry beautiful girls(almost all of them are males and young),to get a fast car,to have a merry life.The weird of that thing is that it started after the financial crisis in Greece,and the result is that we have 300-400 thousands Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who cant believe that Greece is not the country that the pakistani media,the trafficking business and other Pakistanis back there had led them to bielieve.From interviews of Pakistanis here,they said that they immigrated because there is a manufactured belief of the late years that Greece is a paradise.Almost all of them dont know what Greece really is.But there is also a huge proportion which comes here in the same way that Gypsy populations immigrate to another place.They come here for metal scrapping,which has caused huge financial destruction and also for peddling.One interesting thing is that some of them have divulged that back in Pakistan they had some trafficking organizations who are composed of turkish agents and officials.Those are the ones that are spreading those fancy and false rumours and motivate them to come illegally here.You have to got in mind that all the criminal trafficking schemes and businesses are run mostly by Turks and Albanians and they are the ones who are leading them to Greece.Turkish involvement in illegal aliens agitation and obsession is a well established fact.
The best proof for this is that Hazaras from Afghanistan and Iraqi Arabs,Kurds and Syrians can very easily pass the greek borders and move to Germany,Sweden,Italy,Belgium and the rest of Europe.The same goes for thousands or maybe to call them 5-10 thousands ethnic Turks at least who are heading to Germany,Netherlands,Sweden and Austria illegally every year.They are passing throuh Greece undeterred and undetected.
Even for that small part of those Pakistanis that find a work,not opening a shop,there is nothing sure,as these works are only for some months and not sure if the next year they will still exist or some other gets it.The building constructions that supported some 300-400 thousands illegals from Albania,Bulgaria,Romania,Poland,Urkaine,Iraq are now gone forever and ever.The industrial sector was never a big thing in Greece and now it has shrunk so much,that its one of the core problems of the greek financial crisis.Many of these small factories have already left Greece for the cheap labour countries like Bangladesh,Bulgaria,Singapore,Malaysia,China,Tanzania and the rest,where the taxes are low compared to here.
The most sure thing for Greece is to transform into an agrarian small ethnostate,where Greeks with all these knowledge and bachelors would settle down to farming in order to survive.That situation is already blooming,as many lawyers,teachers,doctors,and many other professions left for the rural areas in order to survive.
There is no hope for a Pakistani in the long term to settle here.Financial,cultural,historical,social and various other reasons wont help you.
I strongly advise you not to spend so much money to the Turks in order to come here,the only thing that awaits the majority of you is an assimilation into a gypsy culture.If you dont want to become like the Roma gypsies you should back home.
Also take in mind that we are the southernmost place of Europe and the most oriental and eastern.We are surrounded by troubled areas,backward and poor places and wars,like Kosovo,FYROM,Bulgaria,Libya,Egypt,Syria.The most probable is an imminent war with Turkey as we are already in a cold war.We are neighbours to Middle East,to Israel,Caucasus,Ukraine,Africa.We have a different culture from West and North Europe.West of us is mafia,draghetta and backward south Italy.If you expect the swedish behaviour here you are doomed.We are not UK or Germany here.I understand that some of you seem trapped here as you cant go to the north and west,but thats not our problem as the rest of Europe is deporting everyone back here.The only solution is to go through Russia into Europe.

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