November 12, 2012 9:46:40 AM
ATHENS, Greece -- The attack came seemingly out of nowhere. As the 28-year-old Bangladeshi man dug around trash bins one recent afternoon for scrap metal, two women and a man set upon him with a knife. He screamed as he fell. Rushed to the hospital, he was treated for a gash to the back of his thigh.
Police are investigating the assault as yet another in a rising wave of extreme-right rage against foreigners as Greece sinks further into economic misery. The details vary, but the cold brutality of each attack is the same: Dark-skinned migrants confronted by thugs, attacked with knives and broken bottles, wooden bats and iron rods.
Rights groups warn of an explosion in racist violence over the past year, with a notable surge since national elections in May and June that saw dramatic gains by the far-right Golden Dawn party. The severity of the attacks has increased too, they say. What started as simple fist beatings has now escalated to assaults with metal bars, bats and knives. Another new element: ferocious dogs used to terrorize the victims.
"Violence is getting wilder and wilder and we still have the same pattern of attacks ... committed by groups of people in quite an organized way," said Kostis Papaioannou, former head of the Greek National Commission for Human Rights.
As Greece's financial crisis drags on for a third year, living standards for the average Greek have plummeted. A quarter of the labor force is out of work, with more than 50 percent of young people unemployed. An increasing number of Greeks can't afford basic necessities and healthcare. Robberies and burglaries are never out of the news for long.
With Greece a major entry point for hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants seeking a better life in the European Union, foreigners have become a convenient scapegoat.
Some victims turn up at clinics run by charities, recounting experiences of near lynching. Others are afraid to give doctors the details of what happened -- and even more afraid of going to the police. The more seriously hurt end up in hospitals, white bandages around their heads or plaster casts around broken limbs.
"Every day we see someone who complained of (some form) of racist violence," said Nikitas Kanakis, president of the Greek section of Doctors of the World, which runs a drop-in clinic and pharmacy in central Athens that treats the uninsured.
Racist attacks are not officially recorded, so statistics are hard to come by. In an effort to plug that gap and sensitize a population numbed by three years of financial crisis, a group of rights groups and charities banded together to document the violence.
They registered 87 cases of racist attacks between January and September, but say the true number runs into the hundreds.
"Most of the time the victims, they don't want to talk about this, they don't feel safe," Kanakis said. "The fear is present and this is the bigger problem."
Frances William, who heads the tiny Tanzanian community of about 250 people, knows the feeling well.
"People are very, very much afraid," he said, adding that even going next door to buy bread, "I'm not sure I'll be safe to come back home."
The community's cultural center was attacked several weeks ago, with amateur video shot from across the street showing a group of muscled men in black T-shirts smashing the entrance. Earlier that day, children standing outside during a birthday party were threatened by a man brandishing a pistol, William said.
The recent elections showed a meteoric rise in popularity of the formerly marginalized Golden Dawn, which went from less than half a percent in 2009 elections to nearly 7 percent of the vote and 18 seats in the country's 300-member parliament in June.
Campaigning on a promise to "clean up the stench" in Greece, the party whose slogan is "blood, honor, Golden Dawn" has made no secret of its views on migrants: All are in the country illegally and must be deported. Greece's borders must be sealed with landmines and military patrols, and any Greeks employing or renting property to migrants should face punishment.
The party vehemently denies it is involved in racist attacks.
"The only racist attacks that exist in Greece for the last years are the attacks that illegal immigrants are doing against Greeks," said Ilias Panagiotaros, a burly Golden Dawn lawmaker who divides his working time between Parliament and his sports shop, which also sells military and police paraphernalia.
His party is carrying out a "very legitimate, political fight . through parliament and through the neighborhoods of Athens and of Greece," he said.
The party's tactics -- handing out food to poor Greeks, pledging to protect those who feel unprotected by the police -- are working. Recent opinion polls have shown Golden Dawn's support rising to between 9 and 12 percent.
In late August, the conservative-led coalition government began addressing the issue of illegal immigration by rounding up migrants. By early November, they had detained more than 48,480 people, arresting 3,672 of them for being in the country illegally.
Rights groups also warn that what started as xenophobic attacks is now spreading to include anyone who might disagree with the hard-right view. Greek society must understand that the far-right rise doesn't just concern migrants, said Kanakis.
"It has to do with all of us," he said. "It's a problem of everyday democracy."