Rocks rain down on squatters in Athens

ATHENS, May 9 — We were trapped on the grounds of an abandoned courthouse, the makeshift home of several hundred North African immigrants who had been squatting there for months. Outside, a row of policemen tried to stop a group of far-right-wing protesters who were trying to storm the building.

Suddenly, rocks rained in — from where it was hard to tell — and flares lit the sky overhead. The illegal immigrants, along with a handful of Greek supporters from left-wing and immigrant rights groups, fought back, ripping pieces of marble from the building and lobbing them over the metal fence that surrounded the courtyard.

Shouts rang out in Greek, Arabic and French as the immigrants tried to locate their attackers. They seemed to be in the streets outside and up high in the surrounding buildings. On my right, two Greek women tried to help a North African man whose head was bleeding heavily, and a puddle of crimson-red blood gathered on the paving stones. At least five immigrants were injured in the clashes, according to police.

“In Greece, protection for immigrants is non-existent,” said Fouad, a 33-year-old Moroccan who is squatting in the court building. “We are treated like criminals.”

Just over an hour earlier, a few blocks away, I’d watched a group of mainly young men with motorcycle helmets and Greek flags gather in Omonia Square in central Athens. The men, many members of the far-right group Chrisi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, were staging an anti-immigrant rally in the heart of enemy territory: Just a short distance away from Athens’ historic district, Omonia is one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods, traditionally the haunt of drug addicts but increasingly dominated by immigrants.

The protesters waved Greek flags and held up giant banners bearing slogans such as “Greece for Greeks” and “Foreigners mean crime,” as military marches blared from speakers. A few curious tourists looked on, while menacing men chased away any immigrants who unknowingly strayed too close.

Golden Dawn is a fringe group, with fascist undertones and little broad support in Greek society. But the showdown Saturday highlights the growing tension over the recent wave of new immigrants, many of them from Africa and Asia.

For most of the last century, Greeks themselves emigrated in search of a better life. Today, the small country of about 11 million is a key gateway to Europe for thousands of migrants, and the rapid change in neighborhoods like Omonia has unsettled many Greeks. Last year, Greek authorities arrested nearly 150,000 illegal immigrants entering the country, most of them in the Aegean Sea near the Turkish coast.

With so many islands, it is difficult for Greece to control its borders. Smugglers bring the migrants from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands, where they are usually picked up by the authorities and put in detention camps for a few months. But it is difficult to deport the migrants because most don't have papers and Turkey largely refuses to accept them back. As other countries such as Italy and Malta have cracked down on human smuggling and increased sea patrols, traffickers are rerouting people from Africa, for example, to Greece.

But few of the immigrants living in the courthouse said they want to stay in Greece — most see it merely as an unfortunate way station in a journey deeper into Europe.

“Algeria is a prison,” said a thin young man named Walid, after the immigrants and their supporters had driven away their attackers. “But Greece is a bigger prison. Life is worse here even than in Algeria.” He wants to go to Germany or France, but is stuck in Greece where there are few jobs and little support for migrants. He had been living in the court building for four months.

The old courthouse has become a rallying point for immigrant rights groups who say the city has failed to address the challenges of new immigration. Hundreds of North Africans live in the eight-story building, which has no running water or sanitation. It reeks of urine and piles of trash litter the floors. The only way in is through a hole in the metal fence surrounding the courtyard. Thousands more migrants are believed to be living in other abandoned buildings and overcrowded hostels around the city center.

Greek human rights groups want the government to repair the court building and turn it into a shelter for migrants. But the city says the building is private and that it plans to move the residents to a camp outside the city.

On its website, Golden Dawn claimed it was attacked by the immigrants, not the other way around. The website decried the “lies” of the Greek press, but claimed the evening as a victory: “Today, Omonia was Greek.”

The fighting lasted for about an hour. When it was over, a small group of the immigrants knelt in the courtyard and prayed, the ground around them littered with broken rocks and stones. Then they prepared to stand guard for the night, in case their attackers returned.

This dispatch was updated to add more information.

More on immigration in Europe:

Spain's immigration petri dish

A Dutch identity crisis?


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