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Racial tensions mount in Greece

Greek economic crisis accelerates clashes between immigrants and locals.

An immigrant smokes a cigarette during an anti-racism rally in Athens on Jan. 26, 2010. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — When he was still a Taliban fighter, Zaher Muhamad never thought he would end up in Greece.

But as the might of the United States Army made itself felt in the post-Sept. 11 invasion of Afghanistan, Muhamad was forced to lay down his arms and flee, first to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, then onto Greece via Iran and Turkey. Today, he heads an Afghan immigrant association and lives in St Panteleimon, a gritty Athenian neighborhood balancing awkwardly along the racial fault line dividing the Greek capital.

It is not a good time to be in Greece. The country is in the middle of a crisis, with official unemployment skyrocketing to over 12 percent in general and 25 percent among young people. Now that construction and industrial jobs are drying up, immigrants are less welcome than ever.

Muhamad is just one in the tapestry of immigrants crowding into St Panteleimon from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Tensions skyrocketed in recent years as immigrants began outnumbering Greeks and members of the Greek far-right moved there to fight “de-Hellenisation.” They rented or bought apartments overlooking the square, stretched Greek flags taut across their balcony railings, and began almost daily patrols harassing immigrants.

Although many left, others like Muhamad refuse to be intimidated.

“Why should I be guilty of being in the West when it was the West through NATO that invaded my country?” Muhamad asked, as he sat with a group of friends in the Thousand and One Nights cafe, around a table strewn with cigarette packs and beer bottles.

Immigrants form an estimated 10 percent of Greece’s population of 11 million according to the United Nations. The trickle became a flood after Greece joined the Schengen zone in 1997, meaning once a person enters Greece he can travel to other Schengen countries without passing through immigration controls. As other EU members with long Mediterranean coastlines, such as Spain and Italy, tightened their border patrols, immigrants desperate to access Europe’s employment opportunities landed in Greece.

Periodic legalization drives and political inaction have exacerbated the racial divide and turned locals against the foreign presence. A chauvinist party called LAOS steadily gained in popularity. In the 2009 elections, it won 15 seats in parliament and became the third most-popular party in Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki.

Its success reflects changing popular attitudes toward immigrants.