Racism, more than any of the ills that plague Greece, points to a crisis that runs far deeper than the economic one. I first wrote about the racist treatment of immigrants in FACING ATHENS some six years ago, drawing the ire of some readers, who either refused to believe me, or who countered that Greece was no different from any other place. Now the news from Athens suggests that little, if any, progress has been made.
As I write this, the police in Athens are in the midst of operation “Clean Center” (Katharo Kentro), which is intended to cleanse the city center of junkies, small-time drug dealers, and illegal immigrants. The notion that the center needs to be cleansed of people is as offensive as it is hypocritical. Native Athenians and their successive municipal and state governments have, for twenty years, conspired to turn this part of the city into a ghetto. Greeks have abandoned the center for the suburbs, renting an old and neglected housing stock to immigrants, who, themselves, either can’t afford to live anywhere else, or who often face discrimination when they seek to rent in other areas. (Ads for rental properties in Greek newspapers often forbid immigrants.) In forsaking the center, Athenians, the police included, have also allowed the drug trade to flourish there. The official remedy is now cleanliness in the form of police harassment and imprisonment.
“Clean Center” comes days after a Pakistani man was attacked by a group of Greek thugs in the Athens section of Aghios Panteleimonas. Earlier this month, too, a new report stated that Greece ranked at the bottom of EU countries in granting applications for political asylum. The police operation also coincides with the Greek prime minister’s visit to New York, where he pledged publicly to make good use of the talents of Greeks living abroad as his country sought to emerge from its crisis. You see, there are almost as many Greek immigrants, myself included, as there are people in Greece.