Immigrant Sweeps In Greece Spark Protests

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The Greek government is cracking down on undocumented migrants ahead of next weekend's elections. This week, it said it would forcibly evict those migrants living in overcrowded apartment blocks, calling them "dangerous to public health." But immigrant groups say it's a xenophobic ploy to get votes ahead of the May 6 elections.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The economy is still the biggest issue for Greeks in next weekend's early parliament elections. But polls show that immigration is also high on the list. Politicians are responding by cracking down on undocumented migrants.

Joanna Kakissis has the story from Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS SPEAKING THROUGH MEGAPHONES)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: About a thousand people are gathering a run-down square in central Athens. They include Greeks, Afghans, Pakistanis and Nigerians. They are speaking at an anti-racism rally. They say politicians running for parliament are demonizing immigrants to get votes. Javet Islam is the leader of the Pakistani Community of Greece. He's lived and worked in Athens for 16 years.

JAVET ISLAM: They want to show to the Greek persons, we are only caring about you. And that's why we're going to allow to beat them, to kick them, to throw them out. But this is very bad political. This is not politics. The politics is to solve of the problems, to not to create the problems.

KAKISSIS: Leading in pre-election opinion polls are all saying the same thing, that Greeks must take back their cities from illegal immigrants. Many politicians blame the migrants - many of whom are from Africa and South Asia - for a rise in violent crime and the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and HIV.

The government is evicting migrants living in abandoned and overcrowded buildings. It's also building 30 detention camps to keep migrants until they're deported.

The European Union says about 90 percent of undocumented migrants enter Europe through Greece.

Police spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis says that more than 100,000 people entered Greece last year alone. Many end up desperate and jobless in central Athens, he says.

THANASSIS KOKKALAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Right now, the center has a lot of problems, like street crime, he says. We have to find solutions. We can't manage this many undocumented people. If their numbers increase, it will keep unsettling Greek society and later the rest of Europe.

KOKKALAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: But Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch says what's also unsettling is the rise of anti-immigrant attacks in the last two years. Cosse recently visited a young Somali woman who said she was attacked by vigilantes in central Athens.

EVA COSSE: Many people know that in Greece there are economic problems, poverty, but very few people talk about attacks, and even Greeks are not aware of this phenomenon.

KAKISSIS: That's because few migrants report attacks, she says.

Javet Islam, the Pakistani leader, says he hears about at least 10 attacks a day against Pakistanis, who never report the crime to police.

Polls show Greeks are more worried about crime against Greeks. Kokkalakis says that more than 60 percent of people arrested for crime in Athens are undocumented immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KAKISSIS: But the perception that violent immigrants are violent has fueled the rise of Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn. They're an extreme-right party whose supporters chant that Greece belongs to the Greeks.

A spokesman, Ilias Panagiotaros, says Golden Dawn supporters have been policing areas in central Athens that he says illegal immigrants have taken over.

ILIAS PANAGIOTAROS: That's what the rest of the people are watching and seeing. And that's why Golden Dawn is going up. And we are going up every day.

KAKISSIS: Polls show that the party could win a seat in parliament on May 6.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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