Athens police sweep nets hundreds

2012-03-30 09:56

Athens - Police in Greece's capital said they detained more than 500 people on Thursday in an operation that will be repeated daily to combat illicit trade, illegal immigration, drug dealing and other criminal activities.

The majority of those detained in the sweep of central Athens were foreign nationals.

Crime and illegal immigration have been an issue ever since mass migration into Greece began in 1991 - initially from poor Albania, which had just overthrown its communist regime, then from other east European countries and, increasingly in later years, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa.

Twenty-one people were arrested on Thursday, nine of them immigrants lacking legal documentation. Four were arrested for drug offenses, five for theft - one armed - and three immigrants selling contraband goods were arrested for resisting police attempts to impound their goods. Thirteen foreign prostitutes were cited for breaking the law.

A police announcement said 455 police took part in what it called "targeted police controls."

The controls involved, in part, the seizure of contraband that Athens merchants say has seriously eroded legal businesses' revenues.

Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrysohoidis had announced the sweeps in advance, as well as a plan to build detention centers for 30 000 illegal immigrants by 2014.

Public concern

The deepening financial crisis since 2008 has further brought the issue to the fore, heightening anti-immigrant sentiment. Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), an openly pro-Nazi organisation gained a seat on the Athens council in the last local election, in 2010, and, according to current polls, is poised to enter the Greek parliament in the upcoming early election, to take place probably in May. A party needs to poll more than 3% to enter Parliament.

Public concern about immigration has led mainstream parties to promise to toughen their stance. Chrysohoidis, a socialist who is serving his third stint as minister of Greece's security forces, came out with a plan to build 30 detention centres - officially named "closed hospitality centres" - would be created on unused military sites under a $333m programme funded by the European Union.

The plan has been popular, except for the fact that the inhabitants and local authorities in the designated areas are fiercely resisting the idea, despite Chrysohoidis' estimate that each detention center would create 1 000 local jobs, including up to 300 private security guards supplementing armed police. But people, and local authorities, are all for the centers, provided they are built far from them.

"Whoever [illegally] enters the country will be given hospitality and will be immediately asked to return home," Chrysohoidis said at a news conference Monday. "Unless they are refugees ... in which case they have a sacred right to asylum."

The detained immigrants would far outnumber Greece's prison population, currently estimated at 12 500.

Greece is the busiest transit point in the EU for illegal immigrants, who cross the porous land and sea border with Turkey by the tens of thousands every year. Greek authorities claim more than a million people are living illegally in the country - whose registered population is just over 11 million.

Violent anti-immigrant backlash

The influx has coincided with a rise in thefts, muggings, and drug dealing in recent years, while human rights groups have reported a violent anti-immigrant backlash by groups of racist thugs. In areas of Athens with a large immigrant presence and rising crime, the extreme rightists of Chryssi Avgi have courted the local Greek population by offering security patrols and even offering the elderly to do their shopping for them.

There have also been clashes between groups of immigrants and between older and newer ones. Albanians - the earliest of them and for many years mostly blamed for rising criminality - have often expressed annoyance at the continuing influx of Afghanis and Somalis. "What are they doing in our country? Throw them out," one of them was quoted in a Greek newspaper during previous disturbances.

Many protesters who have thronged the square opposite Greece's Parliament over the past two years claim the Greek state is coddling immigrants and has left citizens unprotected against rising crime. Last Sunday, during a Greece Independence Day parade mostly closed to the public for fear of disturbances, nationalist protesters berated police for keeping them from the parade while doing nothing against immigrants.