Xenophobic Violence in Greece Highlights Need for Better Government Response

A recent front page article in the New York Times shines a light on the troubling rise in xenophobic violence in Greece. The article cites a new report from Human Rights Watch documenting vicious attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants, and the disturbing lack of police and governmental protection.

The report rightly stresses that the Greek government has clear obligations under international human rights law to implement measures to prevent racist and xenophobic violence, investigate the crimes, and prosecute perpetrators. It should also publicly condemn the violence.

The government, though, is falling far short. As detailed in the report, police officers have discouraged reporting of these crimes, there have been few prosecutions, hate crime provisions adopted in 2008 remain unused, and data collection systems grossly undercount violent acts.

The political will to take this problem seriously appears to be sorely lacking.

This problem is not limited to Greece. Xenophobic attacks occur in many countries as detailed in our report, Framework for Combatting Xenophobic Violence. These countries include Italy, Ukraine and others in Europe, but also the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Israel, Libya, South Africa, Russia and the United States.

Based on our years of experience monitoring hate crimes globally, we’ve developed a 10-point plan outlining steps that states should take. Among the most critical steps:

  • Acknowledge and condemn acts of bias-motivated violence whenever they occur.
  • Enact hate crime legislation, strengthen enforcement, and prosecute offenders.
  • Monitor and report on attacks.
  • Reach out to communities affected by violence to reduce fear, assist victims, and improve reporting of incidents.
    In addition to states, which bear the primary responsibility, other stakeholders have important roles to play—particularly in helping to address the needs of victims and in advocating for improved policing, prosecutions, and official condemnations of violence.

The HRW report points out one model of collaboration between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Greece and a network of 18 NGOs. Together they’ve engaged in a documentation project that has revealed a sharp discrepancy between government reporting (2 hate crimes in 2009 and 1 in 2008) and that of NGOs closer to victims (63 incidents between October and December 2011).

UNHCR, the International Office for Migration, and civil society groups also came together in Ukraine. In 2006, the Ukraine Offices of UNHCR and IOM partnered with civil society groups to coordinate a uniform response to hate crime impacting refugees, migrants, and other populations. In April 2007, the “Diversity Initiative”—a coalition of dozens of entities, including domestic and international NGOs and agencies—was launched to raise awareness of the problem, provide assistance to victims, and advocate a more robust government response.

A combination of factors contributed to the early success of the Diversity Initiative: the strong leadership by international organizations like UNHCR and the IOM, its multipronged strategy, its diverse network of grassroots human rights and community organizations, the support it received from foreign embassies in Ukraine, and its efforts to work closely with both national and local authorities in Ukraine. But continued success requires sustained effort.

Sustained commitment from domestic and international stakeholders will also be critical to maintain pressure on the Greek government to address and prevent— xenophobic attacks.

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Published on July 26, 2012

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