Return of the far right: Greece's financial crisis has led to a rise in violent attacks on refugees

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John Carlin reports from Athens on the return of the far right.

An Afghan who fled his country, fearing a lynching, after converting from Islam to Christianity. A Syrian who bolted across the border after a bomb destroyed his home. A Sudanese man who ran for his life after soldiers murdered his father and raped his sisters.

All three have joined the rivers of refugees that flow, now as ever, from the most wretched corners of the earth, converging today on Athens, the most wretched capital in Western Europe. Pursuing the European dream, they have run aground in the swamp of Greek's economic crisis: undocumented, unwanted, despised, hungry and under constant threat of the sort of violence they imagined they had left behind at home.

The bad guys of this story are not hard to identify. The far-right Golden Dawn party (Chrysi Avgi in Greek) captures votes by using foreign migrants in the same way the Nazis used the Jews: as scapegoats for the frustrations, insecurities and hardships of today's Greek population. They blame Arabs, Asians and Africans (or 'subhumans' as they call them) for their country's dire lot. Accusing them of infecting Greeks with diseases and of turning the centre of Athens into a criminal jungle, young Golden Dawn militants hunt down foreigners in the streets, markets, parks and buses.

The good guys of this story are the NGO workers and Greek volunteers who endeavour to help the refugees. Their altruism is especially impressive: they are also suffering the consequences of the economic crisis, they all know fellow Greeks who are competing with the refugees for food in the bins of Athens. Workers at Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, report Greek people coming to them and asking: "Why don't you help us instead of them? Who invited them, anyway?".

Golden Dawn are the bad guys, but it is not hard to grasp why they are now the third biggest party in the country, well on their way to becoming the second. At a time of awful confusion and uncertainty, they offer simple solutions to complex problems. Linked to neo-Nazi groups in Germany, they have learnt the populist lessons of the Hitler era. They magnify the danger posed by refugees and present themselves as the only true defenders of the people.

Few Greeks are unaware, for example, that there is a Golden Dawn phone number that pensioners can call to get a couple of party thugs to escort them to the bank to collect their monthly cheques, supposedly to provide protection from the dreaded foreign 'criminals'. It is unclear whether such a service actually exists, but it is clever propaganda and it reaches its target audience. Golden Dawn's most recent move was to set up an organisation called 'Doctors With Borders'. It offers, they say, a network of doctors willing to give free consultations – to natives only.

Many Greeks hate the refugees. Many refugees hate the Greeks. I talked to over 20 men and women from three of the world's most dangerous countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan. All regarded Greece as an infernal limbo they wished to escape from as soon as possible, though their chances of doing so are slim, given that the northern countries where they wish to pursue their dreams do not want them either and are pressuring the Greek government to prevent them from moving on.

They all reach Greece through Turkey, a country where almost anyone can enter without a visa. I met a group of refugees who had crossed over from Turkey, by land or by sea, over the past year, in the drab Athens offices of the Greek Forum of Refugees. I talked to them after I had been asked to observe an English language class. There were 14 students, men and women, and a teacher who acted as my interpreter. They were all Afghans. When I asked them what Greece meant to them, they replied in unison: "A bus stop!". When I asked them one by one, the message was even clearer: they dreaded the idea of Greece being their final destination, but they said they knew the bus would eventually come.

The very reason they were learning English was because they intended to head for northern Europe. All had endured harsh, treacherous journeys, and resigning themselves to staying in Greece would mean giving up. They were not about to give up. Not even the youngest or the most vulnerable. There were two sisters in the group, aged 14 and 24.

After a month of travelling overland – by bus, donkey and on foot – they boarded a boat in Turkey that set sail for Greece but which three times almost sank and three times had to return to port. Eventually they landed on a Greek island in mid-December. Where were they going? "Spain and Italy would be good because the weather is nice, but there's no work," said the eldest. "Norway is a better bet." Isn't it too cold there? The younger sister smiled and replied: "Very cold, yes. But like ice-cream". The class laughed.

The good humour faded when I asked the men what they did during the day, what the Athenian streets were like. "I don't understand why they let us in and then treat us so badly," said a bright 20-year-old man, to murmurs all round. "People insult in the street all the time," said a man in his mid-forties. "And the worst is that they attack us as well, while the police watch and do nothing." Of the eight men there, two said they had been badly beaten in the past three months. Who did it? They looked at me as if I was the most naive man on the planet. "Golden Dawn, of course."

The day after meeting the Afghans in the English class, a Pakistani man was stabbed to death. The police, left with little choice but to intervene, arrested two young Greeks who were later found to have Golden Dawn pamphlets in their houses.f

I did not hear about the killing until I read about it in the papers, but that same day I interviewed a Sudanese man called Hassan who had also been beaten up and left for dead by Greek far-right hooligans. He was 32 and a huge man. He looked like an American basketball player. We spoke at an Evangelical centre in the heart of Athens where American pastors offer free food and showers to refugees. The place was spartan but it had a location a five-star hotel would envy. Through a vast window you could see the Parthenon standing guard over the ancient city.

Hassan, the Sudanese giant, did not seem too interested in this reminder of the glory that was once Greece. He wanted to show me his scars. One on his forehead, another on the side of his head and many more on his broad back, as if he had been flogged by an 18th-century slave-ship captain. The stormtroopers of Golden Dawn seemed to have wanted to carve their swastika-like insignia into his muscular flesh.

Hassan did not know exactly what had happened. All he remembered was walking down the street at 11pm one night when 12 men on motorbikes surrounded him, shouting racist insults and telling him to return to "his own shitty country". "They got off their bikes and started hitting me over the head with sticks. I blacked out and when I came round, maybe 10 minutes or so later, they had gone, but my head and body were covered in blood. I can only assume they cut my back up with knives."

Hassan said he sometimes thought that Greece was even more dangerous than his own country. That was saying something, given that he had fled his home in May 2011 when government soldiers stormed his village, burnt his house down, killed his father and raped his two sisters. In Athens, the birthplace of democracy, he was reliving the nightmare. He fled Sudan; now he wants to flee Greece. He cannot, though, because he has no money and Greece has no borders with a Schengen country; free movement around Europe is not possible without first leaving Greece by air or sea.

Wahid, the Afghan Christian convert, is also trapped. He entered Greece in late 2011 over the land border after crossing the river with his wife and young daughter. It was not what he had expected. He said that his family were treated abominably at a packed,f stench-ridden detention centre where they were held upon arrival. "I expected to find people who at least respected women and children, because the European Union always speaks of human rights in Afghanistan."

His expectations were too high. All of the refugees I spoke to denounced the appalling conditions in detention centres such as the one Wahid was taken to, where tens of thousands of foreigners are imprisoned. The European Commission itself has joined in the protests, describing detention centres as "overcrowded" and "far below international standards".

Wahid was surprised by what he found when he arrived, but after 15 months in Greece he had learnt to lower his expectations. "Public administration is useless at everything – why would it be any different when it comes to caring for refugees?" What most bothers Wahid, a bright and slender man who speaks good English, is that applying for asylum in Greece is a waste of time. The bureaucracy is neither up to the task nor interested in attending to it properly. "Migrating is not a criminal act," said Wahid. "They might see that we have good reason to do it, if only they asked…"

Wahid's story is unusual. He taught himself English and journalism in Afghanistan and worked as a journalist and later as an interpreter for the American army, accompanying troops on missions in enemy territory. After 14 months he returned to journalism, met an American Protestant pastor and converted to Christianity. "Openly being a Christian in Afghanistan, even while the Americans are still there, is like belonging to al-Qa'ida in Europe. You can't do it. You'll get lynched."

Wahid's daughter used to go to a school in Afghanistan where she was taught the Koran. "I was talking about love and forgiveness at home; she would come home from school and tell us that, according to her teacher, we had to hate infidel Christians and that they would all go to hell." Terrified that her daughter might unwittingly give him away at school, Wahid decided to leave his country.

Some Afghans, like him, flee danger. Others are economic migrants. Wahid is sure that many more will come, on both grounds, when the American army pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014. "There will be anarchy, there will be terror, there will be a flood of refugees into Europe."

Today, right now, that flood threatens to come from Syria, the scene of perhaps the world's most brutal war. I talked to a 52-year-old Syrian man at the American Evangelical centre. His name was Gharib and he was an educated-looking man who could have passed for a bank manager if he had put on a suit and tie. Never mind the Parthenon, Plato, Socrates and the birthplace of democracy – Greece, for Gharib, is a barbarian country.

That morning, he told me, the police had evicted him from an abandoned house with no electricity or water supply where he had been living with four other Syrians. He had no money and, he told me, did not know where he would sleep that night. Speaking as if in a trance, in a melancholy mix of English and French, he told me his story.

"My house in Syria was destroyed by a bomb, and my four daughters, son and wife are on the streets waiting for me to give them good news, but I cannot help them. I am sorry. I couldn't afford to bring them all and I walked for 10 days to the Turkish border. My idea was to come to Europe and send them money to pay for the trip, but I was imprisoned for three months and I haven't been able to; I am sorry. In my city my children are sleeping on the streets with bombs, and I'm here sleeping on the streets without bombs. I am sorry."

Gharib speaks German. His plan, now impossible because he has no money to pay the traffickers (who, according to him, can get you on to a flight without legal documents), is to go to Austria or Germany. "Every night I pray that I can leave this country. Greece is a donkey; Germany, a car. I ask God to let me get into the car."

The problem is that most Greeks would also like to ride in that German car, have the security of knowing that tomorrow there will be food on the table and a roof over their heads. And they do not want to have to compete for such basic needs with people whose arrival in their country could not have been less timely. I discussed this in a very different setting to the American Evangelical shelter, on the plush first floor of a building next door to the Greek parliament, with Constantine Michalos, the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce. He conveyed the general view that Greeks have of the uninvited foreigners, who, in his words, have "invaded" their capital. "The centre of Athens is a time bomb," he said.

Michalos, a privileged businessman who was educated in England, says that he despisesf the racism of the far right in his country and believes that "three-quarters" of the Greeks who vote for them do so, too. And yet, he said a growing number of the population see a value in the presence of Golden Dawn, who had a 22 per cent approval rate in a recent poll, on the capital's streets. Nor are people concerned about the appalling living conditions in refugee detention centres.

The last thing that the country worst hit by the European crisis, and with least hope of recovering from it, needs, according to Michalos, is more people to feed. "Detention centres are a message: Greece is not the gateway to paradise," says Michalos. "As for Golden Dawn, however dreadful they might be, they are doing the government's dirty work. I know, because I have close contacts in parliament, that the centre-right politicians in government today are less critical of Golden Dawn in private than they are in public."

From a completely different perspective, Yunus Mohammadi, the head of the Greek Forum for Refugees, also sees a link between the far right and the government's agenda. "The prime minister has said that we have to re-occupy our cities, and that is what they are doing," said Mohammadi. "Before 2010, society was against attacks on foreigners, which happened, but far less frequently. Since 2010, when Golden Dawn made their great leap forward, everything has changed. There are far more attacks and normal people just stand by and even laugh. I was attacked, I lost blood, I reported it to the police and I was told that if I kept complaining I would spend two days in jail. And I speak Greek. Others are even more defenceless. The serious issue is that society now accepts this violence; it has become democratic violence. In other words, Golden Dawn now has seats in parliament so their violence is democratically justified." The concept, according to Yunus, is shared by a large number of Greeks.

But not by all. Christos Christou, the current head of MSF in Greece, is a surgeon specialising in kidney transplants who has been out of work for over six months. He could get work abroad but he does not want to abandon his country. He will stay, he says, to help with public health and take part in what he calls the political struggle. "Since Golden Dawn promised 'safety and cleanliness', migrants have gone into hiding. They are scared and the police turn a blind eye," said Christou. "They also attack gay people, incidentally. Soon they'll be burning books. The leaders are Nazis – hooligans turned politicians."

But he does understand why Golden Dawn's crude message strikes a chord. "The concept of the scapegoat comes from ancient Greek theatre," he said, "and all societies use it, when they need to, in their own way." In the case of modern Greece, the refugees provide a convenient depository for the ills of a proud people with a proud history who struggle to face up to the indignities of the present. The measure of how far Greece has fallen is seen in MSF's decision to seriously examine the possibility of extending their services to the native population for the first time.

Nikos Gionakis faces a similar predicament. He is the head of a mental health centre called Babel whose stated mission – until now – has been to help destitute foreigners. The problem is that the more public health spending is cut, the greater the need for aid among the Greek population. Gionakis actually needs help himself. Neither he nor anyone else who works with him – psychologists and psychiatrists as well as administrative staff – have been paid since last June. Meanwhile, Babel's potential client base is expanding.

"My fear," says Gionakis, "is that next month children with severe problems will come in and I won't be able to help them." But how does he help himself, how does he live? "Well, like others, thanks to my family," he replies. "My wife works. My parents buy us food. This is Greece today. Meanwhile, we wait." They wait, among other things, for threats from Golden Dawn. Yet there is some reason for cheer, says Gionakis. More and more volunteers are coming to the centre to offer free help, including experienced psychoanalysts. "Every action generates a reaction," explains Gionakis. "As the anti-immigrant feeling grows, so does the solidarity of the Greek people."

What we are seeing is the difference, Gionakis says, between people who think with borders and people who think without borders. For the day-to-day problems of the Greeks, he says, are almost identical to those of the refugees. "They don't trust the Greek state; Greeks don't trust the Greek state either." But there is something that sets refugees apart from Greeks, whatever their political views. Refugees place more trust in the future. Their living conditions are more fragile, more sordid, more dangerous than those of the Greeks. But they are also more used to it. Today, Greeks are struggling to survive; most of the refugees in Greece have struggled to survive since the day they were born. More so than those people clinging to Golden Dawn's illusory message, they are people with a belief that, having come so far, nothing will stop them reaching their final destinations.

"I don't regret leaving my country," said Hassan, the victim of the Golden Dawn bikers' attack. "It wasn't a mistake," said Gharib, the Syrian. "One day I'll get out of here to a better life. I'll get to Austria or Germany, get a job and bring my family. I trust that God will help me." "Greece is better than Afghanistan," said Wahid, the Christian convert, "but worse than the rest of the European Union. It may take years, but we'll get out of here and my daughter will grow up and live in a peaceful country."

In the English class at the Greek Forum for Refugees, the 14 Afghans and their teacher seemed, on first inspection, the unluckiest people on earth. But they had hope, and a plan. An impossible plan, perhaps, but they were not giving up. The cold of the north, as the 14-year-old Afghan girl said, was not a thing to fear; it was an appetising ice-cream. What to others might seem a fearful limbo, to them was a bus stop. However long they had to wait, their bus would come. Unlike many Greeks and lots of other Europeans, they are keeping the dream alive.

The far right in Europe

Charlie Cooper

Spain

A country at the heart of the eurozone crisis, economic hardship has fuelled a revival in support for the far-right, national-socialist politics of the Franco era. The most prominent group, Espana2000, pledges to put 'Spaniards first' and is recruiting fast, particularly among young, working-class men. It has protested against the building of mosques and followed the model of Greece's Golden Dawn by establishing a presence on local elected bodies, but does not yet have parliamentary representation. It also runs soup kitchens that refuse to serve Arabs. The group's leader, Jose Luis Roberto, told the BBC recently: "We will use all democratic ways… but if we reach an extreme situation we will have to hit the streets and use force if necessary," he said.

France

The far right National Front Party, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972, is now firmly established in the mainstream of French politics. Its leader is now Jean-Marie's daughter, Marine. His granddaughter, 23-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, became France's youngest MP in modern times, and one of the party's two representatives in the National Assembly, last year. Marine has sought to move the party closer to the centre, banning a councillor who was pictured giving a Nazi salute and dropping racist rhetoric. However, the party still backs removing the citizenship of second-generation immigrants who break the law, or refuse to speak French, and is fiercely anti-EU.

Italy

Although the National Fascist Party of wartime dictator Benito Mussolini was banned under Italy's post-war constitution, several parties inherited its place on the far right of Italian politics. Il Duce's legacy is itself a topic of fierce debate for many Italians. His granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian in Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom bloc, is unashamed of much of her grandfather's record in power and made headlines throughout Europe in 2006 when she told a transgender MP that it was "better to be a fascist than a faggot". The centre-right People of Freedom group contains several socially conservative factions, some of which can trace their roots to the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, which succeeded Mussolini's party, and split into the more moderate National Alliance and the ardently fascist Tricolour Flame, which still has 5,000 members.

Germany

No country in Europe is as vigilant over the rise of the far right as Germany. But in recent years, neo-Nazi groups have never been far from the headlines and there are fears that extremist views are becoming more mainstream. One of the biggest scandals to hit in recent times unfolded last year when it emerged that Germany's domestic security service had destroyed key files relating to the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terrorist cell responsible for murdering nine immigrants and a policewoman, launching two bomb attacks and robbing several banks since 2000. At the end of last year, a report found that as many as 16 per cent of (former) East Germans hold a "fixed extreme right-wing worldview". The main rallying point for the far right is the 6,000-member National Democratic Party (NPD), described by the domestic intelligence agency as "racist and anti-Semitic".

Norway

In 2011, Norway, widely regarded as one of Europe's most tolerant societies, was rocked by the killing of 77 people – most of them young members of the Labour Party – by the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who had published a manifesto characterising himself as a warrior against the 'Islamisation' of Europe. The atrocities and their motive raised difficult questions for Norway, which opened its doors to immigration four decades ago. Concessions made to Muslims, who make up 2 per cent of the population, at the apparent expense of Norwegian culture, had already become an election issue in 2009, when Siv Jensen, the leader of the country's second-largest political force, the Progress Party, warned against the "sneak-Islamisation" of the country. Far-right groups such as Vigrid and Stop Islamisation of Norway remain active and their leaders were invited to give evidence at Breivik's trial, as proof that the mass-murderer was sane, because his ideology was shared by others.

Hungary

Jobbik, generally considered to be anti-Semitic and anti-Roma, is Hungary's third-largest political party. Although it denies it is racist, the party caused outrage in November 2012 when parliamentarian Marton Gyongyosi called for a list of Jews "living here, and especially in parliament and government, who represent a threat to national security". Founded in 2002 as a youth movement, the party, which took 16 per cent of the vote in 2010 and has 44 MPs, also has close ties to the unofficial paramilitary organisation, the Hungarian Guard, known for marching through Roma areas. It was banned in 2009, but has re-formed as a different entity. Jobbik's leadership come from the ranks of Hungary's intellectual elite: Mr Gyongyosi is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and worked as a tax adviser for KPMG.

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