Migrant workers in Greece fight back after racist shootings

Three farm supervisors opened fire on a crowd of 200 migrant workers, shooting 33, eight of them seriously, on a farm near the southern Greek village of Manolada in late April. This callous act brought home the growing racism against immigrants in Greece as the economic crisis deepens.

Thousands of migrant workers live in squalid conditions in the agricultural districts where they are treated like dirt and work for next to nothing.

The Manolada workers, mostly from Bangladesh, work as strawberry pickers. They had gathered on pay day to demand seven months of unpaid wages.

The workers are paid a mere $4 an hour and live on the farm in sheds covered in plastic without access to clean water and sanitation, for which they are charged $25 a month.

Greece’s trade union movement describes the agricultural district as “a sort of state within a state”. Amnesty International says the working and living conditions there are “unacceptable in 21st-century Europe”.

Racist politics

All of Greece’s mainstream parties have condemned the shooting but this is sheer hypocrisy as it is their own policies that have pushed these workers into underclass status. Claiming asylum in Greece has been made almost impossible. Many people give up and try to exist without documents, forcing them into the informal economy.

Greece’s mainstream politicians have created a climate of xenophobia and racism that has encouraged farm owners, supervisors, police and others to think they can act with impunity.

As Greece’s economy has gone into meltdown immigrants have been used as a scapegoat for plummeting wages and skyrocketing unemployment. Youth unemployment rose above 60 per cent in February, and sits at 27 per cent for the population as a whole.

“The immigration problem is perhaps even bigger than the financial one”, claimed the hard line public order minister Nikos Dendias as he ordered a police crackdown on undocumented workers last August.

More than 60,000 people—some of them non-white tourists—have been stopped and questioned. Over 4000, including children, have been thrown in detention centres that Amnesty International describes as “shameful [and] appalling”. A razor wire fence has been constructed along the Turkish border to deal with a so called “invasion of immigrants”, while obtaining Greek citizenship has been made more difficult.

Fascist threat

Even more vicious in whipping up racism has been the fascist Golden Dawn party. They’ve come from the very margins of Greek politics to win 6.9 per cent of the vote and 18 seats at last year’s election. Their call for all “immigrant scum” to be expelled from the country has been legitimised by the government’s actions.

The massive police crackdown on migrants, too, has encouraged Golden Dawn and other vigilantes and racist attacks are on the increase. Two Greek men were arrested in the Manolada area last year for severely beating up a 30-year-old Egyptian and dragging him behind a vehicle for close to a kilometre.

One study recorded 87 attacks on migrants between January and September 2012, 83 in public spaces. But many attacks go unreported as immigrants fear being arrested or even abused by the police. Close to 50 per cent of police voted for Golden Dawn.

But immigrant workers are fighting back. Following the Manolada shooting anti-racist group the Movement Against Racism and Fascist Threat (KEERFA), supported by labour unions in the district, organised a march of over 2000 immigrant workers. They marched from Manolada to the police station of Varda, six kilometres away, where they handed in a mass application for the right to live in Greece legally.

The right to live legally in Greece has been a key demand of those building solidarity with the immigrants. A banner reading “Legalize immigrants and organise in trade unions” lead the march. Many farm workers joined the march on the way and many signed up to the Union of Migrant Workers.

This march was part of a general campaign against racism and fascism across Greece. In late March KEERFA organised a series of mass rallies after laws that gave citizenship rights to the children of migrants were declared unconstitutional in a court challenge. KEERFA described the decision as “reactionary, racist and heartless”.

Golden Dawn, too, have not gone unchallenged. Every time they open a “Greek only” soup kitchen or a local office there is a counter demonstration.

There is strong tradition of opposition to fascism in Greece dating back to the resistance to Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Countering these efforts to stoke racism and division are a key part of ensuring the resistance to unemployment and austerity can continue to build.

By Mark Gillespie

Magazine

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