Sunday, May 10, 2009

Clash in Athens at building taken over by Moroccan and Algerian Migrants

This is one of those heartbreaking, but only too real stories about the prejudice and harsh conditions immigrants face in Europe. Here is an article from the Associated Press about the ongoing situation of mostly Moroccan and Algerian immigrants living in an abandoned courthouse in Athens. The BBC also had this short update.

Clashes at Athens building taken over by migrants

By ELENA BECATOROS – 1 day ago

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Far-right protesters tried to storm an old courthouse in central Athens Saturday where hundreds of illegal immigrants have lived for months amid piles of fetid rubbish and human waste without electricity, running water or sanitation.

The group of several dozen people hurled rocks and firecrackers at the eight-story building from the street and nearby buildings, while those living inside threw back slabs of masonry and bricks. At least three people were hurt in the clashes, two of them with head injuries.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades, and a tense standoff followed. Some immigrants accused the police of ailing to protect them and said they would stand guard around the building throughout the night because of fears of further attacks.

The attack followed an anti-immigrant demonstration by the far-right Chrisi Avgi, or Golden Dawn group. Scores of protesters waved banners reading "foreigners means crime" and "we have become foreigners in our own country."

"We didn't do anything. Why do they treat us like this?" questioned Fouad, a 33-year-old Moroccan immigrant living in the building. "The police did nothing. ... Here in Greece, human rights don't exist."

Left-wing and immigrants' rights groups staged a counter-demonstration nearby, and riot police kept the two sides apart.

Greece is on a main smuggling route for immigrants heading to Europe, with tens of thousands entering the country every year. Authorities say the Greece needs help to cope because it stands on Europe's eastern frontier.

Thousands of the new arrivals head to the cities in search of work. But with the global financial crisis beginning to bite in Greece, both immigrants and aid groups say jobs are becoming scarcer, leaving many unable to pay for even basic necessities. Although Greece has not yet faced major layoffs, the economy is slowing and unemployment jumped to 9.4 percent in January.

Aid workers said Saturday that conditions at the courthouse had been allowed to spiral out of control and turn into a public health hazard. The building is owned by an insurance fund and has been vacant since 2000.

"It's a lot worst now," said Maurice, a 22-year-old Algerian living among the estimated 500 squatters, mostly men from Morocco and Algeria, inside the old Appeals Court building. "We live in misery."

He, like all the other squatters willing to speak, would only give his first name for fear of trouble from the authorities.

"It is an epidemiological time bomb in the center of Athens," said Nikitas Kanakis, head of the Greek section of the medical aid group Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), which set up a mobile medical unit outside the building Friday.

The immigrants live amid piles of rubbish and human waste in former judges' offices. Several men share a room, with most using cardboard covered with the occasional blanket to sleep on.

With no sanitation, they use empty offices, the roof and even the corridors as toilets. But the stench emanating from the building is so strong that it wafts across the street, a few hundred yards (meters) away from tourist hotels.

The immigrants began cleaning up the worst of the rotting garbage in the building this week, removing dozens of bags of trash.

It is unclear when the first immigrants broke in, but many say they have been there for months, even a year. Medecins du Monde said the situation came to their attention in the last few days. They believe diseases such as hepatitis are rife, while many of those seeking their help were suffering from skin complaints such as scabies.

"It's clear that we don't have the means to cover the massive health issues that this place has," said Yiannis Mouzalas of Medecins du Monde. He said authorities must help to sanitize and clean the building, and that they had been irresponsible in allowing the situation to become so severe.

"We consider it's not possible for this situation to have been created without (their) knowledge," he said. "We are afraid that they have chosen irresponsibility so that the problem is solved by the police and through racism."

Athens Deputy Mayor Eleftherios Skiadas told media that City Hall has no jurisdiction over abandoned private buildings.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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