Ibrahim Sall has three euros to his name. The Mauritanian street vendor, selling knock-off handbags on the streets of Athens’ Plaka tourist district, actually laughs as he reaches into his pocket to show me the coins. “Three euros!” he says. “Three euros for food! Ha ha ha!”
Everything else he makes, Ibrahim says, goes to his landlord, the water utility company and, when he can afford it, to his family back home. He sleeps in a house with countless others and pays €250 a month for the privilege.
“I only have two euros,” says Ibrahim’s Senegalese friend, Adama Dallo. “Only two!” Ibrahim says laughing. The whites of his eyes are a jaundiced yellow.
“We work for Greece,” Ibrahim says. “We do not work for ourselves. And Greece hates us.”
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Indeed, I am getting dirty looks myself, just for taking a seat on the curb beside the West Africans, who keep interrupting our conversation to jump up and follow disinterested tourists for a moment before coming back empty-handed. We talk in a mix of their occasionally confused and confusing English and my barely existent phrasebook French — Ibrahim tells me who speaks what in Africa with recourse to a potted history of Western colonialism — but the key points are clear enough.
“I do not like this work,” Ibrahim says. “If I had known what Greece would be like, I would not have come.”
He has been here for 15 months, driving overland from Mauritania to Morocco, flying from Morocco to Istanbul, and then taking a boat from there to Athens. As with so many other migrants, his idea was to use Greece as a springboard into northern Europe, but that was quickly dashed on the rocks of economic reality. With Greeks themselves experiencing declining wages and rising taxes when not outright unemployment, and with tourist numbers declining sharply in response to the anti-austerity riots of the past two years, Ibrahim has struggled to send money home to his family let alone to head north.
His story is hardly unique. For Athens’ migrant population, an estimated 1 million of them illegals, the city has not only proven overcrowded, but has also been revealed as a dead-end: less a springboard to Europe than a plank out over shark-infested waters.
The Greeks are the sharks in this equation. With migrants seen as taking Greek jobs in a time of record-high unemployment, resentment towards them has also reached unprecedented heights, with many locals turning to xenophobic scapegoating and increasingly violent nationalism as to a revivifying balm after a bad burn.
“Greeks hate black people,” Ibrahim says.
This is doubtless an unfair generalisation, but from where the street vendor’s standing, who could blame him for making it? Ibrahim knows nothing of Greece’s neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, except for its work: when I ask him about it by name, he shrugs, but when I ask about anti-immigrant violence he nods readily.
“The police fight us,” he says. “They come through here every night at six o’clock and we …” He claps his hands and points off down the street. “We only look at the police,” he continues, pointing at his eyes with his middle and index fingers and then at the invisible officer ahead of him with the latter. “If we speak to them, they fight us.”
Some 50% of the Athens police force is believed to have voted for Golden Dawn in last month’s first general election. The party won roughly the same amount of the national vote on Sunday — 6.92% down from 6.97%, giving it 18 seats in the parliament — and party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos’ speech that night was more victorious in tone than even that of New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras.
But it would be incorrect to believe that anti-immigrant sentiment is limited only to this party and its supporters. In fact, it is much more widespread, even among ostensibly left-leaning and liberal voters. In Athens, one regularly comes up against that old cliche: “I’m not racist, but …” The problem these voters have with Golden Dawn does not appear to be its central thesis — that immigration is out of control to the detriment of locals — but rather its proposed antithesis: violence. (A week before the election, Golden Dawn candidate Ilias Panagiotaros promised supporters that “we will carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens and we will throw immigrants and their children out in the streets so Greeks can take their place” if the party returned to parliament.)
One Syriza-voting woman I speak to initially rejects Golden Dawn out of hand — “That lot? They’re fascist thugs,” she says — but eventually leans in and whispers conspiratorially: “But they do have a point. Especially about immigration.” Since last year, when Italy and Malta tightened their borders, Greece has become the default gateway to Europe for 90% of the continent’s illegal immigrants. Golden Dawn has responded to this, and to the estimated 130,000 illegals who arrived last year alone, by proposing that the country’s land borders be mined.
The woman tells me about a recent experience that her family had with a Albanian immigrant who was renting an apartment from them. “She arrived in September and paid in advance until February,” she says. “Since February, she’s been refusing to pay, saying she has no money. Then, the other day, she started moving out, saying she would send us the back rent after she started her new job in Mykonos. My friend and I followed her to the next suburb over and watched her unpack her furniture and move it into a new apartment. Mykonos!”
“Golden Dawn are racists,” she says, “but they’re right when they say that we have let the immigrants walk all over us. This woman was a professional. This is what she does. Three months’ rent she owes us. Over a thousand euros we’ll never see.”
“Can’t you go to the police?” I ask. “To the police, but not to the courts,” she says. “The law has been written to help the immigrants.”
Dr George Vasilopoulos, an Australian-Greek doctor turned charity worker I meet on Syntagma Square the day after the election, is similarly critical about the focus of the country’s charity organisations.
“There are many charities that help immigrants,” he says, “but comparatively few that help the Greek middle-class, which has been destroyed by this crisis. There is a sense among people that at a time when Greeks need all the help they can get, immigrants are taking up, not only houses and jobs, but social services and aid resources like medicine and food. Not everyone believes in violence like Golden Dawn, but there is understandable resentment.” In April, Greece established the Amygdaleza detention centre, which can house up to 1000 soon-to-be-deported detainees.
Ibrahim almost talks as though deportation would be a blessing. “If I could leave, I would,” he tells me. “I have told my family not to come.”
“There are stations on the metro where we can’t go without being spat on or beaten,” Adama nods.
At the risk of engaging in chequebook journalism, I ask them if they would like my spare change. They decline and ask if there is an Australian embassy in Athens.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I suppose so.” “Instead of giving us money,” Ibrahim says, “you could take us to the Australian embassy and tell them that we are OK to come to your country. We are good people.”
When I say that I’m not sure that will be possible, he reluctantly takes my change instead. And then, after a moment, he laughs.
“Now I am a rich man!”