Greeks confront crime wave amid austerity

By Chloe Hadjimatheou
BBC News, Athens

  • Published
Central Athens street at nightImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Some areas, locals say, are too dangerous to visit at night

Greece's faltering economy has put many people out of work and cut support for illegal immigrants. Now Greeks are facing a rise in crime their police seem unable to stop.

It probably never occurred to Niki Yanakopoulou that she might be in danger as she let herself into her central Athens apartment building in the middle of the day.

The 75-year-old had just been to the bank and police say the man who followed her home most likely chose her at random, hoping she would be carrying her pension.

He entered the building behind her and hit her on the back of the head with a metal pipe before stealing her purse.

Her son found her lying in a pool of blood in the hallway outside her flat but by then it was too late to save her life.

"She was old and very thin; it would have been easy to snatch her bag without using much force, there was no need to kill her," her daughter Zoe says.

Fees for prosecutions

Stories like these are becoming more common in a country which just a few years ago prided itself on having one of the lowest crime rates in the European Union.

According to statistics from Greek police, burglaries increased by almost 50% in the last year, but the official national figures show just 604 domestic break-ins for 2012 - a level that would seem low for even the most law-abiding nation.

Criminologist Stratos Georgoulas, from the University of the Aegean, says it is unlikely these recorded statistics show the full picture.

"There is something we call the 'dark number' which describes unrecorded crime and this figure tends to be far higher than the official statistics."

He says many victims of burglaries may decide not to go to the police because they do not believe the police can help them. They may also avoid reporting the crime because of fears they will have to pay; as a cost-cutting measure the Greek government has recently attached a fee to some types of prosecution.

Many victims, like 37-year-old Athens resident Maria Papadopoulou (not her real name), also believe the figures could be even higher.

"Everyone I speak to has either experienced a burglary or mugging first-hand or else it has happened to their family or friends," she says.

A few months ago the mother of three was held up by two armed men in her garage as she was about to pick up her daughter from school.

"I looked up and there was a gun pointing at me through the side window of the car; a man speaking in a foreign accent ordered me back into the house," she says.

"I gave them everything they asked for - I just wanted them out of my house and away from my children as quickly as possible," she says.

The police eventually caught one of the burglars, who turned out to be Albanian. He now faces trial, but in Greece's snail-paced judicial system that is likely to take at least two years.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Police are unable to plug all of the gaps in Greece's borders

Official statistics show that immigrants are responsible for about half of the criminal activity in the country - but many Greeks blame foreigners for the spike in crime.

The Greek police have admitted that armed gangs entering the country from neighbouring Albania or Bulgaria could have been attracted by reports that many people have been withdrawing cash from banks and stashing it in their homes.

Since 2010 it is estimated that more than 72bn euros (£56bn) has been taken out of the country's banks by a jittery public, who fear that the institutions may become insolvent overnight or that their euros may be turned back into drachmas if Greece is forced to leave the eurozone.

Hungry and desperate

Police spokesman Christos Manouras says there are growing numbers of illegal immigrants in Athens who are suffering because there is no work.

It is estimated there could be more than a million undocumented migrants in Greece, which has become the main gateway into Europe, the Migration Policy Institute think-tank says. Up to 300 people a day enter through the northern border with Turkey, most hoping to continue their journey into Europe.

Instead they end up stuck in a country in the throes of a depression, where the economy is shrinking by 7% annually. With very little support they are increasingly hungry and desperate.

Anti-racism campaigner Panos Damelos says that economic migrants make easy targets in an economic crisis.

"Most crimes are committed by Greeks, not immigrants, but it suits the government to channel the public's anger towards the weakest in society."

He believes that the bad press is responsible for a massive increase in attacks on migrants in recent months.

Image caption,
Gun shop owner George Stamatopoulos says people want to defend themselves

The ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party now has 18 seats in parliament - evidence of significant support for a party openly hostile to illegal immigrants.

Dealing with the new reality has come as a shock to most Greeks, some of whom have begun taking up arms to protect themselves.

When burglars broke into 22-year-old student Vasilis Davaris's family home in the middle of the night and held a knife at his mother's throat, he went after them with a gun.

The burglars robbed the family and managed to get away before continuing on to the next house in the same street; a few moments later Mr Davaris heard his neighbour shouting for help.

"Vasilis took his father's hunting rifle and gave chase and the next thing he knew it had gone off and he had killed one of them in the street," says family lawyer Alexandros Alexandrakis.

Police say the two criminals, who were related, were from Albania and may have been responsible for a number of burglaries in the area.

When he appeared at the local magistrate's court, Mr Davaris was met by a large cheering crowd showing their support.

"There was a lot of sympathy for him," his lawyer explains. "People are tired of these foreign desperadoes who are laying siege to the country."

The case sparked national debate about whether citizens should be taking justice into their own hands.

But George Stamatopoulos, who runs a gun shop in the centre of Athens, says it is already happening.

He says demand for firearms is up by 60%. Despite gun licences being granted only for sport and hunting, he says most enquiries today are for personal defence.

"It is mainly older people who feel the most vulnerable who want to arm themselves," he explains.

"Last week an old lady told me she walks around her flat with a rifle strapped to her back because she is so scared."

Police crackdowns

Mr Stamatopoulos says he has joined a local anti-crime action group.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Many immigrants find little support in cash-strapped Greece

Kipoka, the Movement for Citizens in central Athens, has more than 7,000 members, including many influential residents and wealthy shopkeepers who are campaigning for more policing in the capital's historic centre, much of which has become a no-go area for locals because of break-ins and muggings.

"The austerity cuts mean that there are no police patrolling the streets in the centre between midnight and seven in the morning and so it is basically a free zone for criminals," he explains.

The police say they are doing what they can to protect citizens and they list several recent successes in stopping armed gangs. Earlier this month, they mounted a massive sweep of Athens, detaining some 6,000 people in a controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Whether such moves convince the Greek public the streets are safer, though, remains to be seen.

But Mr Damelos expresses the outrage felt by many anti-racism campaigners at these types of law enforcement sweeps.

"I never believed I would see people being rounded up by police based solely on the colour of their skin," he says.

"It seems to me that fascism is a bigger problem than crime in this country."