ATHENS, Greece — A leading human rights organization is urging Greece's new government to take "urgent action" to curb an "alarming" increase in attacks against Asian and African immigrants, including brutal assaults by gangs on teenage boys and pregnant women.
In a 100-page report issued Tuesday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said xenophobic attacks, including stabbings and serious beatings, in the capital Athens have increased over the past two years, leaving dozens of confirmed victims and possibly many more.
It called on the government to create a national strategy to combat race-related crime, including obligatory training for police officers, and surveillance methods used to fight terrorism.
"It is very shocking to see that scale of violence, of that frequency and that brutality in a European country ... People face certainly the risk of an attack on a daily basis," Judith Sunderland, the lead researcher and author of the report told The Associated Press.
"We spoke with 79 migrants and asylum seekers and out of those 59 had experienced some kind of an attack. And 51 had experienced an attack that caused actual harm. We are convinced this is the tip of the iceberg. Most people don't report the violence ... Undocumented migrants fear they will be arrested and deported," she said.
Greece, suffering a fifth year of recession, is the European Union's busiest transit point for illegal immigration. In Athens, many immigrants live crammed in small apartments in squalid conditions, in central neighborhoods that have seen a sharp rise in crime since the financial crisis began in late 2009.
Afghan immigrant Razia Sharife, a single mother of three, said her basement apartment had been attacked four times in January.
"They wear black clothes and hoods," she was quoted as saying in the report, describing one attack.
"At first they threw bottles and then they broke the glass with stones and threw stones inside and then they started kicking the door."
Human Rights Watch issued the report titled "Hate on the Streets – Xenophobic Violence in Greece" following six months of research in Athens and other Greek cities.
Sunderland said a Somali man who acted as an interpreter for the rights group was himself the victim of a racist attack last month, when he was chased and beaten by five men who broke his hand.
"I can't find another word besides shocking – it really took me aback ... One woman attacked was six months pregnant and holding her infant daughter. Another woman's hand was ripped open after being hit by men on a motorcycle, by a bat with nails in it," she said, noting that several of the victims interviewed were school-age boys.
Racially-motivated attacks, including raids on immigrants' homes and stores as well as streets assaults, have surged in the past two years, and often follow public outcry over a violent crime blamed on immigrants, the report said. Attacks most frequently occurred in or near Athens and the western city of Patras.
"Xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions in Greece," the report said. "The Greek authorities must take urgent action to crack down on this alarming phenomenon."
In recent general elections, the far-right Golden Dawn party – which uses aggressive rhetoric against immigrants, and has been described by political opponents as neo-Nazi – won 18 seats in the 300-member parliament.
Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, during a weekend debate in parliament, described the country's immigration problem as part of a plan by Greece's enemies to it turn into a "wretched protectorate inhabited by sub-humans with no conscience, country or culture."
He called for land-mines to be laid along the country's borders.
Golden Dawn has denied frequent allegations by the victims' of attacks that it has any involvement in the violence.
Sunderland, who is meeting this week with Greece's top prosecutor and senior government law enforcement and justice officials, said Human Rights Watch was concerned that extremist rhetoric was entering mainstream politics.
She called for stronger public condemnation of hate crimes, the use of domestic intelligence services to track violent ultra-right groups, and financial support from the E.U. to help Greece deal with the problem.
"The state should not be allowing gangs of thugs to mete out vigilante violence in its city streets," she said.
"We certainly think all of Europe has to pay attention to what's happening in Greece."