ATHENS — Stuck in a small Athens flat all day to avoid being caught by police, earning another stint in prison and possibly a beating, 29-year-old Cameroonian Eugene Manaa rues the day he came to Greece.
“Life is not just difficult here. It’s impossible,” says Manaa, who recently spent two months in prison on the island of Crete for illegal entry into Greece.
“There’s no work, no money, no housing,” he tells AFP. “There are fifteen of us sharing a flat, we face police checks at every corner, we are subjected to racism and we cannot go to another country.”
Like many of his compatriots, Manaa is among tens of thousands of undocumented migrants caught in a vicious trap.
Lured to the European Union from war-torn homes in search of safety and a better future, they find themselves in Greece at the worst possible moment in the country’s postwar history.
Near-bankruptcy, recession and soaring unemployment have created a hostile environment for migrants and refugees who are seen to be taking jobs from suffering, law-abiding, tax-paying Greeks.
For the past few months, the government has been rounding up migrants who cannot prove residency and placing them in detention centres for repatriation. Over 61,000 people have been inspected since August and over 4,000 have been detained according to police figures.
Ironically, the operation is code-named Xenios Zeus, named after supreme ancient Greek god Zeus, protector of guests.
“You go out to buy bread and you vanish for three months, it happened to me,” says Eric, an Ivorian just released from a detention centre in Corinth.
Worse still, gangs of racist thugs now roam Athens and other main cities by night, looking for foreigners to beat up.
Violent attacks on migrants have escalated after the political success of a neo-Nazi group, Golden Dawn, which in June won over 400,000 votes in national elections and sent 18 lawmakers to parliament.
Though police have been unable to find hard evidence linking Golden Dawn to the attacks, migrant groups say victim testimonies incriminating supporters of the ultra-nationalist group are irrefutable.
A Congolese man who declines to give his name takes out his cellphone to show a picture of a friend, lying on a hospital bed after being stabbed on the street in one such attack.
“Four people attacked him,” says Guy, a fellow Congolese from Kinshasa.
“They chased him down the street like a goat.”
“When I first arrived in Greece in 2011 there was not so much racism. Now it’s very hard,” says Guy, lowering his head.
The response of police authorities to these attacks is at best half-hearted. Rights groups say migrants are often discouraged from lodging complaints, and some officers are themselves suspected of beatings that go unpunished.
Out of a population of 10.9 million, Greece has around 1.5 million immigrants of whom around 600,000 lack residency papers. The largest group is Albanian but most come from Asian and African countries.
“A month ago, the other residents of the building who are Greek held a meeting and told us to leave,” says Eric.
“A few days later at the bakery, a woman spat at me, saying ‘Black man, why are you here, go back to your country’,” adds Eugene.
Many of these men would like nothing more than to leave Greece for other EU countries, where some have relatives and friends.
But hundreds are intercepted at the country’s borders, or by authorities in neighbouring countries and sent back to Greece.
“Some of these men have lost four, five consecutive air tickets after being intercepted at the airport,” says Father Maurice Joyeux, a Jesuit priest who holds mass for them every Sunday.
Unable to make a living, the small group face additional humiliation in having to ask their families and friends in Africa for help.
“I have to ask friends in Africa to send money so I can pay my rent,” says Manaa, reflecting on the bitter irony of his condition.