Wednesday, April 4, 2012

operation clean sweep

For years, thousands of undocumented immigrants have been living in squalid conditions in central Athens. Unremarkable, ordinary neighborhoods gradually became the new ghettos of Athens. Drugs, crime, prostitution.  Last month I found myself on the fringe of one of these neighborhoods. When I first came to Athens in the early 90’s, I used to stroll carelessly in this very area - shopping, having lunch with friends.  Now, I stood at the bus stop and surveyed the scene: many empty and abandoned storefronts, desperate-looking people were everywhere, dozens of drug addicts wandered around like zombies  - some with open wounds on their arms; immigrants lined the sidewalks openly selling contraband cigarettes… I wondered why the police were gathered around in small groups, standing near each bus stop… were they guarding the people who were waiting for the bus because we were a bunch of sitting ducks? Or were they ‘guarding’ the bus stops because it was easier than patrolling sidewalks where with every step you saw people breaking the law? How can a small group of cops deal with such overwhelming unlawfulness? 

Today I was in this area again (another errand at yet another tax office) but this time, all the drug addicts were gone and mainly, all the immigrants were gone too. What happened? Well, this is Athens one month before national elections.  This week the government began “operation clean sweep” (επιχείρηση σκούπα) in central Athens. Their mission is to “clean house” – basically to round up illegal immigrants and ‘undesirables.’ Reminds me of what I did tonight when I had unexpected guests call to say they are coming over in 15 minutes:  I frantically ran all around the apartment, rushing from one room to the next, shutting away the clutter in drawers and closets, throwing my shoes behind the couch, hiding my half-eaten sandwich in the bread box, sweeping the dust under the rug.  Then my guests arrived and I served coffee in my ‘clean’ living room, feeling proud of myself because I pulled it off. However after they left, the feeling of dread quickly came back as I realized that in actuality, my house was a total mess and it would take hours to really clean it up….

Today I was also around Syndagma Square in downtown Athens, and on Ermou St (one of Athens’ main shopping streets). Usually these areas are filled with immigrant street sellers, hawking fake designer bags to costume jewelry. Today however, they were nowhere in sight. A few days ago, in my neighborhood (a suburb of Athens) I saw police patrolling the square for the first time(I’ve been in the neighborhood for over 10 years). Police in blue uniforms, army boots, guns on their belts, striding around the square as Nigerians fled down side streets, out of sight (ordinarily the Nigerians are at their usual posts in the square, selling pirated CDs and DVDs).

I wonder where all the immigrants who have been rounded up this week have been sent…. PASOK’s Citizens’ Protection Minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, has announced that 30 ‘reception centers’ around the country will house immigrants either awaiting asylum approval or deportation. But these centers are not in operation yet. So where have all the immigrants gone? Into already over-crowded jails? What giant rug have they been swept under? A temporary solution to a very deep-rooted, serious problem.

1 comment:

Sue Flawkey said...

What about us Americans who look like immigrants.

I was stopped for no reason and although the Greek police were polite and professional as they always are in Greece compared to our intensely rude US police officers, I still didn't like being racially profiled just because I look like an immigrant. Luckily my US ID/passport gets better treatment than the immigrants with no ID.

But, although I didn't ask the police this, I was tempted to ask them if they would have stopped me if I had looked Greek but was actually an illegal immigrant. Oh well, I suppose if a few innocent people have to be hassled to catch a few crooks so be it, but I still didn't like it.