Greek police arrested more than 1,000 immigrants and detained thousands more in a massive weekend sweep that comes as the strapped nation has increasingly soured on hosting foreigners.
The vast roundup in Athens was jarringly named Xenios Zeus -- after the Greek god known as the patron of hospitality. Police stopped and detained 6,000 immigrants, out of whom 1,600 were arrested for illegally entering Greece and sent to holding centers, according to the Associated Press. Greek media reported that similar sweeps are in the works for other cities.
Leftist political parties slammed the crackdown as an assault on human rights that had fostered fear and racism, while the extreme right Golden Dawn party accused the government of not actually sending anyone back to a home country, merely holding a “badly organized PR stunt,” Athens News reported.
Public Order and Citizens' Protection Minister Nikos Dendias defended the roundups as necessary to keep Greece from unraveling, arguing that the country faced the biggest “invasion” since the influx of the ancient Dorians thousands of years ago. Dendias had earlier claimed that "unbelievably high" numbers of immigrants were involved in crime, according to Greek news reports.
As for naming a roundup after the god of hospitality, Dendias reportedly told Greek media that the name was fitting because immigrants were living in miserable conditions, crammed into decrepit apartments after being conned by smugglers into thinking that they would be able to get jobs.
“Now they will return to their home countries. ... It's the best thing that could happen to them,” Dendias was quoted by the Kathimerini newspaper.
Anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise in Greece as it aches with economic woes and soaring unemployment. Gangs dressed in black have beaten immigrants, shouting at them to leave. A surge in xenophobic attacks has left immigrants afraid to walk the streets, Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.
The extremist Golden Dawn party captured a surprising 7% of the vote this year, alarming critics with its thuggish tactics and neo-Nazi-tinged symbolism. Last week, it gave out free food to Greek citizens only, checking IDs beforehand; it had earlier tried to get blood donations solely for Greeks. Some of its backers have been linked to the recent wave of brutal attacks on foreigners.
Golden Dawn has denied accusations that it is fueling racism. “The only racism in Greece is the racism against the Greeks," Golden Dawn argued on its website after an Olympic athlete lost her spot on the Greek team after tweeting what she later called a “tasteless” joke about Africans.
The country has repeatedly been found to have mistreated detained immigrants, the United Nations refugee agency said in May, keeping them in shoddy conditions and failing to respect their rights. Greece, in turn, complains that it bears too much of the burden of European immigration, pushing other countries to do more to tackle the flow of irregular immigrants.
Greece is now working with the International Organization for Migration to help immigrants leave voluntarily, providing some returnees with reintegration packages.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Police detain a group of migrants in central Athens on Sunday. Greek police say officers have begun an operation to arrest and deport illegal migrants from the capital and along the country’s northeastern border. Credit: Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated Press.