By Maria Alafouzos
Are Greeks racist? The question was debated on Wednesday night at a panel organized by the Intelligence Squared forum at the Onassis Cultural Center. The unequivocal answer: 70 percent of participants in a poll conducted as part of the event said that Greece is a racist country.
At a time when the government’s controversial “Xenios Zeus” operation (a crackdown on illegal immigrants) has sparked allegations of human rights violations by international organizations and criticism from foreign media, the debate tried to analyze burgeoning xenophobia in the debt-wracked nation.
Greece has become an increasingly dangerous place for immigrants. A spate of brutal attacks against dark-skinned migrants in recent months was recently highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report, “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece.” The report, released in July, accuses police officers of turning a blind eye to racist assaults and discouraging victims from filing reports.
As the ultranationalist party Golden Dawn maintains third place in the polls behind New Democracy and radical left SYRIZA, it is clear that what started as a small and very potent movement has gained plenty of supporters. One of the mainstays of their campaign is the expulsion of immigrants from Greece.
Four speakers participated in the debate, which was moderated by Nikos Andritsos, a journalist at Skai television.
As Kostis Papaioannou, former chairman of the Hellenic League for Human Rights, spoke first in favor of the view that Greeks are racist, more than 3,000 people tuned into the debate online and 350 audience members watched it live.
Papaioannou, who is also a member of an association that records incidents of racist violence in Greece, attributes the rise of xenophobia to a combination of government policy and mounting social problems.
“Whether or not a foreigner is accepted by society depends on his or her social and economic status,” Papaioannou argued. “No one would object if Arab sheiks spend their holidays in Greece, but in the case of a poor Pakistani, things change.”
Grigoris Vallianatos, an outspoken lawyer, journalist, gay activist and president of the Liberal Alliance party, sided with Papaioannou and further suggested that racism is a matter of mentality, which is shaped by history, culture and education.
“Greeks are racist because no one taught them not to be,” Vallianatos argued.
He also spoke out against failed immigration and assimilation policies of successive governments, arguing that the absence of a comprehensive approach to the issue has helped foster skepticism.
“The state still has no immigration policy; it gathers the people in [migrant reception] centers, not knowing what it will do with them afterwards. Yes, there is a problem with immigration, but it must be solved with the cooperation of their communities, the embassies of their countries, by giving refugee status to those who fall into this category and through the use of funds from the International Organization for Migration,» he said.
On the other side of the debate, Nikos Bistis, a former PASOK minister and currently a member of Democratic Left, was more optimistic. He suggested solutions for Greeks and migrants living together exist and that “we will not become murderers.”
Bistis also warned that “the transition from one stereotype claiming that Greeks are racist to the other stating that they all are racist is equally over-simplifying and dangerous.”
Vassiliki Georgiadou, a respected associate professor of political science at Panteion University, argued against the notion, saying that subscribing to racist stereotypes does not necessarily imply racism.
“Racism begins from a very innocent place, when we love one thing and consequently block another out,” Georgiadou said.
Intelligence Squared held two separate polls asking the question “Are Greeks racist?” before and after the debate. The findings between the two varied by just one or two percentage points, with the final tally being that 70 percent agreed that Greeks are racist, 10 percent disagreed and 20 percent were neutral.
Most notably, audiences following the debate online commented on the absence of anyone who has been or is a potential target of racially motivated violence on the panel.