New Athens stadium ‘will put Gypsies on the street’

The Greek capital is getting a badly needed new park and stadium for its main soccer team, but human rights groups yesterday expressed concern that Gypsy families living there may be forced from their homes. Under the deal, signed late Tuesday, a large industrial site in central Athens will be cleared to make way for a 35,000-seat stadium for Panathinaikos soccer club in the impoverished Votanikos district. The three-year development will also include a 6,000-seat indoor basketball stadium and a 12-hectare (30-acre) park – in an agreement hailed by Panathinaikos and the Athens city government as one of the capital’s most ambitious rejuvenation projects. «This is the biggest urban investment in Athens for years,» Mayor Dora Bakoyannis said. «Votanikos is one of the most underdeveloped areas in Athens, and (with) this investment it will receive a new business, cultural, and reaction area… It will help decongest the center of the capital.» Several Greek and European human rights agencies, however, are worried that the plans so far have made no provisions to relocate hundreds of Gypsies, also known as Roma, who live in shacks and makeshift homes at the site. «We haven’t done anything wrong. We haven’t committed any crimes,» said a 22-year-old Votanikos resident, who gave his name only as Gent. «They call us ‘dirty Gypsies’ and tell us to leave without telling us where to go.» The city government issued a statement, saying the municipality is «working to ensure the rights of all citizens are safeguarded,» but gave no other details. Gypsies in Votanikos live without electricity, running water or a sewage system. Families of at least five crowd into abandoned trailers, old factories or makeshift sheds built among scrap metal and garbage. Nine rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International, wrote a July 29 letter to Bakoyannis before the deal was finalized, warning against the forced eviction of an estimated 70 Albanian Gypsy families in the area. Rights activists warned that evictions would be a repeat of tactics used before last year’s Olympics, when appeals to local government were ignored and scores of Gypsies were moved for stadium development. More than 120,000 Gypsies are thought to be living in Greece, almost half of them in settlements outside cities, some with poor sanitation and no electricity or running water.