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Full text of the press statement delivered by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance M. Mutuma Ruteere on 8 May 2015 in Athens, Greece

8 May 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I undertook a visit to Greece from 4 to 8 May 2015, which is the first visit of a United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance to Greece. During my visit, I held meetings in Athens and the Attica region where I met with representatives from the Greek Government, at the national and regional, levels, the legislative, judicial branches, security forces, the Ombudsman, the National Human Rights Commission, United Nations entities and international organizations, and non-governmental organizations as well as community members and other groups and individuals working in the field of racism. I had the honour to meet with the Ministers of Health, Interior and Administrative Reconstruction; Justice, Transparency and Human Rights as well as the Alternate Minister for Migration. I would like to thank the Government of Greece for the invitation and for the insightful and rich discussions. I am also grateful to the different State agencies for their cooperation. Finally I am indebted to my interlocutors from civil society and international organizations who have been very helpful to my visit. 

I welcome the efforts and initiatives that the Greek Government has taken to address the issue of racist violence, such as amendments to the Penal Code, prosecution of extremist and violent parties and their leaders and the clear and unequivocal commitment stated by the current Government to combat racist violence, xenophobia and discrimination. It is important that the country builds on this progress in confronting the continuing challenges and emerging problems in the context of the economic crisis the country is faced with.

Besides the legal framework against racism, xenophobia and discrimination there are also strong and credible institutions in the fight against racism including the Ombudsman and the National Commission for Human Rights.

I particularly welcome the creation of the Public Prosecutors for Racism Issues operating in Athens and Thessaloniki and call for their expansion throughout the country.

I am also pleased to notice that special units of the Police have been set up to assist victims of racist violence and other xenophobic crimes. Other announced reforms to effectively address allegations of police violence and to bring police officers accountable for their actions are particularly appreciated.

I have been made aware that the newly elected Government of Greece has stopped the practice of sweep operations intended to arrest irregular migrants and has also terminated the previous policy of mass detention of irregular migrants. In this regard, the appointment of a Minister for Migration, whom I had the pleasure to meet with, and who is committed to address the challenges of mass migration at this Southern gateway to Europe in a humane manner, is most welcome. The continuous and committed hospitality of the Greek population must be underscored, and I have been informed that on the islands, citizens go out of their way to try to save migrants from drowning and provide them with basic necessities, although they themselves have been severely affected by the continued economic crisis.

Nevertheless, the economic crisis has resulted in further discrimination of the most vulnerable groups, such as migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, Romas, and LGBT communities, which has been further exacerbated by racist and xenophobic discourse originating from one political party represented in Parliament. In this regard, it is with concern that I have been informed of the continuing promotion of openly racist discourse and incitement to violence by leaders of the Golden Dawn, which makes no effort to hide its violent and un-democratic agenda. This movement and similar groups represent not only a threat to Greek values of human rights but are clearly a danger to democratic values, in a country which was the birth place of democracy more than two millennia ago.

I welcome the current trial on criminal charges of 70 members of the Golden Dawn party and call upon the Greek Government to continue its efforts in the prosecution of any political leader who promotes racism, xenophobia and any kind of discrimination and also for financial and other sanctions directed to any organized structures or movements which feed such hate and abuse against the most vulnerable persons of the society.

More initiatives need to be undertaken to address the continuous phenomenon of verbal abuse and hate speech directed against members of these vulnerable groups and also to hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions. In this regard the role of education is fundamental. Political and religious leaders also have an important role to play, as well as the media in challenging stereotypes and prejudice and I call upon all of them to take seriously their leadership positions and responsibilities to promote a more open and inclusive society.

On a similar note, victims of racist and xenophobic violence need to be better protected, as has been done in the case of victims of human trafficking. I therefore recommend that the Government extend protection measures such as residence permits to allow such victims to lodge complaints and to testify at trials of alleged perpetrators.

While I welcome the efforts being undertaken to investigate acts of police violence through an internal oversight mechanism, such investigations should be subjected to review and even further investigation by an authority independent of the police forces in order to ensure transparency and credibility.

I have witnessed first-hand the distress of irregular migrants who are placed in detention facilities. While I welcome the recent progress made in improving the general conditions and in releasing many of them, I also note with concern that in some situations individuals subjected to immigration removals who have committed criminal offences are also detained in these facilities together with individuals who are held for administrative migration offences.

A concerted solution needs to be reached among the European countries to address the complex challenge of mass migration through the southern borders and seas of Europe.

Countries already severely affected by the economic crisis cannot on their own deal with this challenge and the partnership of their more prosperous partners is urgently needed.

Finally, the Romas of Greece, while being for the vast majority Greek citizens, continue to face discrimination and remain economically and socially vulnerable. I had the opportunity to visit the Spata settlement outside of Athens and followed-up on a number of issues raised by other UN special procedures mandate-holders and European mechanisms. I am concerned about their housing conditions, access to health care and other social services that have remained unchanged even after various recommendations from these international processes. It is inacceptable that their children are unable to attend schools and unable to complete basic primary education as they have been living in the same settlement for more than 15 years. The fact that this settlement does not have electricity has implications for both the education of the children as well as their health.

While I have been made aware of plans to come up with a comprehensive strategy for Roma integration, I call upon the Government to take into account and urgently implement the numerous recommendations of my predecessors from the UN and European mechanisms.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The struggle against racism, xenophobia and discrimination cannot be effective unless it is led by the most senior political leadership. To this end, I welcome the clear commitment expressed by the various government leaders that I met in confronting this challenge.

While the economic crisis has put immense pressure on the Government and severely affected the Greek society, the economic crisis should not become the reason for rolling back progress in the fight against racism and xenophobia. Combating hate and prejudice is not just about financial resources, and in times of economic crisis, blaming the most vulnerable members of society only contributes to reinforcement of a climate of hostility and violence to such groups and individuals.

I will present a more comprehensive report on this visit to the Human Rights Council next year.

I thank you for your kind attention and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have.