By Deepa Babington
ATHENS (Reuters) - Gangs of Greeks are regularly attacking immigrants with impunity across the country and authorities are ignoring or discouraging victims from filing complaints, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a report on Tuesday.
Greece is a major gateway into the European Union for undocumented migrants from Asia and Africa, and illegal immigration has become a hot-button issue as the country struggles through its worst economic crisis since World War Two.
A fifth straight year of recession and unemployment at a record high has helped fuel anti-immigrant sentiment, with migrants blamed for rising crime levels and accused of eating into a shrinking pot of subsidized services from the state.
"Migrants and asylum seekers spoke to Human Rights Watch of virtual no-go areas in Athens after dark because of fear of attacks by often black-clad groups of Greeks intent on violence," the report said.
"While tourists are welcome, migrants and asylum seekers face a hostile environment, where they may be subject to detention in inhuman and degrading conditions, risk destitution and xenophobic violence."
Human Rights Watch said the true extent of xenophobic violence in Greece was not clear given many victims do not report the crime and since government statistics are unreliable.
The group said it interviewed 59 people who suffered or escaped a racist incident between August 2009 and May this year. That included 51 serious attacks and two of the victims were pregnant women.
Most of the attacks take place at night in or near town squares and are committed by groups of attackers in dark clothing, their faces obscured with cloth or helmets, Human Rights Watch said. The perpetrators have been known to wield clubs or beer bottles or just their bare fists, it said.
The victims consistently told the group that police discouraged them from filing complaints and that some were even warned they would be detained if they insisted on an investigation.
Many victims gave up after being told an investigation would be pointless if they could not identify the attackers or being told either to accept an apology or fight back, the group said.
Human Rights Watch also said there was evidence to suggest the perpetrators were members or associated with local vigilante groups and Golden Dawn, an extreme-right party elected to parliament this year - the first such development since the fall of a military junta in 1974.
The group said it had found no evidence that violent attacks are directed by the party, which denies it is neo-Nazi, but that Golden Dawn members have been implicated in specific attacks.
It quoted residents and a police officer saying party members were involved in beatings of migrants, and noted allegations of collusion between police and Golden Dawn members.
Golden Dawn, which campaigned on a pledge to rid Greece of all immigrants, denies carrying out attacks.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)