ATHENS (Reuters) - Racially motivated attacks have risen to alarming levels in Greece and authorities are doing little to tackle the problem, the U.N. refugee agency said in a report on Tuesday.
Greece is a major gateway for mostly Asian and African migrants trying to enter the European Union and immigrants face growing hostility as the debt-laden country goes through its worst economic downturn in six decades.
The agency said 87 racist attacks were recorded by rights and migrant groups between January and September this year, calling the results "exceptionally alarming". Actual numbers were likely to be far higher since victims were either too scared to report attacks to the police or turned away, it said.
"The victims speak of areas in Athens which have become off limits to them due to the fear of attack", UNHCR said in the report. "It is telling that no perpetrator of a violent racist attack has been sentenced."
Most victims were attacked in public spaces such as squares or on public transport, usually by groups of men dressed in black and at times wearing helmets or with their faces covered.
Some of the more prominent attacks against immigrants reported this year include a young Iraqi stabbed to death in Athens in August and an Albanian stabbed with a sword by a masked motorcycle rider in May.
The attackers often used clubs or crowbars and sometimes large dogs, the report said. Most victims were undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia.
The agency said in some cases victims said their attackers were wearing the insignia of the far-right Golden Dawn party.
Golden Dawn was catapulted out of obscurity this year on a fiercely anti-immigrant agenda, the first time an ultra-nationalist group has entered parliament since the fall of a military junta in 1974.
Its members give Nazi-style salutes and the party's emblem resembles a swastika but the group denies the neo-Nazi label.
"Today we are sounding alarm bells because racist violence and the threat of fascism have spread and threaten democracy," said Costis Papaioannou, head of Greece's National Commission for Human Rights.
The UNHCR said it found 15 incidents where police officers used violence during routine checks and cited the inability or unwillingness by police to investigate the cases and arrest the attackers as the main problem.
The agency said many victims did not report the attacks because they were afraid they would be deported, adding that police were more interested in whether the victim was legally in Greece rather than investigating the attack.
"The public interest to prosecute and respond to acts of criminal violence should take priority over the public interest to control those who remain irregularly in the country," it said.
(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Alison Williams)