ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek police have often detained people based on their physical appearance during a crackdown on illegal immigration and only a fraction of them were found to be in the country unlawfully, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Migrants who are stopped and searched are insulted, sometimes physically abused and often detained for hours until their identity is verified, the group said in a report.
About 130,000 mostly African and Asian migrants try to enter Europe through Greece's porous borders each year but migrants face growing hostility on the streets as the country endures a sixth year of deep recession and record unemployment.
Police have arrested thousands of suspected illegal immigrants since last August when Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government launched "Xenios Zeus", an operation named after the ancient Greek god of guests and travelers.
"Operation Xenios Zeus is anything but hospitable to migrants and asylum seekers who are regularly stopped, searched, and detained just because of the way they look," said Eva Cosse, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch.
Cosse said police should base their operations "on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes" and said the lack of training in immigration and asylum issues left room for abuse.
As many as 85,000 foreigners were taken to police stations to verify their immigration status in the first seven months of the operation but no more than 6 percent were found to be in Greece illegally, the group's report said.
Police had no immediate comment on the report.
Many of those searched said they believed they were stopped because of the way they looked, the report said, citing interviews with 44 people who had been stopped at least once since the launch of the sweep.
Thirty-five of those had a right to be in Greece because they were asylum seekers, legal foreign residents, or Greeks of foreign origin.
The report said a 19-year-old Guinean asylum seeker who gave his name as Tupac told Human Rights Watch he and other black and Asian passengers were forced off a bus in Athens in February.
"Police officers came to the door and said 'All blacks out, all blacks out'," he was quoted by the report as saying.
The United Nations says racially motivated attacks have risen to alarming levels in Greece, sometimes by attackers wearing the insignia of the far-right Golden Dawn party, and that authorities are doing little to tackle the problem.
Golden Dawn was catapulted from obscurity on a fiercely anti-immigrant agenda to win 18 seats in parliament in elections last June.
In November, the U.S. embassy in Greece warned of a rise in attacks against people who are considered foreigners "because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants".
(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Alison Williams)