SALAMINA, Greece (Reuters) - Egyptian immigrant Waleed Taleb says demanding his unpaid wages in Greece came at a heavy price; 18 hours chained and beaten by his boss, a stint in jail and orders to leave the country he calls home.
One of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who toil in Greece’s black labor market, Taleb had just finished cleaning the bakery where he worked one November morning on the island of Salamina when he sparked his boss’s fury.
What followed would end up symbolizing how migrants have become among the biggest and most defenseless victims of Greece’s economic crisis, facing racist attacks, police apathy and a system that punishes them rather than their assailants.
The baker and two others fastened an 8-metre long metal chain around Taleb’s neck with a lock and dragged him to a stable, he said, where another man joined them. There they tied him to a chair, tightened the noose and punched him while he drifted in and out of consciousness, he said.
The men drank beer - which they also forced into Taleb’s mouth - and taunted him for being a Muslim, he said.
“They dragged me around like a dog,” said Taleb, recounting the attack from a mattress on the floor of his dingy apartment tucked away amid Salamina’s low-roofed houses and tavernas.
“I thought this was the end for me. I kept fainting, and every time I fainted they would hit me with rods to wake me up.”
After 18 hours, Taleb managed to escape when his captors left to reopen the bakery. But his nightmare was not over.
Found at dawn under a tree with the heavy chain still around his neck and his face swollen beyond recognition, Taleb was initially taken to a hospital and given first aid.
But police later whisked him away to detain him on the charge that he lacked documents to live in Greece - though he says he complained he could barely walk and was in pain.
“Everyone could see I was suffering. I couldn’t even see, and I couldn’t eat,” says Taleb, 29. A month later he has a neck brace, an arm bandage and can only eat semi-solid food.
“I thought I would die. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have papers; the problem was that I had been beaten.”
Calling his ordeal one of “striking brutality”, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said his case followed a pattern in which migrants are “immediately arrested with the view to be deported” when they go to police to report an attack.
After an outcry over the case - including condemnation by the Egyptian embassy and a protest by other Egyptians - Greece’s public order minister on Tuesday said Taleb would not be deported due to “humanitarian reasons”. But rights groups said it was not clear how long he would be allowed to stay.
“ALL OUT BUT ME”
Taleb says he spent four days in two detention centers and was given documents telling him to leave Greece in 30 days, while his boss was released after three days pending trial.
The baker, a former deputy mayor in Salamina, admitted to beating Taleb - but not brutally - and accuses him of stealing 13,000 euros that Taleb says is his money, police said. The other men Taleb accused were charged but are free pending trial since police failed to arrest them in the required 24-hour window after the crime.
“There was a phone in prison, and when I called other people, they told me my boss had already been released,” he said. “They hit me, robbed me and then everyone was out of jail except me.”
Indeed, the lack of any convictions in Greece over racist attacks has allowed migrants to be targeted with impunity, said Nikitas Kanakis, head of Doctors of the World in Greece.
“The state should apologize to a man found under a tree in chains. We treated him like a dog - that’s bad enough,” Kanakis said, attacking the move to detain Taleb after his ordeal.
“If we don’t convict any of these people nothing will change. Then everyone feels that they can get away with it.”
Police officials defended their actions by saying Taleb was pulled out of hospital only after they were given the go-ahead by doctors and that Greek law required the detention of illegal immigrants. A Greek police spokesman declined to comment beyond the statement by the minister saying Taleb’s deportation had been suspended.
Taleb and others in the Egyptian community say his injuries were serious enough for him to be sent back to hospital for a week after his four days in detention were over.
Two Greek immigration lawyers said Taleb was lucky to be given 30 days to leave - many others are often given just seven days to get out of Greece. Still others - like Hassan Mekki, a 32-year-old Sudanese migrant who fled conflict in his country in hope of a better life in Europe - suffer silently.
In August, he and a friend were walking in Athens when black-shirted men on motorcycles holding Greek flags came up and knocked him unconscious with a blow to the head, he said.
When he came to, he was covered in blood. Only later would he realize that his attackers, whom he says were likely tied to the far-right Golden Dawn party, had left large gashes resembling an “X” across his back.
“I don’t have the right papers, so I can’t go anywhere to ask for help,” Mekki said. “I can’t sleep. I‘m scared, maybe they will follow me, and my life is in danger now.”
Tapping into resentment towards illegal immigrants, Golden Dawn emerged from obscurity to enter parliament this year pledging to kick all immigrants out. The fast-rising party, which has been linked to racist attacks, denies it is neo-Nazi.
In the latest criticism of Greece’s handling of migrants, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on migrants’ rights condemned Greece for doing little to curb rising racist attacks.
Much of the violence went unreported because victims were afraid of deportation if they went to the police, who were sometimes involved in the attacks, Francois Crepeau said.
A major gateway for Asian and African immigrants trying to enter Europe through its porous borders, Greece has long struggled with illegal immigration. In the last few years, the problem has exploded into a full-blown crisis as Greece sank into a deep recession, leaving one in four jobless and hardening attitudes towards migrants who were blamed for a rise in crime.
Ill equipped at the best of times to deal with the hordes of immigrants crossing its border with Turkey or arriving in plastic boats, Greece now finds itself grappling with a rising number of migrants when it can barely keep itself afloat.
Stepped-up border patrols this year have stemmed the flow only slightly - in the first 10 months of the year, over 70,000 illegal migrants were arrested for crossing into Greece, down from about 82,000 in that period last year.
Many often find shocking conditions at detention centers with food shortages, no hot water or heating and open hostility from Greeks embittered by years of austerity, Crepeau and other rights groups say.
Greek officials say the root of the problem is the so-called Dublin II treaty, which deems asylum seekers to be the responsibility of the country where they entered Europe and thus puts a heavier burden on border states like Greece.
Greek governments have repeatedly asked for the treaty to be repealed, to no avail, and the U.N.’s Crepeau also said Europe needed to do more to help Greece with the flow of migrants.
Still, Greece needs to stop blaming Europe for its failure to properly deal with migrants, said Dimitris Christopoulos, vice president of the Hellenic League for Human Rights. The treaty should be scrapped but Athens could take steps like registering migrants before asking Europe for help in sending them back to their countries or processing them, he said.
“In reality, Greece is doing nothing on this issue, saying ‘I can’t deal with this issue, I raise my hands,'” he said.
Instead, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s conservative-led government - fearful of losing votes to the fast-rising Golden Dawn - has gone on the offensive with police sweeps to arrest migrants and more checks along the Turkish border.
Police said 59,000 migrants have been detained in waves of raids since August, with about 5,000 deported and the rest released or sent to temporary detention centers.
Samaras has also defied opposition from leftist coalition allies and moved to scrap a law that makes it easier for those born to immigrant parents in Greece to become citizens - which critics say is reflective of his New Democracy party’s growing shift to the right.
“New Democracy is trying not to lose this group of very conservative voters,” said Theodore Couloumbis, vice president of the Athens-based ELIAMEP think-tank. “The traditional right-wing party is trying to win back some of these people who think that illegal immigration is a big problem.”
Far away from the corridors of power, the changing attitudes towards migrants are plainly visible in Salamina, where the reaction to Taleb’s ordeal ranges from shock to undisguised glee.
The island’s mayor, Yannis Tsavaris, told Reuters the attack was shocking and questioned whether Taleb should have been detained rather than kept in hospital. Some residents agreed.
“It’s despicable,” said Manos Kailas, 50, who owns a shop at the island’s busy port. “This incident is evidence of the social disintegration in Greece. The debt crisis has hit Greeks badly and they feel that illegal immigration is part of the problem.”
Some others felt little sympathy for a migrant.
“Was he badly beaten up?” said one man as he walked away from the port. “If so, good - he deserved it.”
Additional reporting by Yannis Behrakis, Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Will Waterman