Hard Times Come to Omonia Square

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Foto reportage by Francesco Anselmi/Contraso/Reduz Pictures:


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Once-Lively Square Is a Center of Greek Woe

ATHENS—Once the vibrant commercial heart of Athens, the capital’s central Omonia Square now is ringed by shuttered hotels and vacant shops and haunted by drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes, making it a national symbol of despair and social collapse.

The square, whose name means harmony in Greek, and the neighborhoods that stretch out around it have been ravaged by the country’s deep economic downturn, a flood of illegal immigrants and austerity measures that have severely undercut the government’s ability to cope. The depth of the urban disintegration there shows the complexity of the problems Greece faces as the country heads into a sixth year of economic contraction, and it is a warning to other crisis-hit European countries about how swift the fall can be when a tipping point is reached.

“It used to be our Times Square. Now, it’s like Baghdad,” said Yiannis Politis, who owns a small hotel, the Achillion, near Omonia. “In the last three years, all the problems have come together.”

With police struggling to control the chaos, street battles have erupted between groups of ultranationalists—who carry out attacks against immigrants and wreck their shops and market stalls in the neighborhoods around the square—and anarchists who say they are fighting fascism and want to protect foreigners. 

In the case of Omonia Square and surrounding areas, a massive inflow of illegal migrants desperate to get into the European Union has collided with a lack of jobs in Greece’s moribund economy and diminished public and charitable resources to help them.

Some locals as well as migrants have turned to illicit means to earn a living, helping to drive the drug trade, authorities said. The supply of illegal drugs around Omonia is so plentiful that a dose of heroin or methamphetamine can be bought for less than $7. Dealers conceal drugs in small packets in their mouths and in their shoes.

For Athenians and other Greeks, the demise of Omonia, whose department stores, coffee shops and hotels were emblems of the country’s economic progress since the 1960s, has exacted a psychic toll. The square was a traditional meeting place for people coming to Athens from other parts of Greece.

“This was the center of the Greek dream,” said Eleftherios Skiadas, a writer and historian who is president of the Association of Athenians, a group that works on historic preservation. “But everything we’ve built over the years has crumbled in a very short time.”

Police in body armor patrol on motorcycles, while groups of officers on foot, many fresh from the police academy, regularly stop and search immigrants, many from South Asia and Africa.

“It’s dangerous. We’re afraid of diseases,” said a 19-year-old patrolman from northern Greece, who has been on the beat in Athens for about four months. “I was shocked. I’ve never seen conditions like this before. The drug use is awful.” He added: “There are so many illegal immigrants we don’t have time for anything else. It takes all our manpower just to round them up.”

Since August, police said, they have stopped and checked more than 65,000 migrants, and arrested about 4,000 for not having proper papers. More than 6,000 people have been returned to their countries of origin.

Migrants said the police can be predators. A 24-year-old Bangladeshi man who gave his name as Tanjim said police often kick in the door to the small room he shares with seven migrants and take any cash they can find. Sometimes they also steal cellphones, he said. 

Tanjim, who said he entered Greece illegally but now has temporary papers, said police officers have twice confiscated the shopping carts he uses for “scrapping”—collecting paper, glass and metal from garbage bins and selling it to recyclers. 

“The other day, the police poured milk on my head,” said Tanjim, who said he used to work in a hotel in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. “There are no jobs, problems with the police. If I knew the real situation, I never would have come.”

The police said they don’t tolerate abuses and thoroughly investigate allegations of official misconduct. “Our principal concern is to respect human rights and civil rights” of people in Greece, “regardless of color,” said police spokesman Lt. Col. Christos D. Manouras.

“We don’t have a magic wand to wave and make everything right, everywhere and all the time,” said Col. Manouras. But, he said, “progress is being made on illegal immigration. The inflow is slowing.”

One recent night, Konstantina Karanika and Maria Dimitropoulou, outreach workers for the Organization Against Drugs, handed out clean needles and condoms to addicts from Greece, South Asia, the Middle East and Georgia and to a group of Bulgarian prostitutes outside the Hotel Aktion.

In a squalid alley, junkies complained that the needles on the syringes they were being given weren’t long enough. They wanted to inject drugs into the femoral veins in their groins, a relatively common practice among long-term users.

“If we call an ambulance, would you go with us?” Ms. Karanika asked Mohamed Aziz, who said he was a heroin addict and had been injured in a traffic accident. Lying under a pile of blankets on wooden shipping pallets, Mr. Aziz declined, but accepted a bundle of syringes, some of which he said he resells.

The drug-abuse counselors try to see to the medical needs of addicts living on the streets. But most want to avoid contact with authorities. One Romanian woman, who Ms. Karanika knew as Amalia, died this autumn in an empty lot near Omonia, apparently of a blood infection.

“Where there isn’t a stable social structure, these things happen. It’s all related to the crisis,” said Tasos Panopoulos, another Organization Against Drugs official. “This is what we live with every day now in the city center.”

Write to Gordon Fairclough 

A version of this article appeared January 9, 2013, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Once-Lively Square Is a Center of Greek Ills.