Migrant workers sit inside a makeshift camp in Manolada, Greece. (Giota Korbaki / Agence France-Presse…)
ATHENS – After an intense two-day manhunt, Greek police on Friday arrested three strawberry farm foremen suspected of shooting and injuring 28 migrants who were demanding wages they claimed they had not been paid for six months.
The violent incident, which shocked Greeks, embarrassed the government and set off an impromptu boycott of fruit products from an agricultural region 160 miles west of the capital, marked the latest -- and most violent -- attack on foreign workers here.
It also underscored the stark dangers of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric gaining ground as the nation struggles through the sixth year of a recession that has left more than 1 million unemployed and salaries reduced by as much as 40%.
A police statement said the three foremen were arrested near the village of Manolada, where the shooting took place late Wednesday. All face multiple charges of attempted murder for opening fire on a crowd of 200 strawberry pickers, mainly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, after an altercation ensued with the plantation owner over unpaid wages.
“We were told we would be paid at one o’clock,” one foreign worker told local media. “Then they told us we should come by later, at five. And then, finally, they told us to go as another group would work and not us.”
“Then,” the Bangladeshi worker said, “three guys started shooting straight at us.”
The foremen, ages 21 to 39, used two shotguns and a handgun in the attack, injuring 28 migrants. None suffered life-threatening injuries. Still, seven remained hospitalized with chest, groin and limb injuries, authorities said.
A sprawling agricultural plain exporting the bulk of its strawberry production to northern Europe, Manolada has repeatedly been at the center of controversy over reports of labor exploitation. In 2008, thousands of mainly undocumented migrants staged a strike over what they and human rights experts called the “inhumane conditions” that plantation owners forced them to live in, working for meager wages of $29 a day.
Last year, two Greek men were charged with attacking an Egyptian worker, pinning his head in the window of a car and dragging him for miles before dumping him on a dusty road. The case has yet to be tried but police said one of the three foremen arrested Thursday was involved in that incident. They said the 57-year-old owner of the strawberry farm and a local man accused of harboring the suspected shooters had also been arrested.
A gateway to 90% of Europe’s illegal immigration, Greece has been struggling with rising tides of illegal immigration while trying to cope with its worst economic crisis since the World War II. Even as they are targeted by far-right extremists, undocumented migrants face daily threats of arrest and deportation over alleged immigration violations, a practice denounced by human rights groups.
While visiting the site of the shootings and touring the decrepit shacks where Manolada’s strawberry pickers live, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias appeared on television Friday to promise that the immigrants would be spared such treatment.
"None of the victims will either be detained or deported,” he said.
Leftists opposition parties and human rights activists called the promise “empty” and “too late.”
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