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Hate crimes increase, extreme right strengthens as Greece economy sinks

With the Greek unemployment rate at 25 percent, anti-foreigner sentiment is growing. NBC News' Andy Eckardt meets politician Ilias Panagiotaros of the far-right Golden Dawn party and Ali Rahimi, an Afghan national who was attacked by a mob and told to leave Greece.

ATHENS, Greece -- Ali Rahimi was enjoying a warm Greek evening, chatting away with two friends, when a mob of 15 people approached and asked where they were from.

"I told them that I am from Afghanistan and they said that it is time for me to go back to my country," the 28-year-old asylum-seeker told NBC News.

Rahimi attempted to run away but was cornered, beaten, hit over the head with a bottle and stabbed in the chest and back by three assailants in the entryway of his Athens apartment building. 

"When police arrived they called an ambulance, but then told me that they could not help me any further and left," Rahimi recalled, explaining how he only realized how serious his injuries were after spotting blood running out from under his T-shirt during the brutal attack on Sept. 17, 2011.

Rahimi's case does not appear to be unique. As the euro zone debt crisis leaves Greece grappling with a 25 percent overall unemployment rate, activists say they have noted an increase in the number of hate crimes reported.

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Far-right populism has also found fertile ground in the near-bankrupt country, where the economy is forecast to contract by 7 percent this year and every second youth is out of work.

Nazi-style salutes
The Golden Dawn party – no more than an extremist fringe group when it was established in the late 1980s and which has been branded "neo-Nazi" by its opponents – has been gaining support amid the country's deteriorating economic situation.

Citing a poll by VPRC which appeared in the "Ellada Avrio" newspaper on Friday, Reuters reported:

Backing for the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn, which has been linked to a rise in attacks against migrants in recent months, stood at 14 percent, double their take in June elections that gave the party a foothold in parliament. That would make the group the country's third largest party.

The party's rabidly anti-immigrant message has stuck a chord with many voters as EU/IMF imposed austerity propels unemployment levels to a record 25 percent.

Golden Dawn denies it is neo-Nazi but bears a Swastika-like emblem and its supporters have been seen giving Nazi-style salutes. The party's leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, has denied the Holocaust occurred while one lawmaker, Eleni Zaroulia, called immigrants "sub-humans" in parliament on Thursday.

Reuters added that the opinion poll showed that "Greeks' frustration with their political leaders has grown as the coalition prepares to push through the new round of austerity measures to appease [foreign] lenders and secure more bailout aid and keep the country afloat."

Alkis Konstantinidis / EPA, file

Migrants are held during a police ID-check operation in Athens, Greece, on August 6.

Over the past decade, Greece has become the major gateway into the European Union for illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers from Asia and Africa.

'Growing despair'
Experts estimate that between 800,000 and 1 million undocumented migrants now live in Greece, a country with a population of nearly 11 million.

"The rapid increase of illegal immigration in the past years, growing despair over the ailing economy and a loss of trust in our political leadership have fueled public anger and given way to dangerous populism in the country," says Loukas Tsoukalis, head of Greek think-tank Eliamep.

Riot police use tear gas and stun grenades in response to fire bombs and bottles thrown by protesters during a demonstration against austerity cuts in Greece. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Campaigning on a message of ultra-nationalism and fierce anti-immigrant policies, Golden Dawn won 18 seats in parliament during June's national election.

"We have to protect 10 million Greeks that are suffering from the very bad economy and from the killings, rapes, shootings and everything else that all illegal immigrants are doing to this country," Ilias Panagotiaros, a Golden Dawn politician and a member of Greek parliament, told NBC News.

Andy Eckardt / NBC News

Ilias Panagiotaros of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn Party.

A poll last month found that the popularity of Nikos Mihalolioakos, head of the Golden Dawn party, has climbed to 22 percent, up 8 points from May.

However, it is not just a harsh political message that has been drawing support for Golden Dawn.

In an attempt to build an image of social responsibility, followers of the movement have taken up the roles of what some Greeks call "a crumbling public support system."

'For Greeks only'
Last month, members of Golden Dawn set up booths in a central Athens square to distribute groceries and collect blood donations. "For Greeks only" was the message, after visitors were asked to provide identification of Greek citizenship.

"Golden Dawn has been taking advantage of the growing despair, presents itself as a protector of the weak and vulnerable," analyst Tsoukalis says. "In dangerous neighborhoods they have offered to escort old ladies to the grocery store around the corner."

Rising political and socio-economic discontent, nurtured by a surge of crime rates in major Greek cities, have also led to widespread public acceptance that followers of Golden Dawn sometimes substitute for police and other government officials.

While Greece gears up for more protests against austerity cuts, the health care system is in tatters with little cash for drugs or doctors. ITV's James Mates reports.

A video shot in early September shows members of Golden Dawn checking work permits at a local market in Rafina, where migrant vendors sell their goods. Minutes later, several people with black Golden Dawn T-shirts and Greek flags moved in and destroyed the stands.

"We are going to defend our country, our history, our religion, our culture," Golden Dawn's Panagiotaros adds. He is also one of the founders of a ultra-nationalistic football fan club called Galazia Stratia, or Blue Army, that has vowed to "defend Greek national pride inside the stadiums".

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"Things are getting worse and worse in Greece. There is no future for the next few years there," says Christos Christoglou, a Greek inspection engineer, who moved to Germany to find work.

In September, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, included a stark warning in his annual 'state of the union' address, saying that the euro crisis was contributing to the rise in extremism.

And in recent months, officials in Athens have vowed to set up a special police force to combat violence against migrants and plan to impose tougher penalties for these type of crimes.

"Something must happen quick," says Judith Sunderland from Human Rights Watch, who is author of a report called "Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic violence in Greece."  

“Xenophobic hate crimes have reached an alarming proportion in Greece," she added. "Victims are often actively discouraged from filing complaints, told by police officers that it is not worth their while or that they should fight back themselves. And many migrants fear that they could be locked up themselves because of their legal status."

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Meanwhile, Rahimi is still waiting for justice in the wake of his attack. The trial has been postponed seven times already in the past year.

"And it remains unclear, whether the prosecutor will argue that the attack had been motivated by racist or xenophobic sentiment," Sunderland told NBC News.

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One of the three accused is Themis Skordeli, a female member of Golden Dawn, who failed to get elected to parliament last May.

According to local media reports, Skordeli has been identified as a member of a so called 'anti-migrant patrol group', which was formed to 'work the streets' of poorer Athens' neighborhoods.

Rahimi, who came to Greece in 2005, says that he now rarely leaves his apartment and has become extremely cautious when going out to visit friends.

"I am afraid to live here," he says. "I will wait until the trial is over and then definitely head to another country."

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