24/04/2013 13:44 BST | Updated 24/06/2013 06:12 BST

Racism, Exploitation, Violence: The Reality of Migrants' Lives in Greece

Greece: idyllic country of picturesque islands and sparkling seas that welcomes strangers, or land of serious human rights abuses and growing violence and xenophobia? While there is no doubt about the loveliness of Greece's landscapes, something brutal is going on behind the beauty.

Last week Greece's international image took a serious knock when 200 Bangladeshi workers at a strawberry farm were shot at, allegedly by their bosses, for demanding the pay - a little over three Euros an hour - they'd been owed for seven months. Eight of them were seriously injured.

When Amnesty researchers visited the farm in Manolada, southern Greece, a few days later, they discovered horrendous living conditions where workers - some in their early teens - slept in crowded sheds without access to clean water or sanitation. They told my colleagues they have to pay €20 a month - nearly a full day's wage - for the pleasure of living there. Living and working conditions like these are clearly unacceptable in 21st-century Europe.

The Greek authorities promptly condemned the shooting and have opened criminal investigations. The farm owner and three supervisors have been arrested. This action is to be welcomed, but the shooting is part of a wider problem. It was the culmination of months of neglect and ill-treatment of thousands of migrant workers around Manolada.

The strawberry pickers told my colleagues there are around 2,000 Bangladeshis working in the area, with a further 3,000 or more from other countries, including Bulgaria and Albania. Some have residence permits or asylum applications, but others are irregular migrants without insurance or access to health care. Journalists who have reported on working conditions in Manolada have been threatened and attacked by farm supervisors.

"Our visit to Manolada confirmed the very real sense of fear and ongoing danger for the strawberry pickers, who are still reeling from last week's violent attack and their despair over not being paid and the inability to support their families," said Lia Gogou, our Greece researcher. "The sad reality is that many of them feel trapped and that they have no other choice but to carry on working there."

The shooting was just the latest incident highlighting the vulnerability of migrants in Greece. Racist attacks are on the rise with far-right parties like Golden Dawn rapidly gaining public support as the country struggles with a crippling economic crisis. In some cases the police refuse to help, in others victims with no papers fear arrest if they speak out.

Police harassment is common, with migrants frequently stopped by police in sweep operations, ironically code-named Xenios Zeus after the Greek god of hospitality and protector of strangers. If they don't have legal papers they can be hauled off to one of the country's squalid detention centres that wouldn't have been out of place in medieval times, and where reports of ill-treatment by police are common.

Many remain without papers not through choice, but because Greece's chaotic immigration system can be impossible to access. This leaves them vulnerable not only to arrest, but also to the kind of exploitation the strawberry pickers and so many like them face on a daily basis.

The situation is so bad that even people fleeing the conflict in Syria say they would rather go back there than stay in the country they thought would offer them some respite.

"One hundred per cent I will die in Syria, but one hundred per cent I die here too" one man told Amnesty researchers. He had just been released from three months behind bars in a grim detention facility despite having committed no crime.

Greece's asylum and immigration system clearly needs urgent reform and the government must take swift action to address the major, long-term problem of labour exploitation. Racist attacks must be properly investigated and those responsible must be brought to justice. However, this relies on decisive action from a government that reportedly denies racism is a serious problem. In the meantime, human despair mounts.

The EU can also act to relieve the pressure on Greece as one of the main entry points to the EU for undocumented migrants. It must redraft the Dublin II regulations to share responsibility for asylum seekers more equally between member states, taking into account asylum seekers' individual needs.

There are many in Greece today who are horrified at the treatment migrants receive from the authorities, the rise in racism and xenophobia and the image this gives to the rest of the world. For them the flame of the ancient Greek concept of xenia - kindness to strangers - still burns. But across the country, it's rapidly turning into a little more than a flicker.