Senegalese immigrant Musa Sezk, 32, has been trying to make a living for years by selling inexpensive, counterfeit watches on the streets of Athens.
Sezk is one of thousands of African and Asian immigrants, particularly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who place their merchandise on blankets on sidewalks, ready to scoop them up and run when the police show up. “We have to sell these because otherwise we cannot make money,” Sezk told Southeast European Times.
Street vendors offer numerous items – bags, scarves, watches, suitcases and other products bearing brand names like Armani, Gucci and Longchamps – and have stepped outside the immigrant-concentrated areas into Syntagma Square near Parliament and on the upscale streets where shops display the genuine brand products.
Sezk said Greeks are eager to buy counterfeit goods because of the severity of the economic crisis, but the practice is risky for the sellers given the renewed efforts by authorities to stamp it out. “If the police catch me, they will ask me to pay 100 or 200 euros,” Sezk said.
Kostas Mitsos, a 19-year-old Athens resident, said he stopped to purchase a watch for 10 euros. “The prices in the stores are 10 times higher and I feel no remorse about purchasing on the street. I do not care for the brands or if they [street vendors] break the law by selling these. They do not harm anybody,” Mitsos told SETimes.
The EU has continuously cited Greece for failing to crack down on the sales of counterfeit goods. The country ranked first among EU member states regarding the volume of seized illegal merchandise. Last year, Greek police confiscated 663,400 counterfeit goods in 2,164 separate incidents.
A parliamentary inquiry estimated the turnover of the illegal trade is between 7 billion and 10 billion euros annually, which ranks Greece third in the EU behind Bulgaria and Italy.
“[B]eing a maritime country, right beside the Balkans and southern Italy, where powerful illicit networks trade those goods, make this a problem of great importance. The entrance of the Chinese triads over the past decade further boosted counterfeit trading,” Ioannis Michaletos, an analyst with the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analyses, told SETimes.
Michaletos said there are also well-organized Greek networks that purchase counterfeit products wholesale and re-sell them to groups inside Greece that end up selling them on the streets. Two-thirds of the merchandise comes from China while about 5 percent is produced in Greece.
Shop owners said their sales – already significantly reduced by the economic crisis – are affected by the unlawful competition, further depriving the government of tax money. The Athens Chamber of Commerce estimated the government loss at 6 billion euros.
The government met last August to discuss specific ways to crack down on counterfeit trade. Previous efforts by the Greece tax authority’s special task force led to the discovery of seven warehouses with merchandise worth more than 30 million euros.
The city and the state governments were surprised by how vast the network had become, said Effi Lambropoulou, a Professor of Criminology at Panteion University in Athens.
“Initially, the situation was underestimated by the governments. They thought it was a means of survival of the poor immigrants who would avoid committing common street crimes. But with the continuing inflow of immigrants the situation got beyond control,” Lambropoulou told SETimes.
The difficulty in solving the problem is two-pronged — there is high demand by people willing to buy counterfeit goods and the sellers are dispensable, Micheletos said. “Counterfeit vendors make little money and the bulk goes in the hands of organized crime individuals,” Michaletos said.
(Used by permission of Southeast European Times, www.setimes.com)