The judgement of nations

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If you’re looking for incisive commentary on contemporary developments, the Catholic Church is not the organization you usually turn to. So, when the Pope decides to dedicate part of his regular Sunday blessing to current affairs, there’s every reason to listen carefully.

Alarmed by clashes between immigrants and locals in the southern Italian town of Rosarno that led to more than 70 people being injured and over 1,000 Africans being evacuated, Pope Benedict XVI pleaded for calm and understanding.

“An immigrant is a human being, different only in where he comes from, his culture and his tradition,” he told worshippers. “We have to go to the heart of the problem, of the significance of the human being. The problem is a human one and I invite everyone to look in the face of those nearby and see their soul, their history and their life and say to themselves: This is a man and God loves him as he loves me.”

It was a universal theme for what at first appears to be a very local dispute. Immigrants began rioting after a gang of local youths opened fire on some of them with an air rifle. The UN Refugee Agency believes there has been a rise in the number of migrants looking for work as crop pickers in the underdeveloped region of Calabria because factory jobs in the north of Italy have evaporated due to the economic crisis. The possible involvement of the local mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, also gives the story a distinct Italian flavor.

However, events in Rosarno are actually part of a universal theme and are relevant to many countries, including Greece. Like immigrants elsewhere, those in Rosarno want to work their way to a better life. Like immigrants in so many countries, those in southern Italy live in squalid conditions, work for meagre wages (less than 30 euros a day, some of which has to be paid to middlemen) and are in constant fear of being deported.

You will find identical stories in many parts of Greece. Try Manolada in the Peloponnese for instance, where foreign laborers pick strawberries. Or visit the orange groves around Arta in northwestern Greece, where, as a report in Sunday Kathimerini’s “K” magazine highlighted this week, hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis are picking fruit for sub-sustenance wages and living in shacks with no electricity or running water.

The disturbing events in Rosarno emphasize the fragility of the situation in Greece, where locals and immigrants in so many places have formed relationships of convenience that could fall apart at any time.

While Greece doodled, Italy drew a hard line on immigration under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government. Policy is in the hands of Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a leading member of the anti-immigration Northern League party. He revealed last week that Italy has forcibly repatriated 40,000 people in the last two years and that only 3,000 immigrants tried to reach Italy last year compared to 30,000 in 2008. A controversial agreement with Libya, which allows Italian authorities to push back boatloads of immigrants to the North African country, has been cited as one of the tools in achieving this drop in illegal immigration.

Greece has no such agreements and faces an influx of migrants that dwarfs Italy’s. For years, governments here did nothing and were complicit in tens of thousands of immigrants gravitating toward the dog-eared margins of Greek society. It’s a tactic – it certainly can’t be called a policy – that has led to immigrants becoming scapegoats for all kinds of problems such as crime, drugs, unemployment and disease.

This abdication of responsibility has made it legitimate for politicians and journalists to express reckless views – a prominent TV presenter recently claimed that one of Greece’s most serious economic problems is street traders not paying tax. Come back financial gurus, corrupt ministers, pencil-pushing bureaucrats, fat-cat bosses, insurance-dodging business owners, defaulting entrepreneurs, tax-fiddling freelancers and no receipt-issuing gas station owners! All is forgiven: You’re not to blame for the economic crisis, it’s those pesky migrants with their bed sheets and knockoff Gucci handbags who are undermining this great nation’s economy.

These absurd opinions become acceptable when a society chooses to leave people on the outside, where they can be easy targets. That’s why PASOK’s intention to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants living here legally is the first step toward putting right so many wrongs. By incorporating people who want to live in your country and contribute to it, you invest in them but you also give them a stake in a common future, which brings responsibilities — such as paying tax and abiding by the law. When people live on the fringes, you are only relying on their good will to conform to your society’s demands. When someone is exploited, mistreated or ignored, good will tends to be in short supply.

That’s why it’s worrying that New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras chose this week to make immigration one of his party’s key political battlegrounds. He wrote to Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis on Monday to express concern about PASOK’s citizenship plans. According to Samaras, the new law would “make it easier for immigrants to enter Greece illegally so they can have children here and obtain citizenship.” The proposed law, though, only grants citizenship to the children of parents who have been living in Greece legally for five years – hardly a quick fix. Samaras, who studied in the USA in his youth, proposed that the children of immigrants born in Greece should only obtain citizenship when they become adults and after completing at least nine years of studies at Greek schools.

“Greeks are a people, not a population, and what transforms a geographical area into a united country and the local population into a people is its identity,” said Samaras in his letter. This begs the questions of how a country can truly be united when the people who make up more than a tenth of its population are left in limbo and whether Greeks really identify with a policy that sees children who are born here, who speak the language, who go to the country’s schools, who sit in its cafeterias, who work in its stores not being officially recognized until they’re 18.

In Italy, even the former fascist Gianfranco Fini, currently the speaker of parliament’s lower house, has rethought his ideas on immigration. He now proposes that migrants be allowed to vote in local elections, that immigrants’ children born in Italy be awarded citizenship and that the waiting time for adult citizenship be cut.

Samaras claims PASOK is afraid to talk about “Greekness” at a time when other European countries are trying to rediscover their identity. But Fini’s transformation emphasizes how far behind the curve Samaras is – developments in immigration have overtaken politicians such as the ND leader, making the rigid thinking of the past irrelevant. The sheer numbers of people moving between countries and the growing ways in which they’re being exploited means identity is no longer simply found in a passport. At a time when cultures and languages are no longer the defining factors, a country’s identity is derived from its ethos, its values and its principles. Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, once said: “A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members.” Greece, like Italy, must prepare for that judgment.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on January 15, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s