Tag Archives: Greece immigrants

Inverting the pyramid

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It is with the same sense of guilt that a parent feels when a child slips out of their grasp in a crowd that Greeks, like other Europeans, have been watching events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria unfold over the past few weeks. Shudders were sent down millions of spines with the realization that under our noses so many people were living in poverty and oppression created by duplicitous regimes willing to exploit them.

For Greeks, though, the surprise shouldn’t have been so great because they have discovered firsthand how many in authority will not think twice about casting destitute people like chaff into the wind to advance their own causes. If nothing else, the debacle surrounding the brief sit-in protest by North African migrants at Athens University’s Law School has taught us just how easy it is for the weak to be manipulated right under our very noses.

There is no doubt that the organized transfer of the 237 immigrants from Crete to the Law School a couple of weeks ago was misconceived on a grand scale. Campaigners who helped the migrants board a ferry and then moved them onto the campus did so in order to promote what they billed as “the largest mass hunger strike in Europe.” Right from the beginning, the whole event took on the air of a very badly run circus.

The protest’s organizers’ were apoplectic that the media did not focus on the fact the migrants were on hunger strike but instead insisted on paying greater attention to questions about whether the university asylum law was being abused. It was like a chemistry student being upset nobody could see the genius in his experiment when it had just blown a great big hole in the lab.

Those who backed, and actively aided the migrants in their campaign — a cross section of people including students, journalists, lawyers and human rights campaigners — should have been savvy enough to realize that by staging the hunger strike on university grounds, they were undermining any message they wanted to get across.

They gave politicians of various hues the burst of oxygen they needed to reignite the debate about whether the law that places strict limitations on when police can enter university grounds should be scrapped. Pumped full of opportunism, members of New Democracy, the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) and even governing PASOK sought to identify with a public that has started to lose its appetite for the asylum rule, a remnant of the post-junta era. The MPs showed that two can play at the exploitation game — if the activists could use the migrants as a vehicle to highlight the government’s failings, then there was no reason why politicians could not use the protest to give them a leg up onto the popularity bandwagon.

The opposition leaders and deputies chided the migrants and their supporters for daring to bring an issue as base as immigration policy into the sacrosanct corridors of Greek academia. How dare these foreign laborers and the woolly liberals supporting them transform a Law School auditorium into a political bear pit? they asked. Of course, they conveniently overlooked what has been going on at Greek universities for the last 30 years. They chose not to mention how many academic appointments during that time have been politically motivated, they opted not to talk about how many technical colleges (TEI) and university departments have been built in far-flung parts of Greece simply because the government or minister at the time was fulfilling a favor to a local community and they decided to overlook the behavior of their own student groups, which tempt members to join with free drinks and club nights and have led to university life becoming politicized to a self-destructive degree.

Make no mistake, there has been hypocrisy on all sides over the last couple of weeks. But then again, there always is when there are weaker people to be exploited. The real tragedy, though, is that a vital message has not been heard because of this. The 237 migrants, half of whom are now living like metropolitan Bedouins in tents pitched up in the backyard of a listed building, had been working legally in Greece for the past few years. But now, like many Greeks, they are the victims of the economic crisis. Their work has dried up and they do not have enough social insurance credits to receive unemployment benefits or to renew their residence permits. The security they once had in Greece has disappeared and, as we have discovered by watching events across North Africa over the past few days, there is precious little for them to return home to. They are stuck in a purgatory where their screams for help cannot be heard because everyone else is shouting over them.

The fate of tens of thousands of economic migrants who have been left on the edge of a precipice is too important an issue to be relegated to publicity stunts and slanging matches. Greece has to decide whether, given the current economic climate, it is willing to cut any slack for people who were until recently legal residents here. It has chosen, for instance, to go easy on Greeks who owe money to the state, so, some might argue, why not relax the criteria for people who need to renew their residence permits? If not, then can the country get help from the European Union to help repatriate migrants following the success of the pilot schemes that were launched last year?

That’s the thing about economic migrants — you don’t have to dress up their story. You don’t need to stage a media event to turn them into causes celebres or martyrs because they’re heroes already. It takes guts to leave everything you have behind to pursue a life in a land where you don’t know anyone and you start with nothing. Greeks are very familiar with this type of heroism because they embodied it in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Stoking their anger will not achieve anything, rekindling their compassion might. Greeks need to be reminded there are destitute people susceptible to all kinds of abuse and manipulation living right under their noses, not just in TV footage from Tahrir Square in Cairo, and that during these extraordinary times, these people have a right to know, like their brothers back home, that someone is willing to stand by them.

Nick Malkoutzis

Integration for the nation

 

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

There are several reasons why the local elections on Sunday, November 7, will be no ordinary day at the polls. But amid all the attention on the anti-memorandum vote, the rise of independent candidates and the possibility that the outcome may lead to general elections, a historic aspect of Sunday’s vote has been overlooked.

For the first time in the country’s history, non-European Union citizens who are long-term or permanent residents in Greece can vote and stand as candidates in local elections. Some 13,000 non-EU residents will join another 15,000 from EU countries at the ballot box, according to the Interior Ministry. This is substantially lower than the figure of 250,000 possible new additions to the electoral register given by the ministry earlier this year, when the government passed a new citizenship law. Apart from being a landmark moment because it allowed second-generation immigrants to claim Greek citizenship, the law also took the logical step of allowing people who have invested in this land, not only in financial terms, to have a say in how their local authorities are run.

The law was opposed by center-right New Democracy and the right-wing nationalists of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). ND leader Antonis Samaras, who had not yet decided to focus all his powers on opposing the EU-IMF memorandum to win votes, launched a polemic against PASOK for undermining Greek identity and subverting the great nation-state. LAOS leader Giorgos Karatzaferis, whose knickers are so often in a twist it’s a wonder he’s not propelled around Athens like a giant spinning top, claimed the inclusion of foreigners on the electoral roll would lead to the result of any vote being “adulterated.”

As we’ll discover on Monday morning, neither of these nightmare scenarios will emerge to shatter our blissful Greek reality. Actually, the participation in Sunday’s elections of several thousand foreigners who call Greece home, at a time when those born here seem to be as divided as ever, is a giant step toward making the country feel like a normal, well-adjusted European state. In fact, given German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent comments about multiculturalism having “utterly failed” in her country, Greece can be proud that at least on one level it has found a way for different nationalities and cultures to work together.

Beneath the luster of Sunday’s elections, though, there lies much more work and introspection for Greece. From the troubled streets of central Athens to the labor-intensive farms of the Peloponnese, it’s clear that harmonious co-existence between locals and foreigners is still a long way off. In this sense, the debate going on in Germany is extremely relevant to Greece. After all, immigrants have a strong presence in both countries — in Germany almost 7 million of the 82 million (8.5 percent) inhabitants are migrants, in Greece the figure stands at about 1 million out of 11 million (9 percent).

For some, Merkel’s comments were a clumsy, populist appeal to the right wing of her flagging conservative CDU party, a senior partner in Germany’s coalition government. Others saw it as a timely intervention after years of half-measures aimed at integrating Germany’s migrants, especially some 4 million Muslims mostly from Turkey.

Thankfully, Merkel cleared up what she meant on Wednesday, November 3. “For decades, the approach was that integration was not something that needed to be addressed, that people would live side-by-side and that it would sort itself out on its own,” she said at a so-called integration summit in Berlin. “This turned out to be false. What in fact is needed is a political effort and an effort by society as a whole to make integration happen.”

The clarification is vital because it nips in the bud attempts by skeptics, including those in Greece, to seize Merkel’s critique of multiculturalism as a sign that immigration is failing. Merkel is clearly not saying that and, as Jan Fleischhauer, an editor at German weekly magazine Der Spiegel writes, the thought of living in a society that barricades itself from the outside world is ridiculous. “The idea that a country is a better place if its people keep to themselves as much as possible is a strangely claustrophobic notion — even in the happiest of families, it’s nice to see a new face now and then,” he says. “Influx from outside invigorates a society and serves as an excellent tonic against the stagnation that tends to plague sedentary cultures.”

In Greece’s case, legal immigration has brought with it a vital contribution to social security funds at a time when the system is running on fumes as well as providing able bodies at a low cost in a range of sectors, such as farming and construction. Also, the proliferation of languages that can be heard, customs that can be observed and cultures that can be discovered in Greece’s major cities has helped at least the younger generation realize, in a way the Internet and TV never could, that it lives in an interconnected world with common themes and challenges.

Illegal immigration, however, has posed a set of more uncomfortable questions. It’s among the illegal immigrants in Greece that one can find the kind of problems that concern Merkel about some of Germany’s second-generation migrants – the inability to speak the language and find regular jobs, for instance. Merkel’s government will commit some 400 million euros by 2014 to help the children of immigrants improve their German. There will also be programs to increase the number of migrants working in the public sector.

Consciously or not, Merkel has hit on an easily forgotten truth: Ultimately, integration is not about whether you can eat bratwurst or souvlaki like the locals, or whether you like to read Goethe or Kazantzakis, or even what religion you practice. It’s about being able to participate in a society that you respect and which respects you. What immigrants need most from their host countries are the tools and opportunities to find jobs and build their own futures. If they have those, they have life. And when you have life you can become part of something, you can integrate.

“People who dare to try their luck in a foreign country are by their nature especially resourceful and driven,” writes Fleischhauer. “Turning such people into beggars is no easy feat, yet we’ve managed to do precisely that.”
This is something for Greece to consider as it becomes a magnet for undocumented migrants trying to reach other EU countries at the same time that thousands of jobs are being shed every month. The creation of a structure to assess the country’s needs and the skills and capabilities of those that cross through its borders is more urgent than ever. But, amid the attention on the anti-memorandum vote, the rise of the independent candidates and the possibility that the outcome of Sunday’s polls may lead to general elections, it’s just another important issue that’s been overlooked.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 5, 2010.