Tag Archives: immigrants

Straight lines are useful sometimes

If the new Greek government is attempting to bamboozle the country’s lenders into submission with its tactical meandering, who knows, it might have struck on a great idea. If it’s trying to convince the Greek people it’s capable of dealing with the economic crisis, then performing more sudden turns than Fernando Alonso going through the Monaco chicanes is just not going to cut it.

Within a week, the three parties who campaigned on a pre-election platform of renegotiation, renegotiation, renegotiation suddenly decided that the bailout terms are fine as they are for now. Then, they changed their minds again and decided it would be best to bring up the issue of changes to the loan deal in talks with the troika later this month.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras caused consternation last week when they suggested there would be no Greek bid to renegotiate the bailout, without making it clear whether this meant abandoning efforts or simply putting them off. There is logic to the strategy of putting aside the renegotiation issue in the sense that the coalition government can draw a line under what has happened in the past, express its commitment to meeting fiscal and reform targets and allow a little time for trust with its lenders to be restored and goodwill credits that could be subsequently cashed in to be amassed.

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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.

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.