Tag Archives: Immigration

Is immigration a bigger issue for Greece than the economy?

Illustration by Ilias Makris

Judging by the content of the debate in Greece over the past few days, one might think that the most pressing issue facing the country ahead of the upcoming general elections is illegal immigration rather than the economy. The two coalition partners, New Democracy and PASOK, have attempted to outdo each other by trying to appear determined to tackle a matter to which the crisis has lent extra weight.

With elections probably due to take place on May 6, Greece’s two main political parties have stepped up the rhetoric. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras wants to repeal the citizenship law passed by the PASOK government in 2010. The law allows second-generation immigrants whose parents have been living in Greece legally to apply for Greek citizenship. Despite the fact that only a few thousand people, mostly ethnic Greeks, have taken advantage of the law, New Democracy insists it is a magnet for undocumented migrants who see it as an opportunity to obtain legal status in a European Union country.

“Our cities have been taken over by illegal immigrants, we have to reclaim them,” Samaras told members of his party on Thursday, as police conducted sweep operation in downtown Athens. Samaras’s comments are typical of the kind of language that is fueling the surge of populism threatening to overwhelm any constructive attempts to deal with the issue.

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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.

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.