Immigrants blamed for State’s failure

While we were being entertained by the high-level drama being played out in the ruling party and the Cabinet last week, most of us will have missed a bravura performance by one of the country’s top ministers which betrayed just how rotten the system of public administration is and how much more reshuffling would be needed to save the situation. Interior Minister Costas Skandalidis and his deputy, Lambros Papademas, held a news conference last Tuesday on preparations for a minor heat wave and on Greece’s immigration policy. Skandalidis expressed the hope that 550,000 immigrants would get work permits. But, by the June 30 deadline, only 120,000 of the 178,000 people in Attica who had green cards had managed to apply for their renewal, and of the 54,000 applicants in Athens so far, only 12,000 had got residence permits. Skandalidis and Papademas, who kept their jobs in last week’s reshuffle, tried to explain why tens of thousands of migrants had not been able to apply for residence permits before the deadline. The ministers also stressed there would be no further extension for anyone who had not made the deadline. Referring to the endless queues of people standing in the sun for days at a time trying to submit their applications for residence permits, Skandalidis blithely claimed that it was their fault. «Everybody came on the last day,» he complained. «They suffer but they are to blame as well. If they had come on time, if they had submitted their papers in time, it is clear that everything would be done in a very smooth way,» he said. To be honest, he was not so cool as this comment might suggest. He was quite upset that anyone should suggest that the immigrants’ human rights were being impinged upon, declaring his own «sensitivity» and Greece’s «progressive» procedures. But in shifting the blame onto the migrants, Skandalidis showed a woeful lack of understanding of how the machinery of his own ministry works, as the story of any one of the hundreds of thousands of migrants would be able to tell him. Before we get back to Skandalidis, let us look at one specific instance. The procedure is the same for all, though the dates will differ in each instance. Ms X, an Albanian, has been in Greece for 10 years. Although a qualified engineer, like so many other highly qualified professionals from neighboring countries, she has been working here as a babysitter. Since the first legalization process in 1998, she has registered and received work and residence permits. Backed by her employers, who have gone out of their way to go by the book, X has been among the first to follow the procedures set out by the government each time, paying her social security dues and her taxes in full. X has, in other words, honored every obligation and met every demand placed on her by the Greek State. X’s last work and residence permit were to expire in early February 2002. She went to the provincial government offices months before that to renew the permit but was told that it was too early to apply. With understaffed and disorganized offices unable to process all the immigrants who had registered in the previous years, the government first extended the validity of the permits to the end of December 2002 and then set the end of June 2003 as the deadline for new residence and work permits. For 2002, meanwhile, it collected the 50,000-drachma (150-euro) flat fee from each immigrant in 2002 and again when they applied in 2003. Consider how much money this is, in addition to the social security fees which have provided a huge boost to the state welfare system. (As most migrants are young and healthy, their burden on the social security system is greatly outweighed by their contributions to it, but this, in addition to their contribution to productivity, is another story.) So, for 2003, all the immigrants had to conduct the same paper chase that they had carried out fruitlessly the previous year, including health certificates and statements from the tax department that they did not owe anything. Each year the same thing, at a waste of many, many hours by each person for each document. The procedure now is for a person to first get a work permit and then, on the basis of that, their residence permit. So X, whose work permit expired in early February 2003, went to the provincial government offices on Harilaou Trikoupi Street to apply for its renewal in December, in January and in February. Each time she was told it was too soon and that she must come back later. She finally got her work permit from provincial government offices on Katehaki Avenue in April. With that she was able to apply for the renewal of her residence permit at the Holargos Municipality offices in early May. After that, nothing. On Monday, she went to the municipality offices and was told that her application had been sent to the regional government offices «a few days ago.» There was no explanation for the delay. There is no way of knowing when the permit will be issued. Until then, immigrants who have applied have been promised that they will not be deported if arrested. But they will also not be able to go home on holiday until they get their residence permits. Skandalidis claimed this will be done by October 10. Until then, he declared, it was no big thing for people not to go on holiday. «Let’s be clear,» he said. «They cannot leave the country and come back. I think that they can pay this price, seeing as they weren’t OK in their obligations toward the Greek State. I don’t consider this a big issue.» Seeing as the only time most immigrant workers can go on holiday is August, when most of Greece shuts down, and many, like X, have made arrangements to meet family members from abroad who are gathering in their home country, it may be OK for our ministers to spend their vacations in Greece but it may not be as OK for immigrants to be stripped of their right to see their families once a year. Not because «they weren’t OK in their obligations toward the Greek State» but because the State is indifferent toward them and operates in an incompetent manner with everyone, citizens, immigrants and visitors without exception. At his news conference, Skandalidis showed very clearly the problems that plague public administration and public life in general: The minister had only a rough idea, and was often wrong, about what the state machinery that he is in charge of was doing; he claimed that Athens’s success in promoting a comprehensive migration policy for the EU during Greece’s presidency proved the government’s credentials on the issue, forgetting that it is the application of the policy that counts, not the theory; he shrugged off claims that people’s rights were being violated by blaming them for their woes while proclaiming his own good intentions, patronizing others rather than seeing how he can solve his ministry’s inadequacies. None of this is surprising. As Greek taxpayers it is what we have to live with. But when the prime minister stakes his future and his reputation on declaring that his government will work to improve the everyday life of citizens, and we see the incompetence with which one of the greatest challenges of recent years has been met, we can only wonder who he will rely on to win that bet.

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