Ordeals of Albanian immigrants

The events that followed the Albania-Greece soccer match and led to the murder in cold blood of one Albanian immigrant on Zakynthos and the wounding of at least 70 Albanians in Attica alone (a number of whom were stabbed) shocked much of Greek society and raised serious questions. The extent of the episodes cannot be attributed to a few nationalist and fascist groups nor to provocation by the Albanians, who were merely celebrating their national team’s win. In some neighborhoods of Athens and the provinces, anti-Albanian pogroms were carried out. Yet the Greek police, who managed to prevent a single nose from being bloodied during the Olympic Games, could not prevent the incidents or arrest any culprits in the many attacks on Albanians. ‘Bosses and workers’ The violence was the outcome of a peculiar form of «nationalist doping» that Greece had been fed over the preceding months. But that is not all. Overt and covert racism toward Albanians has permeated much of Greek society. Albanians are treated scornfully, as inferiors. It is not by chance that one hears such statements as «not even an Albanian would do this job.» To a large extent, the racism of September 5 was the «racism of the bosses» who cannot accept being beaten by «their workers,» as former PAOK soccer player Achilleas Aslanidis put it. But who are the Albanians next door and what are they thinking? What is their attitude to the episodes of September 5? «Fear and rage dominate,» Ervin Sehou of the Albanian Migrants Forum told Kathimerini. In the little basement office in Exarchia, a few young Albanians are having a discussion before going out to put up posters for an anti-racist rally. «I believe some people wanted those episodes to happen, to give us the message that we should leave now that the Olympic Games are over,» added Sehou. His view is shared by builder Leonidas Manai, 28, whom we met at the offices of the Builders’ Initiative, frequented by Greeks and foreigners. «Hard times are on the way, with retrenchments and unemployment. Some people would like to break the ties between Greeks and Albanians and to blame migrants again for unemployment. They want to set us against each other,» he said. He watched the soccer match at a cafe he goes to in Liosia. «There wasn’t any trouble, although one Greek provoked us, saying that we were a ‘state for a week.’ But the climate has been cold since then. We used to play cards with the old locals; now we’re reticent.» What are the roots of the problem? The contribution of Albanians to the Greek economy is undisputed. In the early years when entry was uncontrolled they were forced into working in the black economy, with very low wages and no social insurance. Many Greek businesses increased profits by using ultra-cheap imported labor. Prices and inflation were kept low. In fact, the targets of Economic and Monetary Union and the Olympic Games would never have been met without massive input by immigrant labor. «I came to Greece at the age of 18,» said Sehou, «I’ve had a least 10 different jobs since then. Anything you can imagine. From electrician and pest controller to receptionist and courier. Up to 1988, however, I was illegal.» Forced to live in the shadows, they easily fall victim to widespread xenophobia. «Governments and the media wanted to keep migrants under control,» he added. «That’s why they identified crime with Albanians, which wasn’t justified either by official statistics or by the experience of most Greeks.» Sehou recalls people saying «’My Albanian’ is the best, but you can forget about the others.» Eventually the demand for legalization (and control) of migrants was heard from many quarters. The massive inclusion of migrants in the IKA and other social insurance funds that legalization entailed gave a significant boost to the Greek social insurance system. Most migrants are young and give more to the funds than they receive. Yet social insurance is a major problem for Albanian immigrants, since Greece and Albania have not signed an insurance entitlement transfer agreement, such as the one that applies between Greece and Germany. «I’ve been working 10-15 years in Greece, and I’m not entitled to one day’s pension in Albania,» explained Manai. The Albanian population of Greece has remained stable for the past few years. «There are three categories of immigrants. The first plans to work for a few more years in Greece and then go home. The second goes wherever there is work, to Italy, for example. But the greatest number, more than a third of them, want to live in Greece permanently,» said Manai. Their children were born here, they go to school and are doing well, and it’s hard to tell them apart from Greek children. But things are still tough. Although migrants’ wages have converged to some extent with those of Greeks, discrimination still applies on the job. «An Albanian tradesman will get 10 euros less than his Greek counterpart, and an unskilled worker gets paid lower than the basic wage,» said Manai. «At the same time, the Albanian has to do the hardest, most arduous jobs, for the lowest possible wage.» Paper chase Another serious problem is that of the documents required for work and residence permits. «For a start, we have to collect the most unbelievable documents. Then, for a two-year permit, we have to pay 300 euros per person in advance plus 30 euros for translations. Can you imagine what that means to an Albanian family? Let alone the fact that many people have to buy social insurance stamps, since 150 stamps are required for the previous year,» said Sehou. In other words, the Greek State is imposing an extra tax on migrants. “It is unacceptable that we get the residence permit for only two years. I have been in Greece for 12 years and I can’t plan my life,» he added. In other European countries, migrants get a five-year permit, sometimes even nationality, much more easily. The need for permits causes family upsets. Sehou, for example, cannot bring his parents to Greece. «The elderly face racism,» he said. A few days ago, Manai said good bye to his wife, who was not able to get a permit. Albanian migrants want the permit procedures simplified and the two work and residence permits replaced by a single permit. Neither of the two men hides their anxiety over the recent developments. We asked them about the climate in the Albanian community after the episodes. «I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a problem,» replied Manai. «Racism is developing on the Albanian side too. Some say: ‘You can’t get anywhere with the Greeks.’ It’s a pity to lose everything we have gained over so many years working alongside Greeks in just a few days.» Sehou emphasized that he also opposed the nationalist voices that have been raised in Albania. «For so many years, migrants have been pawns in the Albanian-Greek bilateral relations,» he said. «But that is not in the interest of the Albanian migrants in Greece or of the Greeks,» he concluded. And who can disagree?

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