Non-EU citizens face tough odyssey to obtain residency

«Live your myth in Greece» is the first sign a foreigner sees when setting out from Athens Airport for the city center. Some of these visitors really have come to live a myth – that of a decent life – by offering their services to the country of their choice and hoping for a better living. These are immigrants from outside the European Union, those who need something more than a passport and good will in order to work, study or simply wander around Greece. They have not arrived as fugitives but for a specific purpose, armed with qualifications and a great deal of patience. According to official services, the following documents are required by someone wanting to apply for a residence permit in Greece: a work permit (or educational qualifications for a student residence permit), a photocopy of a labor contract and proof of social security contributions (for workers), a health certificate from a state hospital, a statement of abode, a payment of a 147-euro fee, a photocopy of passport specifications and of the visa on which the person entered Greece and three recent photographs. As simple as that. The applicant must only submit these documents in order to begin work or studies. Or perhaps it isn’t quite that easy. Citizens’ services At the Foreigners’ Services Center, where these matters are handled, there is a long queue that has doubled back on itself. It is difficult to tell which of the two doors to approach. I try to start up a conversation but am met with expressions of terror. No one wants to talk; I receive answers such as «I don’t know» or «Can’t you see for yourself what is happening?» One young Albanian man is more talkative. «They make problems for us for no reason, over something small,» he said. «They don’t answer our questions. I have been coming back for the last two to three weeks.» A woman from Romania complained about the slow and disorganized way in which the center functions. I try to approach her, but her husband speaks for her. «We are satisfied. So far we have had no problems,» he said, as if he didn’t want to protest. As I was leaving, a man in the queue said to me: «Why are you reporting on this? Will it change anything? There are laws, but not here. Abroad it is different, there are seats. Anyone who has been abroad knows. Journalists are just wasting their time. You can’t straighten out something that is crooked.» Then there is the bureaucracy. When Anna came from Ukraine to work as a domestic worker and babysitter, she certainly didn’t expect to have to change her identity. About two months ago, when the time came to renew her residence permit, the staff member at her local municipality misspelled her name. That was the beginning of her troubles. When (after months of waiting) she went to pick up her permit, the different spelling (to the name on her passport) was noticed. According to officialdom, Anna was trying to pick up someone else’s papers. Both Anna and her employer protested, but it was only when the latter received advice (valuable, as it turned out) from a non-governmental organization (that is, to go back to the municipality and make a fuss), that the matter was resolved. Anna is still in Greece, legally, under her real name. Nine months Dejan was born in small town in northern Serbia, and studied computer science in Belgrade. Four years ago he decided to seek work in Greece. At a large firm his abilities and professionalism were soon recognized and he was offered a steady job, but the next steps were not as easy. The firm first of all had to apply to the prefecture, which then had to state to the Manpower Organization (OAED) that the firm in question was seeking a person for the specific job. Over a period of three months, the firm had to reject all applications sent by OAED in order to end up with Dejan. The three months turned into nine and Dejan was walking the streets of Athens like a tourist, his bag full of documents and applications needed while he was waiting for the Interior Ministry to forward his file to the Greek Embassy in Belgrade to issue the work permit and the special visa required to allow Dejan to exit and enter Greece again. He finally received the permit a month ago, after a wait of nine months. He has submitted an application for a residence permit and is still waiting. Similar experiences were related by foreign students in Greece – who supposedly hold privileged positions since many of them are on scholarships from the Greek government. Consider Jovana. Holder of an Interior Ministry scholarship, she arrived in Greece four years ago. In December 2003, she applied for a renewal of her student residence permit at the Municipality of Nea Smyrni, where she had recently moved. There the staff took receipt of her documents, and she began her wait. In February 2005 she eventually received the permit – which had expired on October 8, 2004. The municipality to which she had moved had not received her file, which had gone missing on its way from the municipality where she had formerly lived. Jovana had to go through the entire application process all over again, paying another 147 euros (out of her monthly scholarship stipend of 480 euros). She is still waiting. These three stories are typical of countless others that do not discourage foreigners from coming to Greece, but which make them leave. For them, the slogan should perhaps read «Leave your myth in Greece.» This article first appeared in the February 12 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.

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