Is immigration a bigger issue for Greece than the economy?

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.

PASOK, meanwhile, via its Citizens? Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, is attempting to go one better than its political rival by announcing the creation of 30 reception centers around the country by next year to house up to 30,000 people awaiting asylum approval or deportation. This, Chrysochoidis says, will ease the pressure on cities like Athens, Thessaloniki and Patra.

Undocumented economic migrants and asylum seekers often live in squalid or cramped conditions and even makeshift camps as they attempt to eke out a living or find a way to reach another EU country where they will have more prospects than in Greece. In its fifth year of recession and with unemployment at 21 percent, Greece has little to offer them at the moment. Chrysochoidis?s predecessor, Christos Papoutsis, also of PASOK, inaugurated the construction of a 12.5-kilometer fence on Greece?s border with Turkey in Evros last month to deter migrants and traffickers.

In a sense, both parties are right. Greece does have an immigration problem. According to the ELIAMEP think tank, in 2011 the country was home to an estimated 1.1 million migrants, who make up roughly 10 percent of the country?s population (compared to less than 2 percent in 1990). About 400,000 are thought to be undocumented, which is a very high number for a country as small as Greece. This carries serious security and economic consequences as authorities cannot keep track of these people, who are able to avoid paying tax and social security contributions if in work.

The tendency for undocumented migrants to be drawn to inner-city areas has caused considerable tension. Many Greeks, particularly in downtown Athens neighborhoods, feel threatened by the large numbers of foreigners that have moved into these areas. The fear felt be these residents, often elderly people, should not be discounted. In some neighborhoods, such as Aghios Panteleimonas in Athens a neighborhood escort scheme has been set up so scared residents can call on someone to accompany them when they leave their homes. Rising crime and a general sense of lawlessness, fueled by the incapacity and ineffectiveness of authorities, have turned these districts into breeding grounds for extremism.

The neo-fascist group Chrysi Avgi won a seat on Athens?s municipal council for the first time in its history in 2010 and opinion polls show it has a chance of gaining seats in Parliament. The party?s rise has been accompanied by an alarming number of attacks on migrants. A pilot scheme set up by nongovernmental organizations, including the UNHCR, recorded 63 racist attacks in central Athens alone over a three-month period. In 18 cases, the assailants were identified as members of extremist groups. In another 18 cases, the immigrants alleged they were attacked by police officers. The Greek police have no method for recording racist incidents.

The recession appears to be stemming the flow of economic migrants to Greece: Just under 100,000 illegal immigrants and traffickers were arrested last year, according to police figures, which is by far the lowest number for the last five years. But authorities estimate that at least 100 undocumented immigrants enter the country every day. Along with Italy, Greece is the main point of entry in the EU for undocumented migrants. Given the deepening recession and the rising tension, it is clear that the government cannot afford to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration and its consequences any longer. It threatens to create a deep rift in Greek society, encourage extremism and blight the future of hundreds of thousands of migrants who live in Greece legally and make a significant contribution to daily life and the economy.

Although PASOK and New Democracy may be right to draw attention to the immigration issue, they clearly have little idea how to tackle it. For instance, there is no clear evidence that Samaras?s bete noire, the citizenship law, is attracting more immigrants to Greece. In fact, it seeks to correct an injustice against children who are otherwise destined to be foreigners in the country where they were born. The law also recognizes the fact that Greece has nothing to gain in terms of the economy and social cohesion by refusing documents to those who should be entitled to them.

The construction of reception centers also seems a pre-election publicity stunt when more substantive measures are needed. There is no doubt that Greece?s capacity for hosting and processing undocumented migrants and asylum seekers is woeful, leading to poor treatment in inhumane conditions at existing reception centers or exposure to criminal gangs and traffickers that operate in Athens and other major cities. Both immigrants and Greeks suffer the effects of a disjointed and incomplete immigration policy that allows migrants to slip through the cracks and resurface in treacherous conditions in overcrowded neighborhoods or at the mercy of employers looking to exploit them.

The transformation of old army camps and other disused sites on its own will not fix this. Locals have already begun protesting the opening of reception centers in northern Greece. This sort of reaction is to be expected when the government is dealing with immigration as a problem that can simply be shifted from one place to another rather than addressed holistically. Similarly, building a fence on the Evros border will do nothing more than inconvenience the trafficking gangs that have made a thriving trade out of ferrying immigrants to Greece for a few thousand euros per head. Greece has more than 15,000 kilometers of coastline (the 19th longest in the world) and some 6,000 islands (more than 200 of which are inhabited) that can provide access points for traffickers. A European Commission spokesman labeled the fence ?pointless.?

Removing 30,000 undocumented migrants from the center of Athens and other cities will not change the fundamentals of the situation. There will still be tens of thousands of people in a bureaucratic limbo: asylum seekers caught up in the torturously slow-turning cogs of the Greek public administration and economic migrants who still hope to get by in Greece long enough to make it to somewhere else in Europe. These people still need to be found, recorded, processed and be provided with adequate social services.

At the moment, this task is largely left to NGOs like the UNHCR and the Greek branch of Doctors of the World, which provides accommodation to about 70 people and medical care for another 100 or so every day. In Aghios Panteleimonas, the burden of maintaining a balance between frightened locals and frightened migrants falls mainly on the local priest, Father Maximos. But these groups and individuals are becoming stretched due to the economic crisis. About a third of the people that Doctors of the World looks after now are Greek. Last year, it was just 6 percent. The organization had its water supply cut off this week because of an unpaid bill. It says it is waiting for money from the European Refugee Fund to be released. In Greece?s current circumstances, it?s clear that NGOs and tireless individuals will not be able to fill the gap left by a retreating and unwilling state for much longer.

One of the options available is to return undocumented migrants and those who do not qualify for asylum to their homelands. Greece began a pilot repatriation scheme last year that saw migrants given 300 euros in cash and a plane ticket home. About 1,200 immigrants returned to their home countries this way in 2011. This year, 2,000 will be repatriated at a cost of 5 million euros, 75 percent of which is covered by the EU. However, this scheme is far too small to address the magnitude of Greece?s situation. At this rate, it will take 15 years to repatriate the immigrants the government plans to place in its new camps next month.

Greece needs a much more substantial approach to addressing its immigration and asylum process. In fact, a much more comprehensive plan was agreed between the European Commission and Greece when Papoutsis was citizens? protection minister in September 2010. The action plan was based around five key points: improvement of reception conditions, creation of screening centers to record and manage migrants, dealing with the asylum backlog, establishing a dedicated civilian asylum department, and provision of EU funds to finance this process. While much of the relevant legislation has been passed, hardly any of these elements have been implemented. For instance, an independent asylum department was set up several months ago but applications are still being processed by the police. Greece has remained standing still, allowing the problem to overtake it.

The system for processing asylum applications, for instance, remains medieval: Greece has a first instance asylum approval rate of less than 0.1 percent and still has about 40,000 first and second instance cases outstanding, although this is down from more than 150,000 in 2009. The sight of thousands of asylum seekers queuing up outside the Aliens’ Bureau in Athens every Friday in the hope of being one of about 20 who receive the ?pink paper? that proves their application is being examined and allows them to remain in Greece legally is unacceptable for an EU country.

Beyond putting into effect the action plan agreed with the EU, Greece also has to do a better job of stating its case for assistance at a European level. If it is ever going to deal with this issue decisively and humanely, Athens is going to need much more help from its partners. It will, for example, need more funding for repatriation programs and NGOs that can provide social care for asylum seekers and migrants. It will also require more substantial assistance in patrolling its borders. The European Union?s border monitoring agency Frontex has set up an operational base in Athens and provided officers to help with patrols on the Turkish border but there has been a lack of interest from EU states in committing more resources to this effort.

It should not be forgotten that Greece and Bulgaria are the only EU countries which border Turkey, which has so far appeared indifferent about cracking down on the traffickers who exploit a steady flow of immigrants trying to enter the Union, often with the aim of reaching one of the more prosperous countries. Unless the EU as a whole demands concrete action from Turkey, the problem will not go away. As long as the rest of the EU treats Greece?s borders as those of Greece alone and not those of the Union as well, little progress will be made.

The threats made recently by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other EU politicians that Greece could be expelled from the Schengen Agreement, which allows the free movement of people within member states, poison the debate. It is the equivalent of Greece threatening to give every migrant that crosses the border a Greek passport and a free ticket to his or her preferred destination within the EU. Rather than proceed down the path of nationalism, a more constructive approach would be to examine the impact of the Dublin II Regulation, which leads to migrants and refugees being returned to Greece for processing if they are caught in other EU countries. Re-evaluating this measure would go some way to easing the pressure on Greece and establishing fairer burden sharing within the EU.

There is one more aspect being overlooked within Greece and the EU and that, ironically, is the economic factor. There is a lot of talk these days of how much Greece is paying to catch and look after undocumented immigrants but few are highlighting the economic contribution that legal migrants are making. A study carried out in 2010 by the Laboratory for Migration and Diaspora Studies (EMMEDIA) at Athens University suggested that migrants added about 1.5 percent of GDP to Greece’s growth rate each year. Almost half the legal migrants in Greece have finished secondary school and about a fifth have degrees. Without their social security contributions, Greece?s rickety pension system might have collapsed some time ago. The construction sector would not have boomed without the influx of manual labor and if immigrants had not offered domestic services such as childminding and housekeeping, the economic contribution and prosperity of many Greek families would have been limited.

Despite problems along the way, the integration of economic migrants into Greek society, particularly from Albania, some parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, has largely been a success. In many cases their children are now fully assimilated and an integral part of the country?s future. When examining the issue of immigration, it is this future that Greece, as well as its EU partners, should be looking to above all.

With less than 10 children being born for every 1,000 inhabitants, Greece has one of the lowest birthrates in the world (205th out of 221 countries ranked in the CIA World Factbook last year). Its death rate — 10.7 per 1,000 inhabitants — is one of the highest in the European Union (44th one the CIA?s global index). In simple terms, this means there will soon not be enough people working and producing wealth to cover the cost of running the state and looking after the country?s aging population.

At the moment, Greece has an old-age dependency ratio of about 30 percent, which means there are three people of working age for every pensioner. This ratio is projected to be close to 60 percent by 2050. Unless Greeks start producing more babies — a prospect that has been stymied by the current crisis — or integrating more migrants into its society, there is no way the country will be able to function. Most EU countries face a similar problem but Greece?s is compounded by the fact that many of its young, bright people are packing their bags and leaving. This is creating a huge gap that needs to be filled.

If for no other reason than its economic well-being, Greece desperately needs to ditch spasmodic moves and knee-jerk populist reactions in favor of adopting an effective process for registering immigrants and asylum seekers and assessing their skills, knowledge and experience. Authorities can then decide who to accept and who to turn away in the most respectful way possible. With some of the ablest members of society pursuing their futures elsewhere, Greece?s survival — not just that of the immigrants whose fate is in our hands — depends on this. Maybe immigration is a bigger issue than the economy after all.

[Kathimerini English Edition]

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