Simplicity will set us free

With minimal fuss, in a dignified and subdued way that we are most unaccustomed to, Greece has just failed another important test in its attempt to catch up with other European countries. Whereas there is usually an unholy fuss over the smallest of issues, one that will play a paramount role in what country we will be living in in 10 or 20 years’ time hardly registers on the political scene. Yesterday was the deadline for the issuing of residence and work permits to immigrants, who applied for them in 2002. Government sources, most probably exaggerating their success, say that about 350,000 permits have been given, out of some 470,000 applications. Immigrants who have not yet received their permits will not be deported, the Interior Ministry says, if they can show that they have applied for them. But the failure of the system is not so much in that not all the applications have been processed yet, some 22 months after the original deadline. The greatest problem is that there are another 500,000 people who will now be living in Greece illegally, who never managed to get the paperwork together to even apply for permits. They are the ones who will live in fear of arrest and deportation, but the fault lies primarily with the government and the state machinery: The former drew up procedures for the immigrants’ legalization that are unnecessarily difficult, time-consuming and expensive, and the latter was simply not up to the task. The government, though, is the greatest culprit, knowing the failings of the public administration. Like every other problem left unsolved, this raises suspicions that perhaps the government and state agencies don’t actually want to solve some problems. How else can one explain the perennially sorry state of our civil service, the abundance of contradictory laws, the chaos in Greek prisons, the fact that private television stations (who dominate our media) have still not been granted real permits, and so on? A climate of chaos means no one but the «system» gets blamed for anything and there is always money to be made in «simplifying» things for those who have the means to achieve this. And the complications involved in the whole regime of handling immigrants manage to keep these million or so people in a state of perpetual uncertainty. However hard they may try to become assimilated and to lead normal lives, the State’s inefficiencies keep them isolated and alienated. Many Albanians who sought a better life in Italy a decade ago are now carrying Italian passports and have managed to bring their families over to live with them. But here, Albanians and other immigrants were almost prohibited from going on holiday this year because they were all, technically, illegal. Finally, with an air of great magnanimity, the government gave them special permission to visit their homelands and return, reinforcing once again the sense of master-servant in the relationship between Greeks and immigrants. Even as most local communities are absorbing immigrants and some intermarrying has begun, there are still enough people who feel fear and suspicion at the idea of the «foreigners» among them so that every year, like a rite of autumn, we have a national uproar over whether Albanian children who scored top marks in their school have the right to carry the Greek flag in the October 28 parades commemorating Greece’s entry into World War II in 1940. The government stands by the right of the top students, irrespective of nationality, to carry the flag. But, through its incompetence concerning its main task – making the seams between Greek and foreign-born pupils invisible – it leaves open the door to racism. The battle is now taking place at the level of local communities and television chat shows. It is pointless to discuss the pros and cons of a huge influx of immigrants who were first illegal and are now living with one foot inside the door of legality and the other in endless uncertainty. These pages and countless others have argued over the issue for years. The simple, indisputable fact is that there are a million new people in Greece and they are here to stay. What matters now is to see what happens next. The flag flap is useful in this. The debate comes down not to whether Greeks are better than Albanians or are endangered by them, but over what kind of country we want to live in. Since the early 1920s, when Greece had to absorb over a million Greek refugees from Asia Minor, the country had been very stable in terms of immigration. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Greeks had left for new lives in America, Australia, Europe and Africa, seeking their fortune far from the hard mountains and barren islands of their homeland. The Cold War set up an impenetrable barrier between Greece and its northern neighbors for nearly half a century. Tension with Turkey and the fear of irredentism from what we now call the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had made it necessary for Athens to stress that the country was ethnically homogenous. The only acknowledged minority was the religious one of Muslims in the country’s northeast. Officials also grudgingly acknowledged the existence of some «Slavophone» Greeks near the border with Yugoslavia. The fears were justified by history, through Greece’s very real rivalry with Turkey and through memories of a bitter civil war in 1946-49 during which Communist forces declared their wish to create an independent Macedonia, carving out part of northern Greece. This maintained the national myth that the Greeks are a small and noble nation continually under siege. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 put an end to Greece’s geographic isolation and led to a flood of immigrants. Having no tradition of accepting migrants, the Greeks at first did nothing, leaving the problem of a large illegal population to fester. Until 1998, there was no policy to legalize people, to control immigration, to give newcomers a stake in protecting the society they had now joined. The fact that many newcomers were uneducated, unskilled, single males living on the margins of society left them open to extortion by unscrupulous Greeks and rackets formed by their own countrymen. The Albanians, who form the vast majority of our immigrants, therefore contributed to a rise in crime in a country that had known very little violent crime, provoking a reaction that was magnified many times over by a sensationalist news media. Suspicion was even greater now because the dangerous «other» was within the walls. Things have calmed down greatly, but the debate is still dominated by the differences between natives and immigrants and whether the Greeks are threatened by this ostensible dilution of their country’s Greekness. But this discussion pits myth against reality, and the desire for a closed and pure society against the need for Greeks to face the challenges of the future with the added infusion of young workers who have come to live here. The immigrants may choose to become part of Greek society (staying here forever as 36 percent said in an opinion poll earlier this year, while another 27 percent said they wanted to stay for between six and 10 years). Anyhow, 92 percent said they had done the right thing in coming here, despite the fact that their biggest problems were racism (25.1 percent), followed by economic problems and unemployment (24.9 percent and 20.1 percent, respectively) and the fear of deportation (17.9). As Greeks also place economic woes and unemployment at the top of their problems, consider the anxiety of immigrants who add their fear of discrimination and deportation to this. We need to understand that making the country more hospitable to immigrants will make it more hospitable and more productive to the Greeks as well. Because if we can simplify the procedures for residence permits maybe we can streamline them for all other dealings with the civil service, those that concern all of us. If we can assimilate immigrants we will be able to enjoy the benefits of free and happy people working to create something for themselves and, by extension, for all. The Greeks, in their epic and solitary migrations, have always shown that they are able to create miracles (or at least fortunes or careers) when they find themselves in free and open societies. But they have never been able to do this in Greece, because, unlike the countries in which they sought a better life, their own remained fixated on myths and old habits and did not open itself to change by giving everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. If Greece could get over the fear of fear, realize it is the strongest country in the region and understand that if everyone enjoys the same benefits under the law, it will have, for once, looked head on at the future and not the past. Maybe then theoretical battles over the flag will see the blue and white as a symbol not only of past heroics but as a symbol of unity for the future.