Broken from the start

For the past 10 years, during which Greece has had an immigration policy, the state has been anything but welcoming. Hundreds of thousands of people from many non-EU countries have suffered without reason, over and over and over again. But this has also served as a warning: Choosing to live in Greece is not all that it seems. Because, as foreigners will learn, on the other side of the fence is no paradise of sensible rules and just laws. They need only look at the current panic, in which 3 million Greeks were given just three months to register their homes and other property or risk heavy fines and even confiscation. The procedures and the staff involved in dealing with immigrants display all the problems that plague everyone who lives here. Unreasonable demands are placed on citizens and foreign residents alike, whereas the state usually fails to honor even its most basic obligations. First, no attempt is made to solve the problems until it is too late. As more than a million people flooded in after the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, the government and state did nothing to create an immigration policy that would have imposed order – as well as establishing immigrants’ rights and obligations. If this had been done then, workable procedures would have been developed far more quickly; immigrants would have been more secure and would not have fallen victim to unscrupulous employers as well as criminals. The first legalization process began in early 1997, when services were swamped, causing untold hardship for those applying for residence permits and those issuing them. Long-term, non-EU citizens already living here were swept away in the flood. The beginning was bad, setting the whole process off on the wrong track. And improvements have not been sufficient to make things work. Second, procedures are planned badly and executed miserably. The legalization process was unnecessarily complicated, with people being sent on a paper chase that involved several ministries and departments which were not staffed appropriately to receive them. Residence permits’ validity was so brief that they had often expired before the applicants received them. Today things have been simplified somewhat but are still needlessly complicated. Third, services are almost never staffed or funded adequately – nor are they located in buildings suited to the task. This leads to a sick relationship between dictatorial officials – who are often untrained, unkempt, uncouth and prejudiced – and immigrants, who are almost always confused and anxious. However well-meaning the government may have been over the last few years in simplifying procedures, its great failing has been its inability to improve the quality of staff. Fourth, the unnecessarily complicated procedures and the obstructiveness of officials create a climate ideal for bribes, while lawyers and other middlemen make an easy buck off a captive customer base. The fee for obtaining residence permits is also exorbitant, compared to the wages that most immigrants earn. This shows a calculated effort to get as much money out of them as possible. Heavy fines for minor infringements prove the system’s cynicism. It is time for policymakers to realize that people who have chosen to live in Greece are here to stay and are an invaluable asset to the country. The state must stop doing all it can to discourage them and instead seek the benefits of issuing long-term, hassle- free residence permits, followed by full citizenship. And then it can send its surly gatekeepers to more productive work – like fighting fires.