SOCIETY

New citizenship law hinges on school education

Foreign nationals living in Greece legally, who were either born here or emigrated to the country at a young age and have attended a Greek school, will soon have the right to apply for Greek citizenship according to new legislation drafted by the Ministry of the Interior and seen by Kathimerini before it was submitted to Parliament earlier this week. The law was signed last week by Interior Minister Argyris Dinopoulos and, if ratified, will bridge an important gap in the legislation left since the Council of State deemed a previous bill, Law 3838, unconstitutional two years ago.

The new draft laws outlines three preconditions for foreign nationals to apply for Greek citizenship and applicants will have to fulfill at least one of the three: having completed mandatory education at a Greek school (elementary and middle school), or the final six years of secondary school (middle and high), or having graduated from a Greek university or technical college after being admitted with a Greek high school diploma.

Applications will be submitted to the Decentralized Administration service of the municipality in which the foreign national is registered at the age of 16 so that citizenship can come into effect at the age of 18.

“For us this bill brings justice and rights a wrong. Other than the children that have been born here it allows people who have come here at a young age and studied at a Greek school to apply,” Nikos Odubitan, the son of Nigerian migrants and a member of the nongovernmental organization Generation 2.0, told Kathimerini. “We will be equal members of society and will be able to plan our lives.”

The exact number of migrants who will be able to become Greek citizens thanks to this law is not clear. The Greek Forum of Migrants has in the past estimated the number of second-generation migrants in Greece at around 200,000. Sources at the Interior Ministry told Kathimerini that they believe some 50,000 foreign nationals will be in a position to apply immediately once the law is enforced, adding that an estimated 75,000 children of migrant parents are currently studying at Greek schools.

The Interior Ministry studied the decision by the Council of State – the country’s highest administrative court – which ruled that Law 3838 (also known as the Ragousis law after former Interior Minister Yiannis Ragousis, who drafted it) was unconstitutional on the grounds that it deemed migrants who had attended six years of school rather than the mandatory educational period as eligible for citizenship. That law also granted citizenship to children born in Greece to migrant parents who had lived in the country legally for a total of five consecutive years or more. The new draft law has amended the clause relating to education and made it specific to the mandatory period of schooling, while birthplace has been scrapped as a criterion.

According to Odubitan, the Ragousis law “granted citizenship to minors more easily and rightly so, but it presented several problems for adults.” The red tape involved in the process, explained Odubitan, discouraged a lot of adult second-generation migrants from submitting their applications before the law was annulled by the Council of State. In other cases, he said, civil servants tasked with processing applications would put migrants off from submitting their paperwork by telling them that the law was going to be annulled.

Sergios Kagiema, aged 27, is among the hundreds of migrants left in limbo after the court’s decision last year.

“The whole paper issue has left me exhausted and I just want it to be over. The state treats me like a migrant, as though I came from another country and wasn’t born here,” he told Kathimerini. “When I heard that the law had been put on hold and was then annulled I thought that so much running around for the papers had gone to waste. I didn’t know what the future held, whether the law would be scrapped forever or whether it would be made stricter, more merciless.”

Kagiema knows no country other than Greece. He was born in Gyzi, Athens, moving with his family to Exarchia and then to Kypseli, all in the city center.

His father came from Congo to study in Greece. His mother emigrated from the same African country in the 1970s at the age of 13, an orphan who was working as a housekeeper for a family of Greeks.

“I feel Greek but unfortunately I’m not,” Kagiema said. “There is this barrier, this fence, and it remains to be seen whether the new law will knock it down or at least lower it.”

As a child of immigrants Kagiema has known since he was a young age never to leave the house without his passport, saying that he has often been stopped by police for a “targeted check” during his outings.

“They see that you stand out from your friends,” he said, remembering situations where he was the victim of racial discrimination, such as one time when he was going to a soccer match with his friends and nearly ended up at the Aliens Bureau for an identity check, or another time when he was returning from holidays on Crete and a ferry employee took him for an undocumented migrant.

Kagiema recently graduated from the University of Piraeus, where he studied digital technology. He could have graduated on time, “like a normal person,” but decided to stretch the time out as he had to pay fewer fees and wait less time to have his residence permit renewed when he was registered as a student. His younger brother is currently at university and is following the same tactics.

Juela Sulejmanaj is 20 years old and collects the papers she needs to apply for citizenship every time she believes it might be possible.

She was born in Berat, Albania, and came to Greece with her parents when she was 9.

“It was tough when I first came. I didn’t speak the language and took private classes at first so I could fit in. I overcame all that eventually and became fully integrated,” she said. She is currently doing European studies at Panteion University in Athens and wants to do a master’s in another European Union country.

“I had tried to submit an application under the Ragousis law but then it was canceled and I was left hanging,” she said. “What the Greek government is trying to do now is a very important step. We are entitled to civil rights and easier access to employment. To join the civil service, for example, you need to be a citizen.”

According to the new draft law, Sulejmanaj and Kagiema can become Greek citizens as they have been educated in the country’s school system.

However, said Kagiema, “being Greek on paper doesn’t mean anything unless the people also embrace you.” He says that he has often seen Greeks expressing surprise when he speaks the language fluently. A fellow student had also advised him not to mention that he is of Congolese origin when filling in job applications to improve his chances of being hired. He also gets the occasional funny look in public.

“I want to feel like a part of this country, to be treated the same as Greek citizens,” he said. “Citizenship makes you want to contribute, to join forces with others and to give it your best.”