The illegal immigration in Greece

As in many other countries around Europe, immigration is often used as a scapegoat for economic problems. Greece, with its many islands and a coastal line of 15,000 kilometres, is a relatively easy gateway for illegal immigration into Europe. Greek immigration policies have traditionally been lenient in comparison with North Europe and any immigration policy in Greece was virtually non-existent until the mid 1990s. This is because tourism is a very profitable sector of the Greek economy and control borders were never harsh. Once here, many slip away and become part of the black economy. Also, the northern part of the country borders with Albania, FYROM, Bulgaria and Turkey. This facilitates access to the country through the mainland.

Because of their illegal status, the vast majority of immigrants work in the informal or black economy. However, there is a large amount of academic research that indicates that without this important, flexible source of labour the economy of Greece would be in a much worse state.

It is thought that the informal economy of Greece accounts for something like 30-35% of GDP. In order for small-scale, family businesses (which are still a very prominent part of the economy) to be sustainable and competitive the existence of cheap and flexible unskilled or semi-skilled labour is imperative.
Traditionally, such work was carried out by younger family members but today many Greek families prefer maintaining their children until they find a high status job, preferably in the public sector, rather than allowing them to undertake unskilled work that has few or no prospects or status. Furthermore, a large number of young Greeks consider working in menial jobs degrading and, as a consequence, such labour shortages are largely met by immigrants who are willing to be both geographically mobile and flexible with regard to working practices and wages. Thus, immigrants fill an important gap in the labour market of the black economy.

Their status depends on several factors. If they are political immigrants and refugees, they are granted a temporary residence permit in Greece. Also, there are some immigrants that come to Greece with temporary work or tourist visas. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the immigrants that reside in Greece are clandestine. Today, data on illegal immigration in Greece vary according to the source. There
have been no serious attempts to accurately determine their numbers and the best available data are speculations. In 1999, government estimates suggest the number 500.000-600.000, which represents a 12 per cent of the labour force, whereas other estimates point to the number of 800,000.

A major question to be answered therefore is, given the extent of immigration, what is the potential of the labour market to absorb this influx. The Greek economy is characterised by seasonal work in areas such as tourism, agriculture and construction. A large part of the economy is dependent upon small-scale family businesses that are labour intensive and rely heavily upon unskilled or semi-skilled workers. In order to maintain a competitive edge, such businesses need to keep their labour costs at a minimum and the illegal immigrant slots into this role.

For a variety of reasons, legal, indigenous workers will not accept the low wages offered in this informal sector yet, according to Eurostat, the informal economy represents around 45% of GDP. In May this year (2011) the Greek unemployment rate hit 16.6% impacting largely on young people and women. Therein lies a paradox, there are labour shortages enough to absorb the illegal immigrants yet unemployment has reached an all time high, especially amongst the young indigenous population. However, this is not an oxymoron because, as previously mentioned. many young Greeks are unwilling to take jobs with low status and low pay and prefer to be supported by their families.

Many Trade Unions in Greece are in support of the legalization of illegal immigrants because it is recognised the positive effects that a cheap labour force has on the Greek economy. Along with the Ministry of Agriculture, they point to the fact that immigrants saved agriculture from disaster and reinforced the competitiveness of Greek products in the European market. Furthermore, their role in the dynamics of the labour vs capital debate have kept wage claims stable. Further evidence comes from the Association of Greek Fish Farmers who mostly employ illegal Albanian workers and who claim that without this flexible labour force they would have been in serious trouble. The flower producers of Trizinia who rely on cheap labour from Indian immigrants also state that they would not be able to sustain their businesses without this labour force.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind that most of the immigrants, due to their clandestine status, do not make use of any social benefits, even though schooling for their children and free medical insurance are provided, according to Greek and European law. They mainly consume local goods, especially food and clothing, thus stimulating Greek commerce. The only drawback as far as economics are concerned is the remittances that are earned in Greece but then sent or invested in the home country. However, these remittances are significantly lower that the ones from Greeks who live outside the country or from those who avoid tax by investing their money in offshore companies.

The lack of tolerance for different social backgrounds has led to an increase of xenophobia, which has been highly cultivated by the mass media for reasons of publicity. Catchy titles like “Tuberculosis is here”( Apogevmatini , 27/9/ 1994), “Invasion of Illegal immigrants both from Land and Sea”( Exusia 27/1/1997) do not
exactly promote the understanding of multiculturalism. The Greek police and the media have attributed the rise in crime to the existence of illegal immigrants and especially to the Albanians. It is true that in 1997, 39 per cent of the population of Greek prisons were immigrant prisoners, the highest percentage in Europe. But it is also true that a great percentage was held for immigration – related offences, before their deportation from the country, or while waiting for the appeal procedure. In a report from the Human Rights Watch presented in November 2000, it was shown that many prisoners were jailed before trial because they were not Greek, others for breaking the Aliens Law, e.g. for simply being on Greek soil, and lastly, 85 percent of the convicted prisoners were detained beyond their sentences because they could not be deported. It has also been proved that due to the immigrant’s limited knowledge of the Greek language, they are poorly represented in court – the attorney is only assigned the day of the trial- and judges tend to give harsher sentences to foreigners than Greeks for similar or identical crimes.

The Media have sensationalized certain incidents, like the hijacking of two buses by a Greek Albanian resulting in the death of a Greek passenger (1999), in order to accentuate the profile of the “criminal” illegal immigrant. This stereotype was also reinforced in 1997 when an economic and political crisis broke out in Albania. Many prisoners were released and a lot of them were alleged to have moved in Greece.

Research has also noted that the hostility against immigrants is much higher for the non-Christian orthodox and generally non-Christians. For this reason it is better to be Russian, Ukraine or Georgian, than to be Albanian, Pakistani or Indian. The Greek Church has repeatedly warned its “flock” about the danger of national traditions being destroyed by immigrants, and even publicly opposed to the carrying of the Greek flag from a 15 –year-old Albanian boy at a local national day parade (although he was the best student in school) on the grounds of his nationality. Luckily, the Greek government condemned the Church’s position and the boy was allowed to march holding the Greek flag.

Thankfully though, apart from isolated incidents, there have been no serious efforts to endanger the lives of immigrants, and there are no parties in the Parliament that hold an anti-immigrant stance, a phenomenon that has been observed in Italy, Germany, Austria and France.

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