FECL 46 (August 1996):
Immigrants and refugees from Poland, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia began to arrive in large numbers in Greece in the 1980s. But immigration to Greece reached a peak in the end of 1990, with the massive influx of Albanian immigrants.
The largest ethnic category of immigrants today in Greece are the Albanians, followed by the Egyptians, Polish, and the Filipinos. No records are available on another large number of immigrants originating from Eastern European countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Rumania, Bulgaria. Over 250,000 Gypsies also live in Greece.
It is estimated that immigrants currently make up at least 5 per cent of the population, the great majority of which (about 80 per cent) are illegal.
The living conditions of the immigrants in Greece range from very bad to wretched, while the most downtrodden category are the Albanians. The Albanians come to Greece illegally via the "green border", or by paying enormous sums of money in order to obtain a visa on the black market - in which Greek state officials as well as whole sections of the Greek state services are involved. The illegal immigrants cross the Greek-Albanian border at risk of their lives. In recent years there have been dozens of cases where illegal Albanian immigrants have been killed by the Greek Armed Forces and the Greek Police in the border area. These killings are rarely reported in the press, while those who do come to light are presented as accidents. In addition, there have been dozens of cases of illegal immigrants being tortured at the border. These have never been reported in the press, and there has been no investigation or prosecution of those responsible for these crimes.
Immigrants as a whole play an important role in the Greek economy - mainly in agriculture. Indeed, due to their extremely low wages and their exclusion from social security, they contribute strongly to its profitability.
The housing conditions of the immigrants are wretched. The overwhelming majority of immigrant workers are piled into miserable lodgings, with five to ten people living in one room. Many of them - mainly Albanians and Africans - are forced to live in the work-places and, at the same time, offer their labour to their employers as house servants.
Illegal immigrants have no right to hospital care, even in emergencies. In practice, some emergency cases have been accepted. But under no circumstances are immigrants admitted to treatment in the public hospitals.
Foreign workers are required to pay contributions to the state insurance fund, but they do not obtain the health care they deserve and, if they leave the country, their contributions toward the social security fund are not returned.
There are no educational provisions for immigrants. With a few exceptions, nothing is being done to integrate immigrant children into the Greek school system. There are no teachers speaking a foreign language or preparatory centres of education. Recently, the Ministry of Education, by way of a circular letter, prohibited the admission of children of illegal immigrants to elementary schools. The circular was, however, withdrawn after protests by anti-racist organizations and teachers.
Current foreigner law recognizes a set of rights for foreigners living in Greece with a residence permit, but does not recognize any rights for immigrants whose permit has expired or without any permit. The law places strict conditions on eligibility to residence, and prohibits the legal immigrants from changing their jobs or their employer. That is, it ties the foreign worker to a certain employer, to a specific job and work area. The work permit or residence permit is revoked if there is change in any of the above conditions. Thus, the immigrants are directly dependent on their employers. Employers tend to take advantage of this situation by blackmailing them into submission under the threat of delivering them to the police for deportation - a threat that is often carried out.
The Albanians are among the immigrants most exposed to mass round-ups and deportations. In the last years, over 200,000 have been deported each year.
In recent years, there has also been an increase in the deportations of political refugees living in Greece and recently there have been cases where political asylum has been officially revoked.
Not only the state, but many trade unions, have a negative attitude towards immigrants. They are not only indifferent toward the defence of their most elementary rights, but, in more than one instance, unions - such as the construction and the shipyard workers union - have openly attacked immigrants, helped the police to catch and deport them, blamed the foreign workers for unemployment, and called upon the Greek workers to isolate them. The stance of the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) as a whole is not so different from that of public administration or the government. Although it has made proposals for the legalization of immigrants, these are limited, since they offer only a very small duration of stay permits, while at the same time demanding the swift deportation of illegal immigrants.
The dominant view in society, more or less openly supported by all Greek government and opposition parties, is that immigrant workers are responsible for unemployment. Much of society tends to perceive immigrants as inferior human beings, satisfied with low living standards and education.
The apparently high crime rate among immigrants - mainly Albanians - is constantly pointed out by the press. However, commentators regularly ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of these cases concern either the legal situation of the foreigner in Greece - for example, their illegal entry - or involve petty crimes. Crime figures indicate that serious criminality is actually lower among foreigners than among Greeks.
In order to grasp the extent of xenophobia in Greece, it is worth examining how certain words have changed their meaning within a few years. Thus, the word "Albanian" now is often used to describe a wretched person who will do any job for the lowest salary. The word "Filipina" is frequently used as a synonym for a house servant.
People in Greece opposed to the growing racism against the immigrants like to emphasise that the traditional "Greek hospitality" cannot fade away so easily. However, although examples of hospitality and protection of immigrants from the police and the state can be found, they are certainly not the norm. Quite the reverse: racist acts are becoming more and more brutal. In the worst case so far, the native population of a village hunted, beat up and expelled Albanian immigrants from their lodgings. Recently a group of masked people tortured Albanian immigrants, subjecting them to, among other things, mock executions.
The systematic fomenting of nationalism by political circles during the period 1991-94, with the aggressive policy of Greece towards the former Yugoslavian Republics of Macedonia and Albania, decisively contributed to the rise of anti-immigrant racism.
On the other hand, there is no tradition of an anti-racist movement in Greece. Nobody can expect from the large parties of the Left a systematic anti-racist policy.
The foreign workers themselves are organized on a national basis, but not all of them. The Albanians, who comprise the big majority of the immigrants, are not organized at all.
In recent years anti-racist movements and organizations have formed in Greece. There have been some limited mobilisations and demonstrations against the deportation of Albanians, for better living conditions for the Gypsies after a police attack on their camp-sites, and campaigns to influence public opinion. The most systematic and hopeful activity in recent years was lead by a coalition of immigrant and anti-racist organizations with the slogan "Immigrants are not a problem, they have problems". The coalition, which is made up of 29 immigrant and anti-racist organisations, demands the legalisation of all immigrants, with equal rights, and a stop to all deportations.
Thus, for the first time, elements of an organised anti-racist movement can be discerned in Greece.
Network for the Defense of Civil and Social Rights (Athens)Contact: Valtetsiou 35 - GR-10681 Athens. The above is an abridged and edited version of an article published in ALFA newspaper, P.O.Box 31809, GR-10035 Athens, fax:01-6458112, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.