Greek immigration policy: A lesson for Eastern Europe?

Greece was notorious for its treatment of refugees, but its approach has evolved and could offer lessons to others.

Newly arrived refugees sleep in a secluded spot while tourists make their way through a residential area on the island of Lesbos [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]
Newly arrived refugees sleep in a secluded spot while tourists make their way through a residential area on the island of Lesbos [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – When Jessica Ben Anosike was 12, her sense of belonging in Greece as a second-generation migrant was shattered. The Nigerian-born student had come out on top of her class in track and field events and was looking forward to representing Greece in a European junior championship.

“I remember that I was in first place, and I asked my coach if I’m qualified to go,” Anosike recalled, fighting back tears. “She said, ‘Well, because you don’t have the Greek passport, I don’t think it’s possible.'” The coach gave the spot to a Greek athlete who had taken second place.

Anosike, raised in Greece since she was four years old, is now 19 and finally eligible for that Greek passport. A law passed this year naturalises people of non-Greek origin if they have attended Greek schools for nine years.

Anosike is among 12,000 applicants, but her relationship with Greece is broken. Aside from her loyal Greek friends, she says, “I don’t feel it’s my home or that I have something here that belongs to me.” In fact, the main reason she wants a passport is so she can leave.

Jessica Ben Anosike, a second-generation migrant, wears a selection of her medals won in track and field events at her home in Athens [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]

To some extent, Anosike’s problems are those spurring much of Greece’s youth to leave the country – a joblessness rate of  more than 50 percent and a sense that, despite European Union membership, decades of poor leadership have deprived them of a future.

Despite these shortcomings, Greece serves as an example of a homogenous European society implementing the rule of law and adapting to population shifts. The citizenship law is the pinnacle of that process.

“Those who have finished school here are thought to be integrated,” says Vasilis Papadopoulos, the general secretary for migration at the interior ministry responsible for implementing the law. “We consider it self-evident that they participate in society sufficiently to be considered Greek citizens.”

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Even so, the bill encountered opposition: One MP, Adonis Georgiadis, now running for the conservative leadership, cited an ancient Athenian law introduced by Pericles in 451BC, which tightened the requirements for citizenship and declared that only children whose parents were both Athenian could receive this citizenship.

But Tasia Christodoulopoulou, the migration minister who passed the new law, ultimately prevailed. “We need to accept their will to be Greek citizens, which means that they will have rights as well as obligations,” she said.

A group of Moroccan refugees protest against being denied passage into Macedonia. On December 3, a young Moroccan man was electrocuted trying to cross the newly erected fence along the Greece-Macedonia border [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]

Shifting populations, desperate responses 

Greece’s experience with migration reflects Europe’s – but with extraordinary intensity.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1990, many Eastern Europeans headed west. 

Greece tried to develop a policy in an area where it had never previously needed one. Between 1998 and 2005, three amnesties legalised an estimated half-a-million people. The logic was that if the economy had absorbed them, the state should receive taxes and social security contributions.

After the second Gulf war, however, migration from newly destabilised countries in the Middle East and Central Asia swelled. This, coupled with Greece’s economic collapse following the 2008 financial crisis, put both Greeks and immigrants out of work, creating a perfect social and economic storm.

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“All racist attackers enjoyed a kind of immunity from prosecution,” says Dimitris Zotos, one of the lawyers now prosecuting Golden Dawn, the far-right party known for repeated attacks on migrants.

“The then [conservative] government had invested in targeting migrants as one of the causes of the economic crisis and, therefore, wanted to turn people’s attention towards seeing migrants as one of the sources of unhappiness.”

The official crackdown, too, came in August 2012. The conservatives unleashed police patrols, arresting anyone without residence papers. Holding cells were filled to bursting; detention camps held the spillover.

Iranian refugees sewed their mouths shut at the Greek border in protest against being denied entry into Macedonia [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]

Migrants held there spoke of unsanitary conditions, beatings, poor nutrition and little or no access to healthcare or legal aid. Most troubling was the practice of detention beyond an 18-month pre-trial limit, for which the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an NGO coalition, threatened to have Greece indicted at the European Court of Human Rights.

For years, police demonstrated similar behaviour in handling asylum applications. Lacking trained staff, they issued only token approvals.

In 2007, Greece received 20,684 asylum applications – police approved only 140. The next year, Greece turned EU asylum directives into national law. Even then, police only approved 358 asylum applications out of 29,573. With processing taking years, many began filing applications as a way of gaining temporary residence.

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The Greek process became so notorious that in January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Belgium had violated the rights of an Afghan asylum seeker by deporting him back to Greece.

Under EU rules, the Afghan man’s asylum application should have been processed in the EU member state where he first alighted, which was Greece, but the court ruled that poor living conditions and the defective asylum procedures put both the applicant and his application in jeopardy.

Soon after, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recommended that EU states refrain from returning applicants to Greece.

A police officer on the Greece-Macedonia border checks the documents of newly arrived refugees, early in the morning [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]

Course correction

Under EU and UN tutelage, Greece adapted again.

In July 2013, it set up a “First Reception Service” to greet refugees at the border, identify them, check their health and inform them of their legal rights. It also set up a dedicated asylum service staffed by lawyers. Last year, the service received more than 13,000 applications and approved almost 4,000.

When the left-wing Syriza party toppled the conservatives in January, it also put an end to the illegal practice of prolonged detention.

A young Iranian refugee, denied passage into Macedonia, warms up with a blanket while contemplating the situation in Idomeni, Greece [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]

Both Greece’s mistakes and its progress since 1990 stand as an example to Eastern European states, says Dimitris Christopoulos of Panteion University, who wrote the citizenship law and chairs Greece’s Human Rights Committee.

But, he warns, Greece is in an “embryonic transition” which “cannot be taken for granted”.

The countries of Eastern Europe, which have only been democracies for a quarter-of-a-century and EU members for a decade, and who themselves generated Europe’s last surge of immigration in the 1990s, now threaten that progress.

Macedonia has since built a fence along its border with Greece and several Eastern European countries have stepped back from their pledges to relocate refugees.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European migration commissioner, recently called this unravelling of the commitment to open borders “the beginning of the end of the European Union”. 

“They are still where Greece was during the Cold War. The worst case scenario [for 2016] is introspection – trying to build new waiting zones in the European periphery as is happening now with Greece,” says Christopoulos.

“In this case, the fence mentality will prevail, and the domino effect that started with the [political] right in Hungary and has caught on in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc, will continue. In such a case, the European political project is in danger.”

But it may just be migrants themselves who alter Europe’s debate about migration. Beata Pastor, who was born in Greece to Filipino parents, is a member of Melissa, a non-profit organisation established by migrant women, which helps new refugees.The 19-year-old believes that the citizenship she has applied for will change things.

“Whatever bad happens here in Greece, they blame us. We don’t have the right to vote… Shouldn’t the blame go to the Greek people who vote?” she asks rhetorically.

“The Greek people they think about their own selves. Us, we believe in voting for the future of everyone, not just the Greeks, but everyone who lives here, and for the future of the country.”

In the early morning hours, refugees stand in line for food provided by the NGO Praksis in Idomeni, Greece [Anna Psaroudakis/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


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