During the 1990s, the immigration problem in Greece started to have explosive dimensions due to political and economic developments in the South-East Europe, but also due to the continuous conflicts in the Middle East and the North Africa. An important factor that played a crucial role in shaping these developments was the collapse of Alia’s regime in Albania (1991) and the subsequent flow of illegal immigrants from Albania into Greece and also from other Balkan countries (Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia) due to the political unrest that took place in the Balkans during that period. In Greece, immigration policy is facing the same inflexibility, which does not solve the problem, but rather functions in a fragmentary way and does not constitute a substantial effort in solving the problem.
Emigration from Greece
Two important waves of mass emigration took place after the formation of the modern Greek State in the early 1830s: one from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, and another following the Second World War.
The first wave of emigration was spurred by the economic crisis of 1893 that followed the rapid fall in the price of currants, the major export product of the country at that time — in the international markets. In the period between 1890 and 1914, almost a sixth of the population of Greece emigrated, mostly to the United States (U.S.) and Egypt. This emigration was, in a sense, encouraged by Greek authorities who saw remittances as a means for improving the Greek economy. The lasting effect on Greece’s national consciousness was the expansion of the notion of “Hellenism” and “Hellenic diaspora” to the “New World“.
Following the Second World War, Southern European countries, Greece among them, were the main contributors of migrants to the industrialized nations of Northern Europe. More than 1 million Greeks migrated in this second wave, the bulk of them departing between 1950 and 1974 to Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
Economic and political factors were the primary motivators behind the migrations, both connected with the consequences of the 1946-1949 civil war and the 1967-1974 period of military junta rule that followed. Official statistics show that, between 1955 and 1973, Germany absorbed 603,300 Greek immigrants, Australia 170,700, the U.S. 124,000, and Canada 80,200. The majority of the migrants came from rural areas of Greece and they supplied both national and international labor markets.
Due to economic uncertainty following the oil crises of 1973 and 1980 and the adoption of restrictive immigration policies by some European countries, emigration flows were severely reduced and return migration increased. Other factors contributing to these changes included integration difficulties in the receiving countries, the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1974, and new economic prospects following Greece’s 1981 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). Between 1974 and 1985, almost half of the emigrants of the postwar period had returned to Greece.
Immigration: Dominant Trend That Replaces Emigration
Declining emigration and increasing return migration of Greeks created a positive migration balance in Greece in the 1970s. Immigration then grew at the beginning of the 1980s when a small number of Africans, Asians, and Poles arrived and found work in construction, agriculture, and domestic services. Nevertheless, immigration at that time was still limited in size. In 1986, there were a total of about 90,000 immigrants in the country, one-third of whom were from Europe. In 1991, the number of registered “foreigners” (as they are officially referred to in Greece) had grown to 167,000 out of a total population of 10,259,900.
The collapse of regimes in the formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 helped transform what was at one time sporadic immigration to Greece into a massive, uncontrollable phenomenon. As a result, the country received the highest percentage of immigrants in relation to its labor force in the 1990s, despite being one of the less-developed nations in Europe at that time. By 2001, Greece had an immigrant population of just over 762,000.
Greece’s geography, which became especially important after the formation of Europe’s borderless Schengen Area, has also contributed to the country’s transition to an immigrant-receiving nation. Positioned at the southeastern “gate” of the European Union, and with extensive coastlines and easily crossable borders, Greece has become a common transit country for those seeking entry into Europe. Also key have been the rapid changes that narrowed the economic and social distance between Greece and Northern European countries following the integration of Greece into the European Union in 1981. In step with economic development, improved living standards, and higher levels of education have led many young Greeks to reject low-status and low-income jobs. Meanwhile, the large size of the informal, family-based economy, and the seasonal nature of major industries such as tourism, agriculture, and construction have created demand for a flexible labor pool independent of trade union practices and legislation.
Gateway to Europe
Illegal immigration to Greece has increased rapidly over the past several years. Tough immigration policies in Spain and Italy and agreements with their neighboring African countries to combat illegal immigration have changed the direction of African immigration flows toward Greece. At the same time, flows from Asia and the Middle East mainly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bangladesh to Greece appear to have increased as well. The evidence now indicates that nearly all illegal immigration to the European Union flows through the country’s porous borders. In 2010, 90 percent of all apprehensions for unauthorized entry into the European Union took place in Greece, compared to 75 percent in 2009 and 50 percent in 2008.
In 2010, 132,524 persons were arrested for “illegal entry or stay” in Greece, a sharp increase from 95,239 in 2006. Nearly half of those arrested (52,469) were immediately deported, the majority of them being Albanians. Those not deported either applied for asylum or were issued a decision to self deport within one month — which effectively means unauthorized stay in the country. The main points of entry for illegal immigration to Greece include the Greek-Albanian land border, the Greek-Turkish land border, and sea borders between Greece and Turkey. In the past three years, there has been a notable shift in illegal immigration flows from sea borders to the Greek-Turkish land border.
In 2010, just under 5 percent of all apprehensions for the year took place at Greek-Turkish sea-borders, compared to nearly 21 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, apprehensions at the Greek-Turkish land border increased from 10 percent in 2008 to over 35 percent in 2010. Apprehensions at the Greek-Turkish land border in the first quarter of 2011 were up to 39 percent, indicating a continued trend despite a reduction in the number of apprehensions overall. These developments, along with the implementation of Dublin II Regulation (2003/343/CE) providing for the processing of asylum applications in the initial EU country of entry (and thus, the relocation of unauthorized immigrants throughout Europe to those countries until their cases are adjudicated), have turned Greece into the “storehouse” of illegal immigration to Europe.
Recently in the Northern European countries of Norway, Sweden, and Belgium, awareness was expressed and court decisions were issued concluding that the transfer of an asylum applicant back to Greece implied forced exposure to “inhuman and degrading treatment“, Greek authorities, unable to satisfactorily provide the required detention conditions and under heavy international pressure, have put forward a demand for an amendment to the Dublin II Regulation that would relieve some of the pressure the country faces in accommodating so many asylum seekers. Within Greece, political actors have exploited the illegal immigration situation and developed a rhetoric surrounding the need for stricter border controls and a tougher policy toward unauthorized immigrants including threats of mass deportations. Along this vein, the Greek government has announced the construction of a 12.5-kilometer wire fence that will stretch along the most porous section of the Greek-Turkish land border.
The Weaknesses of Greek Immigration Policies
The Greek government was unprepared to receive such a large number of immigrants over such a relatively short period of time and it has struggled with how best to deal with the integration of this population. Though the government has adopted, over the years, limited regularization procedures that would legalize certain unauthorized immigrants largely in response to pressure from constituents and human-rights organizations nearly half of the total estimated immigrant population remains unauthorized today. Regarding other forms of immigrant integration, the government has still not crafted a satisfactory institutional framework nor adopted a specific integration policy.
In conclusion, we may say that the question of illegal immigration is undoubtedly an extraordinary complicated problem that demands from policy-makers to fully understand the mechanisms that are fueling the phenomenon of illegal immigration and requires the development of such a policy that will enable the design of a realistic and long term inspired Immigration Policy not only in Greece, but at an European level as well. The analysis of the illegal immigration issue, its repercussions for Greek society (national security, social cohesion, unemployment) and the recommendations that are mentioned in this article are presenting the immediate priorities of a modern policy for the substantial confrontation of illegal immigration in Greece.
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