The Integration of Irregular Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Greece

By Hilary Emefiele Erhabor, MA student at the University of Siegen and former Erasmus Intern at Inter Alia

In the last two decades, Greece has gone through a rapid transformation into a first country of arrival into Europe for immigrants particularly from Africa and Asia. However, the economic and financial crisis in Greece has impacted on the integration and settlement of immigrants and has become challenging for policy makers and the national authorities in Greece.

The topic of Migration (particularly African migration to Europe) has risen to the top of political agenda not only in Greece but in Europe in the last decade. It is currently estimated that about 5 million African immigrants currently reside in Europe making them the second largest population of non-EU citizens residing in Europe.

Some scholars have approached the study of migrants as a labour force that moves in accordance to economic rationales, with migrant employment shaped by structural forces and the migrants themselves having only a limited impact, while other studies have emphasized that migration movements are not linear processes in which a person moves from one country or region to another, i.e. the sending country and the receiving country, but instead involves a complex process that connects a plethora of movements in space and time. Most African immigrants today, usually considered as irregular migrants and asylum seekers are said to have specific routes of travels to Europe and these include through the Italian Islands of Lambedusa and Sicily in the Mediterranean, the Canary Isles, the Spanish areas of Melilla and Ceuta, through Malta, or through the Aegean Sea where arrivals have increased tens of folds in recent years.

Between 1991 and 2001, the population of immigrants witnessed an increase from 167,276 foreigners to 797,091. In 2011, it was estimated that the foreign population in Greece amounts to 911,929 people of which over half are Albanians (53 percent), followed by Bulgarians (8 percent), Romanians (5 percent) and Pakistanis (4 percent). Recently however, geographical proximity with sending countries (e.g. Albania, Bulgaria) is replaced by geographic accessibility for shaping migration patterns in Greece. This transition is related to the pressure exerted by FRONTEX missions on the West and Central Mediterranean Sea border, as well as the bilateral agreements signed between the South European and the North African countries that led to changing directions of irregular migrant flows to Greece. According to Papadopoulos and Fratsea (2015), “The attempt of the EU to externalize its migration policy beyond its south Mediterranean Sea borders led to the shift of migration flows to the east Mediterranean where borders have higher porosity.”

On the basis of the apprehensions data of irregular migrants in Greece, the composition of the migrant flows by border gate has significantly changed in the period 2010-2014. The arrests of irregular migrants at the Albanian border have gradually diminished to about 12 percent up to 2011. Then the Turkish land border became the main border gate to the country for the period 2010-2012, which then lost its significance due to the building of a security fence along the Evros River. By 2011, over 55 percent of apprehensions have taken place at the Evros river area, while five years earlier only 15 percent of total apprehensions took place at this entry point. By 2014, nevertheless, the irregular crossings via the land border virtually stopped and the apprehensions at the sea border rose again surpassing 55 percent of total apprehensions.

In the last 10 years, Greece has transformed from a country of emigration or transit into a destination country for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Despite the long presence of Africans in the country, they have been a neglected target group in Greek migration research. African immigration in Greece dates back to the 1980s and was mainly related with religious affinities (e.g. Ethiopia), Greek Orthodox Church missions (e.g. Kenya), the existence of Greek ‘diaspora’ (e.g. Eritrea) and the inflow of people for education purposes (e.g. Nigeria, Congo) or for employment through bilateral agreements (e.g. Egypt), however, their number remained small. Only recently there have been significant flows of irregular migrants from all African regions. Except from Somalia, Eritrea, Congo and Sudan which face different kinds of hardships in recent years such as political and social unrests, an increasing number of migrants move from West Africa to Greece. Rising numbers of migrants from Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Cameroon and Sierra Leone are far off their traditional migration routes congruent with their former colonial past. The Greek asylum system has been non-functional which has resulted in thousands of asylum seekers and migrants trapped in Greece without documents, without assistance and without a means of living. Migrants’ Integration

The conceptualization of Migrant integration is somewhat ambiguous as scholarships have found it difficult to pin down this concept with a concrete or generally accepted definition. Over the years, scholars from various humanities disciplines have examined and analyzed the different national models and policies aimed at integrating immigrants, as well as the effects that various policies have on ethnic-racial conflict, and political engagement or labour market participation, among other issues. In a somewhat simplistic way, Migrant Integration can be described as the process of becoming an accepted part of the host society while also acquiring a sense of belonging to it.

Over the years, there has been a long-standing debate between advocates of a multicultural approach to migrant integration and those with an assimilationist model of migrant integration. The multicultural approach highlights the preservation of cultural and religious identity of migrant communities as a medium of integration into the host society, while the assimilationist approach is premised on the cultural homogenization of ethnic minorities into the nation-state. However, both models have come under severe criticisms and have been considered to not capture or accurately depict the range and mixture of policies on the social incorporation of migrants that are formulated and applied in practice in the different member states.Over the course of the 1990s and especially the 2000s, European states’ approaches and policies have shifted to embrace the notion of social integration of migrants as distinctive from assimilation. Even countries that epitomized the multicultural approach to migrants’ integration, like the Netherlands, have shifted since the second half of the 1990s to an approach emphasizing social and economic integration, rather than cultural and economic segmentation.

The Greek institutional framework regarding immigrants consists of law 3386/2005 on “the entry, stay and social integration of third countries’ citizens in the Greek territory”. This law establishes the integration of the residence permit and the work permit which is granted initially for a year with the perspective to be renewed for another 2 years from time to time, provided the third country citizen has fulfilled his/her fiscal (tax) obligations, has entered into a contract for the provision of dependent work on monthly earnings equal at least to the unskilled worker’s earnings and has completed a minimum number of wages, as contemplated by the applicable legislation.

The Law 3536/2007 establishes a “National Committee for the Integration of Migrants” within the Ministry of Interior, Decentralization and e-Governance: which is an intergovernmental administrative instrument composed by representatives from different institutions of the central, regional and local government, as well as social partners and civil society representatives. This Committee is, among others, in charge for the comprehensive Action Plan ‘ESTIA’ for the social integration of the foreign population, legally established in the country. It is a “set of actions” with a “holistic approach” of the Greek policy towards the urgent need to safeguard social coherence, provide better access to services for migrants and increase their involvement in all aspects of social, public and private life, leading to their empowerment in order to be able to achieve “feasible and independent participation regardless of any state intervention”. At present, the current immigrant policy is under review, in view of stabilizing the permanent resident status of documented migrants by reducing the risk of losing this status, facilitating their transition to long-term regimes of increased rights and enabling their full participation in the economic and social life, especially with regard to second generation immigrants. To this end, law 3838/2010 on “Current provisions for Greek citizenship and the political participation of foreign-born Greeks and of legally residing immigrants” has been recently introduced.

However, it is considered by many immigrants in Greece that the Greek immigration policies are among the toughest in Europe and it is almost impossible for first generation migrants to acquire the Greek citizenship status. For second-generation migrants, it is compulsory to acquire a formal education at a Greek school and have an adequate knowledge of the Greek language.

Rapid employment growth provided immigrants with plenty of opportunities in the labour market, both formal and informal. Undoubtedly, their employment has been concentrated in the low skilled jobs, in traditional sectors of the economy such as building and construction, personal services, wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants. The majority of migrant workers are willing to accept atypical and precarious employment, the so called ‘3D’-jobs’ (dirty, dangerous and demanding work) in the secondary labour market, which are low paid and rejected by the domestic labour force. More recently, the situation has witnessed some significant changes – during the first quarter of 2009 the unemployment rate of foreigners actually surpassed that of the natives. It was estimated in 2009 that the employment and unemployment rates of foreigners/ citizens of countries outside the EU-27 (67.7% and 10.3% respectively), were higher than those of the native population (60.7% and 9.5% respectively), and of the EU-27 average (55.7% and 10.1%). This situation remained unchanged throughout 2009 and 2010, indicating that the current Greek economic crisis has affected the foreigners more than the natives. Moreover, migrants face a higher risk of belonging to the category of the ‘working poor’: the in-work poverty rate is 13% for the Greeks born in Greece, 19% for those born abroad (in general) and 21% for those born abroad with a foreign nationality.

In recent years particularly after the 2012 elections, there has been an increase in violent racist incidents which intensified after the 2012 elections when the neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn was elected into the Greek parliament for the first time in its history with 7 percent of popular vote. However, the Greek government decided to arrest some political leaders and members of the Golden Dawn party after reports of racist attacks on immigrants particularly immigrants of Asian descent. The murder of the Greek Hip Hop rapper Killah P on September 18, 2013 by a self professed Golden Dawn member Giorgos Roupakias sparked up weeks of anti-fascist protests and rallies all over Greece particularly in the capital Athens with calls for the immediate closure of the party. The murder led to the arrest of 69 Golden Dawn members including the party’s senior leadership who were charged with operating a criminal organisation. Consequently, these events forced the Greek government to pass an anti-racism bill and prompted a racist discourse in the Greek parliament in November 2013. The law consequently condemns the activities of the Golden Dawn political party and toughens criminal sanctions to hatred, discrimination and racial violence. However, the law has been criticized by NGOs and political activists for failing to protect victims of racist violence whenever a case is reported.

At this moment Greece is facing two contradictory migration situations: on one hand, it is the country with the largest refugee flow in the EU in the last two years and on the other hand, Greek citizens are leaving the country with the aim to finding better jobs and living conditions in EU other member states. It is a fact that Greece, has registered a million transit people since 2015. Dramatic changes in EU policy have obliged the country to revisit its asylum system, creating a special regime for border areas while at the same time is looking to grapple with an approximate number of 40,000 asylum seekers ‘trapped’ in Greece waiting either for relocating or indeed for integrating in the country. The effort for temporarily accommodating this population has been huge in a country that is in the 8th year of a dramatic economic and financial crisis and where growth rates stand at nearly zero and unemployment rates at 25%.

The civic integration of foreign migrants has acquired a more or less obligatory character, with enrolment in language and civic courses seen as a precondition for (rather than as an end result of) integration even as a requirement for reception and legal residence permit. The marriage to a Greek citizen by an immigrant entitles him or her to certain rights and privileges such as the automatic citizenship acquisition of their children and making the process of acquiring the citizenship a lot easier.

The integration of migrants is also enhanced through social inclusiveness which supports the proliferation of legal norms of equal treatment and non-discrimination of all regardless of ethnic origins or religious creed; therefore, the provision of equal opportunities through the prohibition of discrimination, the initiation and execution of positive action programs are necessary to promote the social integration of immigrants against the structural patterns of racism. This broadly inclusive approach to migrants’ integration is permeated by an instrumental logic aimed at rendering the state more competitive in the global economy.

With the continuous inflow of immigrants into Greece and the nation unlikely to resolve its economic crisis, it remains to be seen how the Greek government can effectively execute its immigration policies to adequately integrate immigrants temporally or permanently.