Πηγή: Social Europe Journal
by Nick Malkoutzis
Immigration more important than the Economy?
Judging by the content of the debate in Greece over the past few days, one might think that the most pressing issue facing the country ahead of the upcoming general elections is illegal immigration rather than the economy. The two coalition partners, New Democracy and PASOK, have attempted to outdo each other by trying to appear determined to tackle a matter that is gaining relevance as a result of the crisis.
With elections probably due to take place on May 6, Greece’s two main parties have stepped up the rhetoric. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras wants to repeal the citizenship law passed in 2010, which allows second-generation immigrants to apply for Greek citizenship. “Our cities have been taken over by illegal immigrants, we have to reclaim them,” Samaras told members of his party on Thursday as the police conducted sweep operations to round up illegal immigrants in downtown Athens.
PASOK, meanwhile, via its Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, is attempting to go one better by announcing the creation of 30 reception centers around the country by next year to house up to 30,000 people awaiting asylum approval or deportation. This, Chrysochoidis says, will ease the pressure on cities like Athens, Thessaloniki and Patra.
In a sense, both parties are right. Greece does have an immigration problem. In 2011 it was home to an estimated 1.1 million migrants, who make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. About 400,000 are thought to be undocumented, which is a very high number for a country as small as Greece. Along with Italy, Greece is the main point of entry in the EU for undocumented migrants.
The tendency for immigrants to be drawn to inner-city areas has caused considerable tension, especially in the context of the economic crisis, which has seen Greece go through four years of recession and its unemployment rate rise to 21 percent. Some Greeks feel threatened by the large numbers of foreigners that have moved into these areas. Rising crime and a general sense of lawlessness have turned these districts into breeding grounds for extremism.
The neo-fascist group Chrysi Avgi won a seat on Athens’s municipal council for the first time in its history in 2010 and opinion polls show it has a chance of gaining seats in Parliament. The party’s rise has been accompanied by attacks on migrants.
Although PASOK and New Democracy may be right to draw attention to the immigration issue, they clearly have little idea how to tackle it. For instance, there is no clear evidence that Samaras’s bete noire, the citizenship law, is attracting more immigrants to Greece. The construction of reception centers also seems a pre-election publicity stunt when more substantive measures are needed.
Removing 30,000 undocumented migrants from city centers and putting them in old army camps will not change the fundamentals of the situation. There will still be tens of thousands of people in a bureaucratic limbo: asylum seekers caught up in the torturously slow-turning cogs of the Greek public administration and economic migrants who still hope to make it to somewhere else in Europe.
These people still need to be found, recorded, processed and be provided with adequate social services. At the moment, this task is largely left to NGOs like the UNHCR and the Greek branch of Doctors of the World. But these groups are becoming stretched due to the economic crisis. About a third of the people that Doctors of the World looks after now are Greek. Last year, it was just 6 percent.
One of the options available is to return undocumented migrants and those who do not qualify for asylum to their homelands. Greece is running a repatriation scheme that will see 2,000 people repatriated this year. However, this scheme is far too small to address the issue decisively.
Immigration is a European, not a Greek Issue
Greece needs a much more substantial approach to addressing its immigration and asylum process. A comprehensive plan was agreed between the European Commission and Greece in September 2010. The action plan was based around five key points: improvement of reception conditions, creation of screening centers to record and manage migrants, dealing with the asylum backlog, establishing a dedicated civilian asylum department, and provision of EU funds to finance this process. While much of the relevant legislation has been passed, hardly any of these elements have been implemented.
Greece also has to do a better job of stating its case for assistance at a European level. It needs more funding for repatriation programs and NGOs. It will also require more substantial assistance in patrolling its borders. The European Union’s border monitoring agency Frontex has set up an operational base in Athens and provided officers to help with patrols on the Turkish border but there has been a lack of interest from EU states in committing more resources to this effort.
Turkey seems indifferent about cracking down on the traffickers who exploit a steady flow of immigrants trying to enter the Union. As long as the rest of the EU treats Greece’s borders as those of Greece alone and not those of the Union as well, little progress will be made.
The threats made recently by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other EU politicians that Greece could be expelled from the Schengen Agreement poison the debate. A more constructive approach would be to examine the impact of the Dublin II Regulation, which leads to undocumented migrants and refugees being returned to Greece for processing if they are caught in other EU countries.
There is one more aspect being overlooked within Greece, which is, ironically, the economic factor. A 2010 Athens University study suggested that migrants added about 1.5 percent of GDP to Greece’s growth rate each year. Also, the social security system has been kept afloat thanks in some part to contributions from economic migrants. Despite problems along the way, the integration into Greek society of migrants, particularly from Albania, some parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, has largely been a success. In many cases their children are now fully assimilated and an integral part of the country’s future. When examining the issue of immigration, it is this future that Greece should be looking to above all.
With less than 10 children being born for every 1,000 inhabitants, Greece has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. Its death rate — 10.7 per 1,000 inhabitants — is one of the highest in the EU. There will soon not be enough people working and producing wealth to cover the cost of running the state and looking after the country’s ageing population.
Unless Greeks start producing more babies — a prospect that has been stymied by the current crisis — or integrating more migrants into its society, there is no way the country will be able to function. Most EU countries face a similar problem but Greece’s is compounded by the fact that many of its young, bright people are packing their bags and leaving because of the crisis.
Greece desperately needs to adopt an effective process for registering immigrants and asylum seekers and assessing their skills. Authorities can then decide who to accept and who to turn away. With some of the ablest members of its society pursuing their futures elsewhere, Greece’s survival depends on this. Maybe immigration is a bigger issue than the economy after all.
This post is part of the ‘Basic Values Debate’ jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Social Europe Journal. Read more on the future of the state: ‘The Task of the State and its Responsibilities for the Future’.