Friday, 8 June 2007

The State of Non-Existence

The European Union has done more than any government's domestic agenda in the past two decades to liberalise and vitalise the economy. An enormous part of that vim has come from the (almost) free movement of goods, services, people and capital.

Yet these freedoms, along with the equal legal treatment of EU citizens, have now thrown Greece's treatment of non-EU citizens into sharp contrast. They still live in the Greece of the 1970s because no unified EU immigration policy towards third nationals exists.

This week we bring to light one of the worst aspects of the troubles non-EU residents face - the legal limbo of tens of thousands of children born in this country. Non-EU babies are barred from birth certificates, which would entitle them to Greek citizenship. Not all countries grant children born on their soil automatic citizenship, as, for instance, the US does; but the refusal to issue a birth certificate means that a non-EU minor is technically denied enrolment in a public school and, when he turns 21, must apply for a residence permit or citizenship. So on their 18th birthday, these young adults celebrate their emergence into society as illegal aliens by applying for legalisation and being subject to deportation.

There are softeners. Schools mercifully turn a blind eye to the certificate requirement because Greece is a humane society more than a law-abiding one. Instead, they settle for a form that simply registers birth. And adults may remain registered on their parents' residence permits until 21 years of age rather than 18, but the message they receive is that they do not belong to the society in which they were raised. This is particularly bizarre in the case of Greek-Americans and Greek-Australians whose parents repatriated.

It becomes even more bizarre in those cases when the parents' country of origin does not maintain an embassy here - as many African countries do not. In such cases newborns cannot obtain a passport, meaning that they may never travel and are stateless when they come of age.

The two municipalities of Sykea and Veroia (both Pasok) are putting a proposal to the Central Union of Communities and Municipalities (Kedke) that either non-EU children should be entitled to the full birth certificate, or that the birth registration should acquire the legal force of a certificate vis a vis school and health insurance.

The ombudsman, too, is preparing his proposals. One is to elevate the status of the registration, as in the proposal to Kedke. The other is to create a special municipal registry for non-EU births in every Greek town.

Pasok, meanwhile, has gone beyond an administrative fix to an ideological position, promising birthright citizenship.

If this were the only problem non-EU immigrants faced, it would be serious enough, but the labyrinth continues. Regional administrations take so long to issue annual residence permits that they run out of force just weeks before immigrants receive them.

The ruling conservatives have also played a silly game of evasion and discouragement with European longterm residence - a permit lasting five years Greece is obliged to issue to third country nationals who can prove five years of legal residence. After failing to delay longterm residence until 2011, they slapped a 900 euro application fee on the process, which the Council of State has ordered dropped as a violation of EU law.

A new round of legalisation in 2005 partly defeated its own object by demanding the most stringent forms of proof of residence in Greece for a year. Whereas Pasok governments had demanded utility bills and monthly bus passes, New Democracy demanded entry visas in passports. Ostensibly, this was done to prevent a wave of opportunistic immigration gate-crashing the legalisation process; but it thus included only those who had overstayed a legal period, and excluded practically all the populations from central Asia, along with many from Albania and Bulgaria, who entered illegally overland or over sea.

It also turned out to be a fallible requirement. The Pakistani consulate in Athens, for instance, recorded instances of its nationals who requested passports when the legalisation was announced and then had them doctored so that they appeared to have been issued a year earlier.

Perhaps the most ominous invention of the conservatives, however, is the cultural requirement. They have mandated 125 hours of Greek language and history lessons of applicants for longterm residence. Proof of Greek proficiency is lately being demanded of EU immigrants who want to work in frontisteria, too. The demand is a reasonable one if it is meant in good faith. Learning the national language is in an immigrant's economic interest and promotes integration; but it could all too easily become a back door for disqualification and protection of jobs for Greek nationals.

What is worrying about this formidable collection of hurdles is not that they exist - every country needs to set requirements for citizenship and residence - but the spirit in which they exist. They do not give any sign of flowing from a theoretical framework, but rather of being hastily erected palisades.

The absence of an immigration philosophy is troubling. Clearly, Greece needs manual labour (the country advertises over 50,000 positions every year even while providing work for an estimated half million illegals); clearly legalisation is driven by a need to make social security solvent and beat tax evasion; clearly the expensive public university system - undersubscribed in a number of disciplines - needs to follow the private in actively recruiting overseas, fee-paying students; and clearly, Greece is attractive to western lifestyle immigrants and fertile ground for mixed marriages.

Immigration is a socially and economically acceptable fact in all these forms, but no government has yet made the bold political decision to give legal residence or citizenship to everyone whom society and the economy seem capable of absorbing, preferring instead to keep them in a state of limbo. There is a clear political difficulty in asking Greeks to accept the permanence of a phenomenon that is ongoing. But the refusal to form policy leads to an unmistakeable deliberateness in the legal and psychological hiatus in which immigrants find themselves. That creates its own problem - the discomfiture of immigrants and their non-integration.

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