Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Greek immigration policy: A lesson for Eastern Europe?

This article was published by Al Jazeera International. 

When Jessica Ben Anosike was 12, her sense of belonging in Greece as a second-generation migrant was demolished.

The Nigerian-born student had come top of her class in track and field, and looked forward to representing Greece in a European junior championship. Anosike still fights back tears of anger as she tells the story.

Jessica Ben Anosike, sporting a selection of her medals in track and field in her bedroom at her home in Athens (Photo by Anna Psaroudakis)
“I remember that I was first and I asked my coach if I’m qualified to go, and she said, ‘well, because you don’t have the Greek passport I don’t think it’s possible to go.’ And I said, ‘can’t we do something about it?’ And she said, ‘we’ll see.’ And the next thing I heard was that the Greek girl who came in second place, she took my place as the first.

Anosike, who was raised in Greece since the age of four, 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 nine years of Greek school.

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 I have something here that belongs to me.” In fact, the main reason she wants her passport is to leave. “I’m in a shell trying to come out,” she says, as we sit at Melissa, a migrant women’s organisation recently visited by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

To some extent, Anosike’s problems are those spurring much of Greek youth to leave the country; a jobless rate of over 50 percent, and a sense that despite European Union membership, decades of poor leadership have deprived this society of a future.

Yet despite its 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, whose job it is to implement the law. “We consider it self-evident that they participate in society sufficiently to be considered Greek citizens.”

Even so, the bill encountered opposition. MP Adonis Georgiadis, now running for the conservative leadership, cited an ancient Athenian law in parliament, which tightened the requirements for citizenship in 451BC.

“[Perikles said], ‘Does everyone want to come and live in Athens because they like our state? They are very welcome. But we are in charge. Why are we in charge? Because we didn’t go to their city. They came to ours. Why did they come? Because we were wiser, cleverer and better, and built a better state, which they envy, and want to live in with us. Since they freely choose to live with us,’ said Perikles, ‘they have entrusted their government to us’.”

The Supreme Court struck down a similar law the socialists passed in 2010, because it awarded citizenship on the basis of birth on Greek soil.

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. 

Shifting populations, desperate responses 

Greece’s experience of migration reflects Europe’s - but with extraordinary intensity. When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1990, eastern Europeans flooded west. 

Greece became home to an estimated one million Albanians, Bulgarians, Romanians and other minorities. (A 2001 census put the figure at 762,000, or 7.3 percent of the population – certainly an underestimation, because irregular migrants tended to avoid interviews).

Greece tried to develop a policy in an area where it had never had to have one. Between 1998 and 2005, three amnesties legalized an estimated half 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; and Greece’s economic collapse following the 2008 financial crisis put both Greeks and immigrants out of work, creating a perfect social and economic storm.  

A police officer on the Greece/F.Y.R.O.M. borders checks identification documents of newly arrived refugees from Athens, early in the morning (Photo by Anna Psaroudakis)
The right wing Golden Dawn party was suspected of being behind nocturnal attacks on migrants, which began in 2011, but this wasn’t proven at the time.

“All racist attackers enjoyed a kind of immunity from prosecution,” says Dimitris Zotos, one of the lawyers now prosecuting Golden Dawn. “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.

Migrants held there spoke of unsanitary conditions, exemplary 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.

Police had for years demonstrated similar behaviour in their handling of asylum applications. Lacking trained staff, they issued only token approvals. In 2007, for instance, Greece received 20,684 applications. Police approved 140. The following year Greece transposed EU asylum directives into national law, but even then police only approved 358 applications out of 29,573.

Processing took years. Many migrants filed for asylum as a way of gaining temporary residence.

Greece 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 indeed have been processed in the EU member state where he first alighted, which was Greece; but the ECHR ruled that poor living conditions and the defective asylum procedure there put both the applicant and his application in jeopardy. Soon after, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recommended that EU states refrain from returning supplicants to Greece.

Newly arrived refugees sleep in a secluded spot while tourists make their way through a residential area on the island of Lesbos (Photo by Anna Psaroudakis) 

Course correction

Under EU and UN tutelage, Greece again adapted. In July 2013 it set up a First Reception Service to greet migrants 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 over 13,000 applications and approved almost 4,000.

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

The killing of a Greek leftist rap singer in September 2013 by a Golden Dawn member led to the indictment of all 18 Golden Dawn members of parliament who had been elected in 2012 – including the party leader.

They now face the charge of belonging to a criminal organisation with trained attack battalions, which masqueraded as a political party. The party still polls six percent of the national vote, but it remains marginal.

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

But, he warns, Greece’s is an “embryonic transition”, which “cannot be taken for granted.” The countries of Eastern Europe, which have only been democracies for a quarter century and EU members for a decade, and who themselves generated Europe’s last surge in immigration in the 1990s, now threaten that progress. Former Yugoslav Macedonia has built a fence along its border with Greece. Several eastern states have stepped back from their pledges to relocate refugees.

European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos recently called this unravelling of open borders “the beginning of the end of the European Union”. 

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

Migrants themselves may alter Europe’s debate about migration unpredictably. Beata Pastor, who was born in Greece to Filipino parents, is also a member of Melissa. The 19 year-old believes that 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.”

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