E.g., 12/05/2023
E.g., 12/05/2023
Greece: A History of Migration

Greece: A History of Migration

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Countries around the globe have communities that bear witness to the waves of outward migration that once characterized Greece. Over the past 15 years, however, Greece has become a receiver of migrants and a permanent immigrant destination. Most of these new immigrants hail from Central and Eastern Europe, and despite two regularization programs, a good number of them still reside in Greece without authorization. People from Asia (particularly Iraq, Pakistan, and India) have recently been rapidly increasing their share of the total number of immigrants arriving illegally.

As in the past, a complex set of forces are pushing and pulling migration to and from Greece. Today, the government is poised to implement an integration action plan aimed at harnessing these forces to the country's advantage. That process, however, has yet to begin, and considerable public anxiety and political friction is expected to precede the harvest of hoped-for economic, cultural, and political benefits.

Greek History: Waves of Emigration

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 to the early 20th century, and another following World War II.

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 – in the international markets. In the period 1890-1914, almost a sixth of the population of Greece emigrated, mostly to the United States and Egypt. This emigration was, in a sense, encouraged by Greek authorities, who saw remittances as helping to improve the balance of payments of 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 World War II, the countries of Southern Europe, Greece among them, were the main contributors to migration to the industrialized nations of Northern Europe. However, the oil crises of 1973 and 1980 caused economic uncertainty and a sharp fall in the demand for labor, which in turn led northern states to introduce restrictive immigration policies. As these countries became less welcoming to their former invitees, return migration to Greece soon followed.

More than one million Greeks migrated in this second wave, which mainly fell between 1950 and 1974. Most emigrated to Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Economic and political reasons often motivated their move, both connected with the consequences of a 1946-1949 civil war and the 1967-1974 period of military junta rule that followed. Official statistics show that in the period 1955-1973 Germany absorbed 603,300 Greek migrants, Australia 170,700, the U.S. 124,000, and Canada 80,200. The majority of these emigrants came from rural areas, and they supplied both the national and international labor markets.

Following the oil crisis of 1973 and the adoption of restrictive immigration policies by the European countries, these immigration 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 the new economic prospects developed following the 1981 entry of the country into the European Economic Community (EEC). Between 1974 and 1985, almost half of the emigrants of the post-war period had returned to Greece.

Trading Places: Immigration Replaces Emigration

Declining emigration and return migration created a positive migration balance in the 1970s. Immigration grew at the beginning of the 1980s when a small number of Asians, Africans, and Poles arrived and found work in construction, agriculture, and domestic services. Nevertheless, immigration was still limited in size. In 1986, legal and unauthorized immigrants totaled approximately 90,000. One third of them were from European Union countries. The 1991 Census registered 167,000 "foreigners" in a total population of 10,259,900.

The collapse of the Central and Eastern European regimes in 1989 transformed immigration to Greece into a massive, uncontrollable phenomenon. As a result, although Greece was at that time still one of the less-developed EU states, in the 1990s it received the highest percentage of immigrants in relation to its labor force.

Many factors explain the transformation of Greece into a receiving country. These include the geographic location, which positions Greece as the eastern "gate" of the EU, with extensive coastlines and easily crossed borders. Though the situation at the country's northern borders has greatly improved since the formation of a special border control guard in 1998, geographic access remains a central factor in patterns of migration to Greece.

Also key have been the rapid economic changes that narrowed the economic and social distance from the Northern European countries following the integration of Greece into the EU in 1981. In step with economic development, the improved living standards and higher levels of education attained by young people have led most Greeks to reject low-status and low-income jobs. Meanwhile, both the large size of the informal, family-based economy, and the seasonal nature of industries like tourism, agriculture, and construction, have created demand for a flexible labor pool, independent of trade union practices and legislation.


Recent Migration and Data Limitations
Historically, data on immigration to Greece has been inadequate and often unsatisfactorily recorded. This has only recently begun to change with census counts and other forms of data collection.

Greece's first national figures were calculated following a regularization program in 1997, based on information collected from 371,641 applicants for Greece's "white card" residence permit. Analysts believe that the applicants amounted to approximately half of the immigrants living in the country at that time.

The data indicate that, of those registered under the program, over 70 percent were unskilled males with higher than primary-school education. They were concentrated in the region of Athens, and more than two-thirds had Albanian nationality. These migrants were employed mostly in agriculture, construction, tourism, and domestic services—sectors that operate with ease in the informal economy, or extend there.

Data from a second regularization program, initiated in 2001, has not yet become available.

The only other satisfactory data on the immigrant population was collected by the National Statistical Service during the 2001 Census, in which immigrants were registered as a "foreign population in Greece." Despite their shortcomings, these census data on immigrants provide the most comprehensive, updated picture of the population.

It is worth noting that "immigrants" of ethnic Greek origin—either returning emigrants or their descendents—were also registered by the 2001 Census, but the data have not been published yet. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2003 indicated that over 150,000 immigrants of Greek origin had arrived in the country from the former Soviet Union since 1977; one-third of them had been naturalized.

Greece's Migrants in Context

According to the latest census, the population of Greece increased from 10,259,900 in 1991 to 10,964,020 in 2001. This increase can be almost exclusively attributed to immigration in the past decade. The census showed that the "foreign population" living in Greece in 2001 was 762,191 (47,000 of them EU citizens), making up approximately seven percent of the total population of the total population. Of these migrants, 2,927 were registered as refugees.

It is estimated that the real number of immigrants is higher; many analysts believe that migrants make up as much as 10 percent of the population. They cite, among other factors, the fact that the 2001 Census was carried out before the implementation of Act 2910/2001, otherwise referred to as Greece's second regularization program. This legislation dealt with "the admission and residence of foreigners in Greece and the acqusition of Greek nationality through naturalization." Because of their illegal status, a good number of immigrants escaped census registration, while still others entered the country specifically to take advantage of regularization.

Immigration is the cause of population increase and demographic renewal in Greece in the period between the 1991 and 2001 censuses. The average number of children per woman in Greece has fallen to 1.3, against a European average of 1.5, and well below the average of 2.1 required for the reproduction of a population. Of the immigrant population, on the other hand, 16.7 percent are in the 0-14 age bracket, 79.8 percent in the 15-64 age bracket, and only 3.5 percent in the over-65 age bracket. The respective percentages for the national population are 15.2 percent, 67.7 percent, and 17 percent, demonstrating the key role immigrants of child-bearing age play in the population as a whole. Albanians, who are mainly married couples raising families, are the youngest population overall. In contrast, immigrants from the United States, Canada, and Australia have the highest percentages of people in the over-65 age bracket, because they are mainly pensioner returnees of Greek origin.

Males and females make up 54.5 percent and 45.5 percent of the total, respectively. However, gender composition varies widely among the various nationalities. Albanians and Romanians show the most balanced picture, because the percentages of males fluctuate just above the average with 59 percent and 57 percent, respectively. Other nationalities show sharp asymmetries, where either males or females far outnumber the other gender. For example, females make up almost two thirds of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Bulgaria, as well as approximately four-fifths of the Filipinos. On the other end, immigrants from Pakistan and India are almost exclusively male.

Fifty-four percent of the immigrants enter the country for work. Family reunification (13 percent) and repatriation (7 percent) are other main reasons they give for their arrival. Albanians show the highest level of participation in family reunification and immigrants from United States, Canada, and Australia in repatriation—a confirmation of the Greek origin of these immigrants. An unspecified "other reason" concerns 21.5 percent of the total, while "asylum" and "refugee" status seekers account for 1.6 percent.

National Origins of Recent Migrants

In the 1990 to 2001 period of mass immigration to Greece, immigrants arrived in two waves. The first was that of the early 1990s, in which Albanians dominated. The second arrived after 1995, and involved much greater participation of immigrants from other Balkan states, the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, and India. The majority of Albanians arrived in the first wave; however, the collapse of enormous "pyramid schemes" in Albania's banking sector in 1996 also spurred significant migration.

According to the 2001 Census, the largest group of immigrants draws its origins from the Balkan countries of Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. People from these countries make up almost two-thirds of the total "foreign population." Migrants from the former Soviet Union (Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldava, etc.) comprise 10 percent of the total; the EU countries approximately six percent. A heterogeneous group of people from places such as the United States, Canada, and Australia (mostly first or second-generation Greek emigrants returning home), also account for around six percent. Finally, a residual group from a wide variety of countries makes up 13 percent. None of the individual countries included in this last group exceeds two percent of the total "foreign population."

Of the main countries of origin, Albania accounts for 57.5 percent of the total, with second-place Bulgaria far outdistanced with 4.6 percent. Common borders with both of these countries have facilitated crossing over to Greece, leading to a cyclical form of immigration.

Education and Workforce Participation

Nearly one-half of the migrants have secondary education (including technical-skill schools) and one-third have either completed or acquired primary school education. Almost one-tenth have higher education. A qualitative analysis of the educational levels of the various nationalities shows that, comparatively speaking, Albanians have the lowest level of education and former Soviet citizens the highest. In terms of higher education, females have the largest share of the total, while males appear to predominate in all other educational categories.

Immigrants are almost exclusively (90 percent) engaged in wage work and, to a much lesser extent, are self-employed (6.5 percent). Most of the jobs are non-skilled, manual work well below the immigrants' level of education and qualifications.

According to the 2001 census data, the majority of immigrants (54 percent) enter Greece for work. Bulgarians and Romanians are the nationalities that most often cite employment as the most important reason for immigrating to Greece. Immigrants are mainly employed in construction (24.5 percent), "other services," meaning mostly domestic work (20.5 percent), agriculture (17.5 percent), and "commerce, hotels, and restaurants" (15.7 percent).

Because of the size of their presence in the total immigrant population, Albanians dominate in all sectors. Within the Albanian nationality, however, construction absorbs the highest percentage (32 percent), followed by agriculture (21 percent), and then "other services" (15 percent). In contrast, Bulgarians are mostly occupied in agriculture (33 percent) and "other services" (29 percent).

In the construction sector, immigrants currently provide a quarter of the wage labor, and in agriculture, a fifth of the total labor expended (almost 90 percent of the non-family wage labor). Immigrants play an important structural role in both sectors.

"Other services" —a sector identified with domestic services where female migrant labor predominates—mostly employs immigrants from the former Soviet Union (37 percent) and Bulgaria. At the same time, employment in domestic services allows larger numbers of Greek women to join the labor market.

Immigration Policy Developments

The Greek government has been unprepared to receive the large numbers of immigrants of the last decade, and has hesitated to introduce the necessary legal and institutional changes for the regularization and integration of this population.

The government, however, was forced to adopt a regularization procedure under often contradictory pressures. From one side, in an environment of growing xenophobia, the public demanded the registration of immigrants. From another, human rights and labor organizations sought more humanitarian and less exploitative treatment.

The first regularization program to handle recent illegal migration was introduced as late as 1997 with Presidential Decrees 358/1997 and 359/1997. These aimed at the implementation of Act 1975/1991 on the "entry-exit, residence, employment, expulsion of foreigners and procedure for the recognition of the status of refugee for foreigners."

The twin decrees gave unregistered immigrants the opportunity to acquire a "white card" temporary residence permit. This, in turn, gave them time to submit the complementary documents necessary to acquire a "green card" work and residence permit. To qualify for the "white card" they had to have lived in Greece for at least one year, and submit documents testifying to their good health, a clean court and police record, and proof of having paid national social insurance contributions for a total of 40 working days in 1998. A total of 150 days of social insurance contributions were required for the acquisition of the green card. No registration fees were charged at this stage.

By the end of the first regularization, 371,641 immigrants had been registered for the white card, but only 212,860 received a green card. It is estimated that less than half of the migrants living in the country were registered during this first regularization program.

In 2001, the goverment passed Act 2910/2001 on "the admission and residence of foreigners in Greece and the acquisition of Greek nationality through naturalization." This gave immigrants a second opportunity to legalize their status, provided they could show proof of residence for at least a year before the implementation of the law. Immigrants were given a six-month period to submit all the necessary documents to acquire the work permit, which became the precondition for obtaining a residence permit.

The two regularization methods differed, but the documents required for both were similar. The most important differences were that in 2001 the immigrant had to submit a copy of an official contract with his or her employer for a specific period of time, as well as confirmation that national social insurance contributions had been paid for at least 200 working days (which could also be paid for by the immigrants themselves). In addition, a payment of 147 euros per person over the age of 14 was required. All applicants to the 1997 regularization program whose permits had expired by 2001 were subject to the provisions of the new law.

The 2001 act also set preconditions for future legal migration into the country, giving the Organization of Employment and Labor (OAED) the responsibility to prepare an annual report that would specify labor requirements at the occupational and regional levels in order to define quotas for temporary work permits. These job vacancies would be advertised in the sending countries by Greek embassies, which would also be responsible for receiving the applications for those jobs. To date, however,the government has not begun this procedure.

When the official application deadline for this second regularization program expired in August 2001, it was reported that 351,110 migrants had submitted their documents for the acquisition of a work permit — a precondition for the provision of a residence permit. However, bureaucracy and the lack of the necessary infrastructure created tremendous problems and delays in the processing of the applications. This forced the government to give temporary residence to all applicants until the end of June 2003, recently extended to the end of October 2003. By then, the government expected to have all the applications processed. Once more, however, promises were not fullfilled and thousands of migrants remain "hostages" of a sluggish legal and institutional structure.

The enthusiasm shown by immigrants upon the announcement of the latest act has now vanished. This is as a result of, on the one hand, the weakness of public administration in supporting the implementation of the act and, on the other, the act's "philosophy" of continuous checks and controls that make it difficult to implement. These weaknesses have been identified and raised by many organizations and institutions directly or indirectly involved with the issue. The Greek ombudsman, in a report to the minister of interior, warned as early as 2001 of the implementation problems and asked for amendments that would make it work for the benefit of both immigrants and the Greek public administration.

However, amendments to the act introduced by the government in 2002 did not address the problems connected with the one-year duration of the work and residence permits, the yearly fee for the residence permit for the applicants, and the insurmountable bureaucratic problems. Only recently, the government decided to extend the residence permit to two years starting from January 2004 (Act 3202/2003).

In the meantime, in order to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, many immigrants have had to either hire lawyers to handle their regularization procedure, or lose time and money standing in lines.


To date, the integration of migrants into Greek society appears to have resulted largely from laborious individual/family strategies of the migrants themselves, rather than from the provisions of an institutional framework. This may change as government efforts to systematize integration take hold.

Greece's integration policy was designed and announced by the government in 2002 in its "Action Plan for the Social Integration of Immigrants for the Period 2002-2005." The plan includes measures for the labor market integration and training of immigrants, improved access to the health system, emergency centers for immigrant support, and measures for the improvement of cultural exchanges among the various ethnic communities. However, the implementation of the plan has yet to begin.

Two of the reasons for the non-implementation of the plan appear to include pressure on the state budget to complete the nation's preparations for the Olympic Games, as well as the long, politically sensitive period before the national elections of March 7, 2004.

At this stage, despite the acknowledged importance of migration in Greek economy and society, migration in general and integration in specific do not seem to be high on the government agenda. The expressed anxieties of human rights and migrant organizations about integration and migration policy seem to have done little to shift the debate. Integration may come to the foreground again, however, in connection with social unrest that could follow the foreseen negative prospects of the economy in the post-Olympics period.

Looking Ahead

Immigrants have contributed significantly to the improved performance of the Greek economy over the past few years, and they have boosted Greece's successful participation in the EU's economic and monetary union. Their structural role in the workforce of the construction and agricultural sectors has been widely acknowledged. Despite a high level of unemployment, which is estimated at nine percent for the country as a whole, there appears to be no serious competition by native Greeks for the kinds of jobs secured by immigrants. On the contrary, immigrants have played a rather complementary economic role.

However, the current high growth rate of the Greek economy—five percent in the EU in 2003—is expected to slow down after the completion of the facilities for the Olympic Games, which have driven huge amounts of activity in construction and other sectors. In addition, the funds allocated to Greece under the European Union's new support framework are expected to shrink following the EU's enlargement in 2004. These economic pressures, along with the uncertainties evident in the legal and institutional framework for the regularization and integration of immigrants, if not dealt with, are expected to lead to social friction and extensive racism and xenophobia in the next few years.


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