E.g., 04/16/2024
E.g., 04/16/2024
Greece: Illegal Immigration in the Midst of Crisis

Greece: Illegal Immigration in the Midst of Crisis

Once known for its large-scale emigration, Greece transitioned to a country of destination for Central and Eastern European immigrants after the fall of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes in the region. More recently, the country has become one of entry and transit for hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. As a result, Greece is now grappling with issues related to its highly porous borders, mounting asylum applications, faltering immigrant detention system, allegations of human-rights violations, and the effective integration of the country's many foreign-born permanent residents.

At the same time, Greece is struggling under the weight of what is perhaps the country's worst economic recession in recent memory. Huge public debt and the government's decision to borrow from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have changed entirely the economic, political, and social environment of immigration in Greece.

Employment and income have shrunk for both the native-born and immigrant populations, while competition within and between the two has increased. This has resulted in lower wages, a contracting labor market, and fewer regularized immigrants — drawing attention to immigration as a growing threat to the cohesion of modern Greek society.

Emigration from Greece

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 century 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 at that time — in the international markets. In the period between 1890 and 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 a means for improving 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, Southern European countries, Greece among them, were the main contributors of migrants to the industrialized nations of Northern Europe. More than 1 million Greeks migrated in this second wave, the bulk of them departing between 1950 and 1974 to Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Economic and political factors were the primary motivators behind the migrations, both connected with the consequences of the 1946-1949 civil war and the 1967-1974 period of military junta rule that followed. Official statistics show that, between 1955 and 1973, Germany absorbed 603,300 Greek immigrants, Australia 170,700, the United States 124,000, and Canada 80,200. The majority of the migrants came from rural areas of Greece, and they supplied both national and international labor markets.

Due to economic uncertainty following the oil crises of 1973 and 1980 and the adoption of restrictive immigration policies by some European countries, emigration 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 new economic prospects following Greece's 1981 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). Between 1974 and 1985, almost half of the emigrants of the postwar period had returned to Greece.

Immigration Replaces Emigration as the Dominant Trend

Declining emigration and increasing return migration of Greeks created a positive migration balance in Greece in the 1970s. Immigration then grew at the beginning of the 1980s when a small number of Africans, Asians, and Poles arrived and found work in construction, agriculture, and domestic services. Nevertheless, immigration at that time was still limited in size. In 1986, there were a total of about 90,000 immigrants in the country, one-third of whom were from Europe. In 1991, the number of registered "foreigners" (as they are officially referred to in Greece) had grown to 167,000 out of a total population of 10,259,900.

The collapse of regimes in the formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 helped transform what was at one time sporadic immigration to Greece into a massive, uncontrollable phenomenon. As a result, the country received the highest percentage of immigrants in relation to its labor force in the 1990s, despite being one of the less-developed nations in Europe at that time. By 2001, Greece had an immigrant population of just over 762,000.

Greece's geography, which became especially important after the formation of Europe's borderless Schengen Area, has also contributed to the country's transition to an immigrant-receiving nation. Positioned at the southeastern "gate" of the European Union, and with extensive coastlines and easily crossable borders, Greece has become a common transit country for those seeking entry into Europe.

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



Gateway to Europe

Illegal immigration to Greece has increased rapidly over the past several years. Tough immigration policies in Spain and Italy and agreements with their neighboring African countries to combat illegal immigration have changed the direction of African immigration flows toward Greece. At the same time, flows from Asia and the Middle East — mainly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bangladesh — to Greece appear to have increased as well.

The evidence now indicates that nearly all illegal immigration to the European Union flows through the country's porous borders. In 2010, 90 percent of all apprehensions for unauthorized entry into the European Union took place in Greece, compared to 75 percent in 2009 and 50 percent in 2008.

In 2010, 132,524 persons were arrested for "illegal entry or stay" in Greece, a sharp increase from 95,239 in 2006. Nearly half of those arrested (52,469) were immediately deported, the majority of them being Albanians. Those not deported either applied for asylum or were issued a decision to self deport within one month — which effectively means unauthorized stay in the country.

The main points of entry for illegal immigration to Greece include the Greek-Albanian land border, the Greek-Turkish land border, and sea borders between Greece and Turkey. In the past three years, there has been a notable shift in illegal immigration flows from sea borders to the Greek-Turkish land border.

In 2010, just under 5 percent of all apprehensions for the year took place at Greek-Turkish sea-borders, compared to nearly 21 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, apprehensions at the Greek-Turkish land border increased from 10 percent in 2008 to over 35 percent in 2010. Apprehensions at the Greek-Turkish land border in the first quarter of 2011 were up to 39 percent, indicating a continued trend despite a reduction in the number of apprehensions overall.

These developments, along with the implementation of Dublin II Regulation (2003/343/CE) providing for the processing of asylum applications in the initial EU country of entry (and thus the relocation of unauthorized immigrants throughout Europe to those countries until their cases are adjudicated), have turned Greece into the "storehouse" of illegal immigration to Europe.

Since 2010, the land border with Turkey has been undergoing a humanitarian crisis related to the region's overcrowded detention centers, appalling hygiene and living conditions for asylum seekers, and human-rights violations perpetrated by Greek authorities.

Recently in the Northern European countries of Norway, Sweden, and Belgium, awareness was expressed and court decisions were issued concluding that the transfer of an asylum applicant back to Greece implied forced exposure to "inhuman and degrading treatment." Greek authorities, unable to satisfactorily provide the required detention conditions and under heavy international pressure, have put forward a demand for an amendment to the Dublin II Regulation that would relieve some of the pressure the country faces in accommodating so many asylum seekers.

Within Greece, political actors have exploited the illegal immigration situation and developed a rhetoric surrounding the need for stricter border controls and a tougher policy toward unauthorized immigrants — including threats of mass deportations. Along this vein, the Greek government has announced the construction of a 12.5-kilometer wire fence that will stretch along the most porous section of the Greek-Turkish land border.

Illegal immigration flows have already adapted in response to such efforts, however. Since the deployment of specialized Frontex (the European Union's agency for the management of external borders) teams in the region in October 2010 and the announcement of the construction of a fence in the northern part of the border, flows have increased 222 percent to the south at the Evros River crossing.

Size and Composition of the Immigrant Population

Data on immigration to Greece has long been inadequate and often unsatisfactorily recorded. This has begun to change with census counts and other forms of data collection, such as labor force surveys and residence permit statistics. However, the former are sample surveys with various problems of credibility with respect to migration statistics and the latter lack detailed information.

Despite their shortcomings, census data on immigrants provide the most comprehensive picture of the population. The data from the 2011 census have not yet been released, but they are not expected to be detailed nor particularly credible because of the problematic organization and management of the census.

The population of Greece increased from 10,259,900 in 1991 to 10,964,020 in 2001, according to the census that year. This increase can be almost exclusively attributed to immigration. The census indicated that the number of immigrants living in Greece in 2001 was 762,191, making up approximately 7 percent of the total population. This figure includes all foreign born irrespective of immigration status, as well as the 46,869 individuals who were citizens of the countries comprising the European Union at that time.

It has widely been reported that the current economic crisis in Greece and growing xenophobia among the citizen population have reduced immigrant registration. The number of registered foreign born has fallen in the past three years, from 602,797 in 2009 to 553,916 in 2010 to 447,658 in 2011.

Nevertheless, the actual size of the foreign-born population is estimated to be significantly higher: Many analysts believe that there are between 1 million and 1.3 million immigrants in Greece, making up as much as 10 percent of the population.

According to the 2001 census, the largest group of immigrants at that time drew its origins from Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, making up nearly two-thirds of the total foreign-born population. Albanians accounted for nearly 60 percent of all immigrants, far outdistancing Bulgarians (less than 5 percent) and Romanians (3 percent). However, the share of immigrants from these two countries in the overall population has changed drastically since Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, a development that allows their citizens freedom of movement (though not the freedom to work legally until their acceptance into the Schengen area) within all member states.

Immigrants from Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Armenia, and Moldova comprised more than 10 percent of the total foreign born in 2001, while those from the 15 countries included in the European Union at that time made up 6 percent and a remaining group drawn from a wide variety of countries totaled nearly 19 percent.

Data on holders of residence permits from the Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen indicate that 518,675 immigrants, or nearly half of what is estimated to be the real size of the foreign-born population, held residence permits in 2010. Albanians held 71 percent of residence permits in 2010, while Bulgarians and Romanians — as EU citizens — are now excluded from this obligation. Residence permits, according to the same source, are issued mostly for work (44 percent) or family reunification (44 percent).

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) 2010 International Migration Outlook came to the conclusion that, in the past three years, immigrants in Greece with residence permits have not exceeded 650,000. The same report estimated the immigrant stock in Greece at 1,259,258, meaning that nearly half of the immigrant population in Greece is unauthorized.

In this report, the 155,139 immigrants of ethnic Greek origin who returned to Greece after the fall of the Soviet Union (known as Pontic Greeks) are treated as immigrants despite their naturalization upon arrival. The report justifies the inclusion in both a technical and a sociological sense: It states that they are technically immigrants because they first moved to Greece during the 1980s and 1990s, and that they face important problems of exclusion and of social and political marginalization just as other immigrants do. Immigrants of Greek origin from Albania, numbering 189,000, were also included.

Note: Ethnic Greek Albanians are issued Special Identity Cards (EDTO) provided by the Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen and have the same socioeconomic rights as Greek citizens, but no political rights. EDTO holders are not included in the above Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen data on residence-permit holders.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

The number of asylum seekers in Greece — who are included in the above immigration statistics — has fluctuated over the past few years, from 12,270 in 2006 to 19,880 in 2008 to 10,270 in 2010. The main countries of origin of asylum seekers in recent years have been Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Bangladesh, and Iraq (in the order of share of asylum claims).

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Greece received 4 percent of all applications for asylum across 44 industrialized countries in 2006, 8 percent in 2008, and 3 percent in 2010. The increase in 2008 was due to specialized procedures implemented for clearing backlogs of asylum seekers waiting to file claims, while the drop in 2010 is due to Greece's restrictive asylum policy, inhumane receiving methods, and poor infrastructure that have made immigrants hesitant to apply for asylum.

Hovering at around 1 percent, Greece has the lowest positive-decision rate in the processing of asylum applications in Europe. On appeal, however, the rate nearly doubles. Decisions on asylum often take more than a year to be issued in an initial case, and from one to seven years for appeals.

Greece does not receive refugees through resettlement because of the high incidence of illegal immigration to the country.

Immigrants in the Economic Recession

A period of intense economic recession and insecurity began in Greece in 2008, prompting economic indicators to plummet and an increase in fiscal austerity. This severe recession has had negative implications for low-skilled laborers and those having low or middle size incomes, particularly Greece's immigrant population.

According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the unemployment rate in Greece has risen steadily over the past several years — from 10.6 percent in November 2009 to 13.9 percent in November 2010 to 20.9 percent in November 2011 — and will continue to rise in 2012. Among those under the age of 25, for example, the unemployment rate in Greece was 48 percent in November 2011, compared to 30.8 percent in April 2010. Because immigrants participate in the Greek labor force at high levels, their rate of employment has reduced more than the overall rate of employment over the course of the recession, while their unemployment increased sharply after the third quarter of 2008 (Figure 2).



Faced with difficult prospects in the current economic crisis, some of the foreign born in Greece — particularly the unauthorized, those who lack steady employment, and Albanians of retirement age — have decided to return to their countries of origin. Evidence also indicates an increase in movements on the part of Albanian migrants back to their country of origin at times when the seasonal labor market in Greece has contracted.

The rest of the foreign-born population, much like Greek citizens, appear to be waiting out the recession and trying to adjust to the new labor market conditions. These immigrants are likely bound to Greece by familial obligation, the high cost of return migration, or even worse conditions in their countries of origin.

The Weaknesses of Greek Immigration Policies

The Greek government was unprepared to receive such a large number of immigrants over such a relatively short period of time, and it has struggled with how best to deal with the integration of this population. Though the government has adopted, over the years, limited regularization procedures that would legalize certain unauthorized immigrants — largely in response to pressure from constituents and human-rights organizations — nearly half of the total estimated immigrant population remains unauthorized today. Regarding other forms of immigrant integration, the government has still not crafted a satisfactory institutional framework nor adopted a specific integration policy.

The first regularization program to handle illegal immigration was introduced in 1997 with Presidential Decrees 358/1997 and 359/1997. By the end of this program, 371,641 immigrants had been registered for a temporary residence permit (or white card), but only 212,860 went on to receive a permanent residence permit (green card). It is estimated that less than half of the immigrants living in the country were registered during this first regularization program.

In 2001, the government passed a new law regarding the entry, residence, and naturalization of immigrants in Greece (Law No. 2910/2001). This act created another opportunity for immigrants to legalize their status, provided they could produce proof of residence for at least a year before the implementation of the law. The implementation of this program, however, was troubled. It ultimately stretched on for several years beyond what was intended due to the weakness of public administration, a lack of infrastructure, confusing bureaucracy, and waning public support. At the end of the process, 400,000 immigrants had been regularized.

Law 3386/2005 on the entry, residence, and integration of immigrants was introduced in 2005 and included another regularization program. The law provided that immigrants who had lived in the country through December 31, 2004 could be regularized under the condition they could prove their entry into Greece before that date. It also made the procedure for the issuance of residence permits simpler than the 2001 program and incorporated the relevant EU directives on family reunification (Council Directive 2003/86/EC) and long-term resident immigrants (Council Directive 2003/109/EC).

The 2005 law also abolished the separation of work and residence permits; differentiated residence permits for work, study, or family reunification; and required knowledge of the Greek language and Greek history and culture as a prerequisite for regularization. The new legislation, nevertheless, had many of the problems characteristic of the previous law, and about 150,000 immigrants applied for residence permits under it.

The government decided to submit a new immigration bill to parliament in 2007, signaling that the 2005 law was still having implementation problems. Law 3536/2007 introduced some positive changes: It abolished the regularization fee for children between the age of 14 and 18, it gave immigrants the opportunity to pay for up to 20 percent of the 200 days of social insurance contributions required (two-thirds of which is paid by the employer and one-third by the employee) in order to be eligible for regularization and permit renewal, and it gave an extension for the submission of the required documents.

In 2010, Act 3838/2010 granted immigrants who either held long-term residence permits or were of Greek origin voting rights in local elections. (All EU citizens have voting rights in local elections in Greece and can execute them under the condition they register in special voting catalogues after the announcement of the election date.)

Additionally, the 2010 law reformed citizenship rules by providing birthright citizenship to eligible children born in Greece to immigrant parents.

Repeated regularization programs and the remaining large numbers of unauthorized immigrants in Greece confirm the failure of policy. More than 20 years after the increase of immigration flows to the country, Greece has not managed to design satisfactory and operational policies for both the regularization of unauthorized immigrants already in the country and legal ways of entry for skilled immigrants the country needs to attract.


More than 1 million immigrants have arrived in Greece over the course of two decades, contributing significantly to the improvement of the demographic and economic profile of the country. But since 2008, Greece has plummeted into economic turmoil in what may well be the worst recession in recent memory.

In tandem with these devastating financial woes has been an increase in illegal immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, primarily through the country's porous land and sea borders with Turkey. Greece has truly become the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants: In 2010 alone, nearly 133,000 people were apprehended for unauthorized entry or stay in Greece — a number that has decreased since the deployment of specialized Frontex teams in the region in October 2010.

Taken together, the country's recent economic decline, highly porous borders, growing xenophobia, and ineffective legal and institutional framework for the regularization and integration of immigrants have created a fragile environment for the management of immigration.


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