Date: Fri, 21 Mar 97 13:02:41 CST
Immigrants for hire, or expulsion
By Panayote Elias Dimitras, War Report, October 1996
Greece needs immigrant labour, but refuses to adopt a consistent policy
We are distributing three articles by our spokesperson published in War Report or in - The War Report et al. co-sponsored special English issue of the Albanian newspaper, Koha Jone.
This August the Greek authorities expelled more than 7,000 illegal immigrants, mainly Albanians. Some were picked up at their homes or workplaces and abused by police. Although this news was available in Athens, hardly any of the media chose to mention it; They were all too busy covering, sometimes at length, the expulsion of some 300 African immigrants from St. Bernard's church in Paris. This media silence persisted, even after Tirana had officially protested to Athens, after the Greek and Albanian Helsinki committees had denounced the mass expulsions, and after an embarrassed Greek government spokesperson had refused to comment.
In the 1990s, according to official estimates, the number of mainly Albanian, but also Polish, Filipino, Egyptian, and other illegal immigrants in Greece has risen to 500,000-700,000 in a legally resident population of 10.5 million. The police regularly expel such foreigners, but the only mass expulsions have been of Albanians, and these were never related to the legality of their residential status in the country, but to strains in Greek-Albanian relations.
In the summer of 1993, after the expulsion of a Greek priest from the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra, Greek authorities reacted by expelling around 20,000 Albanians. The following year, in response to the trial of five Greek minority leaders in Tirana, the Greek government expelled more than 100,000 Albanians. In both incidents, many immigrants were abused by police and deported straight from work without even being allowed to take their personal belongings or other members of their families with them. Many were denounced to the authorities by their employers, who besides thus carrying out the "national duty", were able to pocket the pay cheques.
However, the 1996 wave of expulsions was a surprise. There was no strain between the two countries. On the contrary, it happened on the eve of a visit to Southern Albania by the Greek foreign minister, Theodore Pangalos, the first foreign official to visit the country since the dubious elections of May 1996. The Greek government has been reluctant to condemn the fraud. It appears to have traded its silence, and the participation of Greek minority party Omonia in the equally unfair "replacement" elections of July 1996, for the opening of Greek language classes in southern Albania. The Greek minority party was the only opposition party to participate in the July elections.
Moreover, on the eve of the May elections, the Greek government had announced an agreement with its Albanian counterpart to legalize a very large number of Albanian seasonal workers in Greece. This is why many suspect that the latest expulsions were motivated by intra-Greece disagreements over the Greek-Albanian rapprochement, and that some state agencies thought that in this way they could undermine Pangalos' visit and the new law still going through Parliament.
The Albanian government is desperate for international contacts and the pragmatic Pangalos reflects the realism and modernism of Prime Minister Konstantinos Simitis. So, luckily for the Albanian immigrant community in Greece, both governments managed to forget the incident and Pangalos' one-day visit ran smoothly. He announced that the new law would grant residence permits to some 90, 000-100,000 Albanians. He also said that Greece was contemplating a special status for Albanians living near the border to commute to work on the Greek side.
Pangalos even said that he encourages Greeks to speak Albanian and Albanians to speak Greek, as they did from the medieval times of Skanderberg and the Greek Revolution (in the 1820s) when they fought together against the Ottomans. This is heresy by authorised Greek historiographic standards. Not surprisingly, the Greek media censored all these statements; only Foni tis Omonoias, the newspaper of the Greek minority in Albania reported them.
All NGOs and left-wing opposition parties, and many socialist PASOK government members, support this long-awaited normalisation of the status of Albanian and other immigrants in Greece. However, it is increasingly opposed by the right-wing opposition and their supporting media, which blame immigrants for rising unemployment and criminality, although they have no data to support their arguments.
Indeed, in the recent election campaign in Greece, denounced by human-rights NGOs as "the most nationalist and intolerant if not racist" since the 1974 return to democratic rule, conservative New Democracy leader Milpiadis Evert repeatedly made such allegations. He even stated that immigrants take jobs away from university graduates, when in reality they work in the most difficult blue-collar or service jobs that hardly any Greek will accept any more.
The fact that so many foreign immigrants have been in Greece for many years indicates that the Greek economy today, just like other western economies in the past, needs such a labour force. But Greece has so far refused to admit that reality and adopt a relevant and consistent policy on the matter.
The present situation leads to the worst kind of exploitation of these workers by their employers and gives leverage to the Greek authorities in Greek-Albanian relations. On the other hand, in the case of Albania, not only families back home but the whole country depends on the income the migrants remit home from Greece. Indeed, should Greece close her border with Albania, the "land of the eagles" would suffocate. In fact, some observers explain the massive "no" vote of the Albanian South in the 1994 constitutional referendum by the discontent with the mass expulsions of Albanians that autumn, following Albanian President Sali Berisha's disastrous decision to try the "Omonia five". This is his only electoral defeat to date.
The legalization of migrant labor in Greece would also affect an increasing number of Bulgarians who seek refuge from their country's failing economy in the Greek labor market. Thus legalization would help both the Greek economy and the bilateral relations of the Balkans' only supposedly western country with her neighbors. The Simitis government should, and apparently does, hope to change that course for the country's and the region's benefit. All those who have been too often disillusioned by Greece's foreign policy in recent years can only be cautiously optimistic.
Panayote Elias Dimitras
Greek Helsinki Monitor & Minority Rights Group - Greece