Immigration to Greece

Over the past three decades, Greece has shifted from a country of origin to a transit and destination country (Maroukis 2008). Mass migration of Greeks in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in labour shortages in specific sectors, leading to African and Turkish workers being employed during that period as private servants, hotel workers and dockyard labourers (Baldwin-Edwards 2011; Nikolinakos 1973). In the early 1970s and 1980s, refugees and asylum seekers from Lebanon, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and the Middle East found jobs in the large informal Greek economy and played an important role in attracting yet more immigrants (Papantoniou et al. 1996; Baldwin-Edwards 2011). The collapse of the ‘communist’ regimes in the Balkan Peninsula in the late 1980s and the early 1990s triggered even larger migration flows to Greece. Since the early 1990s, Albanian and Bulgarian migrants, a considerable number of co-ethnic returnees from the republics of the former Soviet Union and to a lesser extent other East Europeans have further expanded the immigrant population in Greece, setting new policy challenges.

Between 1991 and 2001, the immigrant population more than tripled reaching almost 7.3 percent of the total population (Baldwin-Edwards 2004). Albanians accounted for by far the largest migrant ethnic community, often attracting the attention of the populist media and extreme right parties. Weak border controls, as well as corruption, criminal networks and mountainous terrain between Albania and Greece facilitated large-scale irregular migration. Legalisation programmes in 1998 and 2001 failed to address the issue (Levinson 2005; OECD 2006; Papantoniou-Fragkouli and Leventi 2000).

Correspondingly, Greece’s island geography and extensive coastline has hindered effective maritime patrolling, contributing to large-scale waves of economic migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. The eastern Mediterranean route (Frontex 2013; International Organisation for Migration 2014) has become, since the early 2000s, one of the main routes for irregular migration into the EU. More recently, conflict in Iraq and Syria has seen the Greek-Turkish border become a major point of irregular migration into the EU.

Membership of the EU has also affected migratory flows into Greece, as the country is now responsible for the EU’s south-eastern border, and hence is the first entry point into the EU for many irregular migrants from Africa and Asia. According to the Dublin Regulation (2003), the country where asylum seekers first set foot is responsible for managing their claim. Bigo argues that the Dublin Regulation reflects an EU discourse that explicitly securitises migration (Bigo 2000). In the past, Greece has been a victim of this discourse, but more recently has also been a perpetrator of this rhetoric.

According to official data, currently most economic migrants and asylum seekers come to Greece from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and northern, eastern and western Africa. To some extent, Greece’s attraction as an EU entry point over the past several years is a reaction to increased securitisation of borders by other EU Mediterranean states. Spain has fortified Ceuta and Melilla, putting in place a sophisticated surveillance system, increased patrols between the African coast and the Canary Islands and has negotiated repatriation agreements with key African states. Similar measures by Italy had, until the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, pushed potential irregular migrants to the east, crossing by sea from Egypt directly to Greece or, in most cases, travelling through Turkey in order to enter the EU by land or sea from the south-east.

The shift in migratory routes across the Mediterranean reflects securitisation policies and concomitant activity on the ground. Likewise, immigration policies and border controls in the eastern Mediterranean have influenced where and how migrants cross into Greece. Since 2010, irregular maritime migration across the Aegean Sea gradually switched to the Greece-Turkey land border. This shift has been attributed to a number of factors including a closer collaboration between Greek and Turkish coastguards demonstrated by the joint Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) operations, as well as other operations under the aegis of Frontex such as the Poseidon land and sea operations. The UN Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants considers the shift in points of entry from the Aegean Sea to the Greece-Turkey border region of Evros as mainly attributable to demining operations on the Greek side of the land border and recent cheaper smuggling prices in Evros (UN General Assembly 2013). According to the Greek authorities and Frontex, 90 percent of irregular migrants and asylum seekers entering Greece between 2012 and 2013 used the Evros land crossing.

Although the 185km border between Evros and Turkey constitutes almost the entire frontier between the two countries, migrants mainly cross at the narrow strip of land in the north where the Evros River comes to an end. At the end of 2012, a 12.5km steel fence was constructed in order to close off this strip. The fence combines with other surveillance devices in the Evros region including helicopters, night vision apparatus and thermal imaging (Swiss Info 2014). The launch of Operation Aspida, ‘Shield’ in English, required the recruitment of 1,800 additional border guards, as well as extra assets and equipment. According to Frontex, Aspida has resulted in a ‘remarkable drop in the number of apprehended migrants in the Evros region’ (Frontex 2014). However, as a result, of the new fence and other efforts to seal the Evros region, migrants have returned to the more dangerous maritime route across the Aegean, where they are often exploited by smugglers (Crepeau 2013; IOM 2014).

In parallel with Aspida, Greece initiated Operation Xenios Zeus, ironically named after the ancient Greek god of hospitality. This operation is aimed at detecting undocumented migrants in Greek urban areas. Figures for the number of undocumented migrants in Greece vary. The Greek Refugee Council estimates that around 1m such migrants live in Greece, often in highly impoverished circumstances. An updated and detailed report for the CLANDESTINO project has calculated the presence of approximately 350,000 irregular migrants in the country for 2011 (Maroukis 2012). Conversely, a recent publication by the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights estimates around 470,000 irregular migrants currently living in Greece (Crepeau 2013), whereas, according to the recent Ministry of Interior data 473,124 foreigners have a valid permit to reside in the country (RIEAS 2014). Between August 2012 and June 2013, police stopped and detained a total of 123,567 third-country nationals to verify their documents. Yet only 6,910 persons, or 5.6 percent, of the total of those stopped were found to be residing irregularly in Greece, raising concerns about the use of discriminatory ethnic/racial profiling (Amnesty International 2014).

The UN Rapporteur, Human Rights Watch and numerous Greek NGOs have strongly criticised the way in which the Aspida and Xenios Zeus operations have been conducted by the police citing brutality, unlawful arrest and detention. The inhumane manner in which many irregular migrants are treated means that the majority do not regard Greece as a destination, but rather a transit country. The habitual inference of irregular migration is that the quality of life in the countries of origin is so poor that the migrants feel compelled to migrate to seek a better life in affluent European countries. However, whether these assumptions apply to irregular migrants in Greece will be tested in the next section.

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