Migration & Integration Greece Interview

Migration crisis in Greece: the need for a European action plan

An expert interview with Dimitris Varadinis for #DialogueOnEurope

"Refugee Crisis in Greece" - CAFOD Photo Library

Long considered as an emigration country, Greece started receiving immigrants in the 90’s. Over the last few years, the country had to deal with huge number of newcomers and despite the engagement of the social society, it doesn’t have the means to properly assist them. Greek authorities repeatedly asked for the support of the other European member states, which are reluctant to take responsibility.

What kind of historical experience with migration and immigrants does your country have?

Historically, from the early 20th century, most Greek people who were travelling abroad were migrants themselves: they used to migrate to others places, mostly to America because of the social and economic situation, especially during the 30’s and after the Second World War. At that time, Greece used to be a very poor country, it was difficult to build factories and to employ people. It took a long time before Greece eventually started to develop itself. This process took place in the late 50’s. In the 30’s and 40’s, Greece used to be a country of emigration.

The situation changed in the early 90’s. Greece unexpectedly became a destination country for migrants – especially from Albania, because of the collapse of the former Soviet regime and the Eastern bloc. This change happened very rapidly, it did not take a long time. Hundreds and thousands of migrants illegally entered in Greece, in order to find work, in order to be able to improve their living standards. Greece lacked the experience and did not have the infrastructure to deal with such large numbers of people who entered its territory.

It took a long time to eventually try to integrate migrants in the society.  The first law regulating the state of foreigners was established in 1929. So from 1929 to 1991, one single piece of legislation was applied. That explains several things. After more than 60 years, a very strict law was enacted (Law 1975/1991), but it was only regulating issues concerning deportation of illegal migrants and not about their integration. We did not have any provisions regulating issues such as family reunification, long term residence, second and third generation of migrants, etc. All these came into effect after 2005 (Law 3386/2005). And most recently, in 2014, the new Migration Code came into effect, in accordance with European standards and European legislation. It codified all previous laws in one single text.   

Historically, Greece had experience with refugees, hundreds of thousands arrived in the country in the early 20’s from Asia Minor in Turkey. Later on, after the Second World War, there was a Civil war in Greece. Many refugees from Greece fled to Eastern countries: Hungary, Russia, Poland. So, Greece has had such an experience with refugees but not really as a host country for economic migrants. That is probably why Greek people are, in a sense, more sensitive with the issue of refugees.

In the recent years, especially after 2000, we started receiving large numbers of refugees from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Due to its geographical position, Greece is a gateway to Europe. We started receiving not only a very large number of refugees for a single country, but also new categories of refugees, which we did not really know how to assist and whose problem we were not ready to deal with, such as unaccompanied minors.

Current national migration policy – what are the current challenges? What direction should it take: restrictive approach to migration and asylum policies, selective labour migration or “open-borders” policy?

The main challenge is to find out how to help these people to become integrated ans potentially assimilated. The situation is now completely different from what it used to be 30 years ago, when this phenomenon became more evident. This is the key issue: how could they become a part of the social network, i.e. be fully and successfully integrated? How could some of them become Greek citizens? We are talking about migration and legally residing third-country nationals here. With refugees, the main issue is how to tackle this humanitarian crisis – because primarily it is a humanitarian crisis. The good thing is that after such a long time, Europeans start to realize that it is not only an issue for Italy, Greece or Spain, but rather a truly European issue. We really should  be actively involved in this, and try our hardest to help these people, to provide them shelters, to help them to get IDs, to relocate them in the European states, and to try to reunify families. It will help them become gradually integrated: find a job, send their children to school, obtain work permits and ensure a better future for themselves. This should be a common challenge for all European states.

How would you evaluate the European policy? How does Europe deal with the refugee situation?

The issue was underestimated. When you underestimate an issue, you know that it might become out-of-control and that it cannot be dealt with in a couple of months. Then, it will eventually cause troubles. Initially, it used to be a problem in Greece because we received a huge number of refugees, mostly from Syria, in 2015. Some of them started their journey to Italy and Spain. European states, and specifically Northern states, did not respond well. They were blaming the Greek authorities for not being able to respond to this huge number of people and to control their borders. But it is not easy to control our borders – when you have so many islands, even if you raise walls on the mainland, it is not easy to guard the sea borders. It’s only after Greece opened its borders that other European member states realised how important the phenomenon was, and that it would eventually become problematic for their citizens. It was a bit selfish: only one country had the problem and had to deal with it. Suddenly, they got aware of the situation and started to think about solutions for European states to cooperate. The European reaction was really slow and it was not the right one. There should have been a common response at a European level, a common approach. We have to understand that it is important for all of us, it is a common issue for all of us. It cannot only affect Southern European countries, but it will eventually influence also Finland, Sweden, or Eastern and Central European countries.  

It is a bit frustrating, because the concept of having a common currency, a common market, was set for European states to be able to respond to crises and to build trust among them. No one really wants hundreds and thousands of people arriving irregularly in his/her country. But we have to understand that these people did not choose to leave their homes, they were forced to do that, to a large extent. If they had the choice and could have stayed home, they would definitely not have risked their lives in order to reach Europe.

What are the challenges of integration?

This is a big issue. I cannot really give you a simple answer. The problem is that no one really knows what will happen in the near future. We are talking about thousands of people, families, some of them not skilled, not even educated. They are not all capable to work but they have to live somehow, and to live with dignity. Each state needs to help them with financial assistance, or at least to provide them with shelter, food, clothes, etc. This is rather good news for those who will eventually be relocated or reunified with their families in the European countries. For the rest, it is very difficult. We do not have the means to successfully integrate them here in Greece. We rely on EU funds and on the active role of some NGOs to provide relief to these people.

What support would you expect from the European Union?

I would expect a fast-track procedure for beneficiaries of relocation and for family-reunification for all people who wish to travel in European countries – so that they could do that in the legal way. It will relieve Greek authorities, and it would help people make their choice without being stuck here for months or even years. But this is not only a European issue, it is also an issue for the local authorities. The European authorities can assist and provide the financial means. European states should increase the number of people they accept  in the context of the relocation scheme or the family reunification process. This way, a clear message will be sent, i.e. that there is true willingness to respond to this crisis. We do not know how and when the war in Syria will come to an end, but Europe is able to collectively respond to this crisis.

You already mentioned that NGO’s and activists are the most engaged in helping the refugees. What is the general role of the civil society in Greece? How strong is it?

The good thing is that the civil society in Greece is active. If there is one common feature that Greek people share, it is their hospitality. We try to help the best we can. So far, we have been active with a large number of volunteers at all entry points on the islands and land borders. The nice thing is that many homeless people or people who also suffered became volunteers themselves. I personally find this very interesting. These populations have better knowledge of the feeling and were the first who wished to help refugees. They asked: what can I do? How can I help?  We had many volunteers and people who expressed the willingness to assist. It was very emotional. That is the good thing about Greek citizens. The majority of them helped, even if some were angry about the situation.

Apart from NGO’s, we also have other active independent authorities. The refugee issue was reported to the Government, who now has a clear overview. The cooperation with municipalities is also good. Over the last two years, we had a close cooperation for example with a centre for homeless people. We also cooperated in organizing conferences, workshops, etc. with others NGOs, regarding the sensitization of local authorities. Local authorities are actively involved, which is a good thing, and the administration is pretty active as well. We have a lot of meetings, as well as a direct contact with the Deputy Mayor for Social Solidarity at the Municipality of Thessaloniki. Now, Thessaloniki is changing and we have many good opportunities for cooperation.

The Greek-German relations: How are they now? Did the German position about refugees anyhow change the perception of Germany in Greece?

The misconception that Greek people have is a result of politics, because of the austerity measures that have been enforced, and because Germany is financially the strongest and the biggest European member state. It has the leading role in decision-making and these decisions had some dramatic results for the economy and the society. We have the misconception that Germans do not like us, that they are pushing for more austerity. Because of these elements, many people stand against Germany. But I do not think that it has influenced the overall relationship between people. Getting back to our issue, we organized a great conference here and we had a very good contact with German counterparts. There are hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens living and working in Germany and they don’t really have to face discrimination, xenophobia or reluctance.

Dimitris Varadinis is Lawyer, Coordinator of PRAKSIS’ Legal Service, and member of the Bar Association of Thessaloniki. Since 2004, he is practicing law in the following areas: Human Rights Law, Migration Law, and Civil Law. Since April 2013, he is coordinator of the Legal Service at national level for PRAKSIS, where he supervises lawyers in mainland Greece (Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras) and all colleagues who provide their services at the transit centres for unaccompanied minors on the islands of Kos, Lesvos, and Samos; he also provides legal services (consultancy and drafting of legal texts) to newcomers third-country nationals, beneficiaries of international protection, unaccompanied minors, with particular attention drawn to vulnerable groups. He finally representats PRAKSIS in seminars, workshops and meetings with local authorities (Public Prosecutors, Directors of First Reception Centres, colleagues from other NGOs etc).