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Why Greece is building a “wall of shame”

Tuesday, 11 January, 2011 - 17:16

The Greek government has decided to build a “wall of shame” along the border with Turkey because it is overwhelmed by a massive wave of immigration, which its economy can no longer absorb in the midst of an economic crisis. An analysis from our correspondent in Athens. 

Putting up 12 kilometres of barbed wire along the border between Greece and Turkey probably won't make much of a difference, but as Greece has come under fire from its European partners for being a “sieve,” it no longer knows how to handle its increasing illegal immigration: 125,145 arrests were carried out at its borders in 2009. Humanitarian organisations regularly condemn the inhuman conditions in detention centres, xenophobic incidents are multiplying, and some playgrounds are even forbidden to foreign children. How did Greece ever reach that point?

From emigration to immigration

Until the 1980's, Greece was a country from which people emigrated – to Germany, where up to 700,000 Greek migrants lived, to Belgium, to the United States, to Canada or to Australia. After joining the European Union in 1981, and especially since the 1990's when the Berlin wall came down, opening doors to Eastern Europe, Greece has become something of an El Dorado in the Balkans. A wave of immigration has come in from a whole constellation of countries: Russians from the Black Sea, Epirots from Albania who can claim Greek descent, Egyptians and Syrians under binational contracts, and other Eastern Europeans in general, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, and mainly Albanians.

From economic miracle to crisis

While Greece in its “economic miracle” years had neither infrastructure nor administrative preparation, it was able to take in an estimated 1.5 million migrants (out of a total population of 11 million), because labour, both on the formal and informal markets, was in high demand, thanks to a growth fuelled by the boon of EU subsidies and by the Olympics in 2004. The boom also drew other migrants, each with their own speciality: Indians in marine farms, Pakistanis in vegetable farming, Filipinos in home-care services.

They quickly integrated, thanks to a “Greek lifestyle” mix of sunshine, informal relations and arrangements. As a proof of this integration, one can simply look at the high percentage (sometimes more than half) of children of foreign descent in schools; they fortunately counterbalance the very weak birth rate of Greeks, Europe's lowest. Not that the social conditions these immigrants live in are rosy: they usually are employed illegally, with little or no insurance, face humiliations on a daily basis, and have nearly no hopes of ever being naturalised.

Two events changed the picture:

1 – The economic crisis has hit Greece hard, and the austerity measures being prescribed have worsened the lot of the most vulnerable, as immigrants often are. A number of those who were legal lost their residency because of unemployment and a loss in purchasing power. Some have left, others have stayed on in ever more precarious conditions.

2 – Europe has sealed its other entrance doors shut, as the number of migrants from Asia (Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis) and Africa (Northern Africa) coming in by sea first, then by land over the border with Turkey (over 125,000 arrests in 2009) has grown exponentially. While these illegal immigrants, handled by well-organised trafficking organisations, consider Greece as nothing more than a transit country on the way to England or Germany, they find themselves trapped by the EU's so-called “Dublin regulation,” which allows migrants to be deported back to the country through which they first entered the EU.

This bleak picture does not excuse the decision to build a wall of shame on the Greek-Turkish border, but it explains how confused and overwhelmed Greek authorities are. This case also highlights how urgent it is to devise a real European migration policy, other than one turning the EU into a fortress.

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