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Migrant children
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Roma family
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Detention camps in Europe, 2005



Following its independence from Ottoman rule in the early 1830s, Greece experienced two periods of mass emigration. The first lasted from the end of the 19th to the early 20th century and the second from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. Greece's first period of emigration was spurred by an economic crisis in 1893 and came to an end in 1924, when the United States adopted restrictive immigration policies.

Following World War II, Greeks emigrated to the expanding industrial economies of Western Europe, USA, Australia, and Canada, where they were subject to government-organized labor importation policies. From 1955 to 1973 Germany absorbed 603,300 Greeks – more than half the total number of Greeks who emigrated in the postwar period. Australia received 170,700, the United States 124,200, and Canada 80,200. Most of these emigrants originated in rural areas. The National Statistical Service of Greece reported that between 1955 and 1977, 1,236,280 Greek nationals lived as “permanent emigrants” outside of Greece when the population of the country was, in 1971, 8,768,372.

Encouraged by the difficulties experienced integrating in the receiving countries, the introduction of restrictive migration policies by European receiver countries following the economic crisis of 1973, the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1974, and the new economic prospects created by Greece's admission to the European Economic Community in 1981, led to the return, between 1974 and 1985, of almost half of emigrants who left the country in the post war period.

Greece in growth: immigrants arriving

The political transformation of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 turned immigration to Greece into a massive and uncontrollable phenomenon. Though Greece was one of the less developed EU states in the early 1990s, it received the highest percentage of immigrants in relation to the size of its labor force.

In the 1990 to 2001 period immigrants arrived in two main waves. The first was that of the early 1990s, in which neighbouring Albanians dominated. The second arrived after 1995 and involved much greater participation of immigrants from other Balkan states, the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, and India. In the past decade the country experienced a change in the sending countries. More and more undocumented immigration towards Greece originated from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and to a smaller extent from a number of sub-Saharan African countries crossing the north-eastern borders of the country with Turkey.

According to the latest Census, the population of Greece increased from 10,259,900 in 1991 to 10,964,020 in 2001. This increase can be almost exclusively attributed to migration in the decade. The Census showed that in 2001 the “foreign population” (of both documented and undocumented status) was 797,091, composing 7 percent of Greece's population. Other estimates raise migrants to 1.2 million, their portion of the national population to nearly 10 percent and their participation in the economically active population to 15 percent.

Greece currently has the highest percentage of immigrant to national population in the EU. Albania accounts for nearly 60 percent of the total, with second-place Bulgaria far outdistanced with around 5 percent and Romania 3 percent.

Nationality and gender are significantly differentiated by sector and form of employment and that gives the migratory phenomenon a gendered and ethnic distinction. Among men, Albanians, Bulgarians and Romanians were associated with construction and agriculture, Africans with street vending, Egyptians with fisheries, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshi with small industry, services, and the unhealthiest and most difficult jobs in agriculture. Women from the former Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and the Philippines worked largely in domestic services.

Several factors explain the transformation of Greece into a receiving country in the past two decades. These include its geographical position, which makes Greece the eastern “gate” of the EU, and its extensive coastlines and easily crossed borders. Other key factors have been the rapid economic changes that have narrowed Greece's economic and social distance from the northern European countries, after the integration of the country into the EU in 1981 and improved standard of living and increases in higher education among Greek youth that led Greeks to reject low-status and low-income jobs. Moreover, the large size of the informal, family-based economy combined with the seasonal nature of industries, such as tourism, agriculture, and construction, increased demand for a migrant labor pool that is independent of trade union practices and labor rights legislation.

In such an environment immigrants filled the “holes” left in the labor market by the national population. In sectors like agriculture, construction, family handicraft, tourism, and domestic services immigrants have become a structural component providing labor for marginal, unstable, highly exploitative, underpaid, and uninsured jobs.

In the past five years, Greece has grown to be the main gate for unauthorized entry to the European Union of migrants from Africa and Asia (mainly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Bangladesh). According to evidence, in 2010, 90% of all apprehensions for unauthorized entry in the EU were conducted in Greece (75% in 2009, 50% in 2008).

These developments and the implementation of Dublin II Regulation (2003/343/CE) have turned the country into the ‘storehouse’ of irregular immigration to Europe.

The Dublin II Regulation determined the EU Member State responsible to examine an application for asylum seekers seeking international protection under the Geneva Convention and the EU Qualification Directive, within the European Union.

The implementation of the Regulation has implied, over the past years, the transfer back to Greece of all those immigrants that have managed to reach other European nations through Greece.  Overcrowded detention centers, appalling hygiene and living conditions and the violation of human rights have characterized the treatment of arrested undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in Greece.

Recently the government, in order to combat mass entries, constructed a wire fence of 12.5 kms at the borderland with Turkey through which large numbers of undocumented immigrants entered Greece in the past years nullifying thus their numbers, diverting some of them to the eastern coast islands in the Aegean.

Immigration policy developments and setbacks

The Greek government was unprepared to receive such large numbers of immigrants in such a short period and has been hesitant to introduce the necessary legal and institutional changes for the regularization and integration of this population. No wonder therefore that until today (2013) nearly half of the estimated immigrant population remains undocumented with numbers of residence-permit holders decreasing, according to the Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen (from 602,797 in 2009 to 405,306 in April 2013, with 140,915 applications pending examination).

The first regularization program to handle recent undocumented immigration was introduced in 1997 with Presidential Decrees 358/1997 and 359/1997. 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 Law 2910/2001. This Law gave immigrants a second opportunity to legalize their status, provided they could produce proof of residence for at least a year before the implementation of the law. At the end of this process, in 2001, 400,000 had been regularized.

In 2005, Law 3386/2005 was introduced and gave undocumented immigrants another opportunity for regularization. The Law provided that immigrants who had lived in the country until 31.12.2004 could be regularized under the condition they could prove their entry into Greece before that date. The new law made the procedure of the issuance of residence permits simpler and incorporated the relevant EU directives on family reunification (Council Directive 2003/86/EC) and long-term resident immigrants (Council Directive 2003/109/EC).

At the end of this process, however, only 150,000 immigrants had submitted applications for regularization.

In early 2007, the government decided to submit a new Law (3536/2007) to parliament for discussion. This development certified that the previous law was still having problems of implementation. Law 3536/2007 introduced some positive changes related to the abolition of the regularization fee for children and the possibility for a 20% purchase of social insurance contributions – a prerequisite for regularization and permit renewal.

In 2010, Law 3838/2010 gave voting rights for local elections to immigrants, who either held long-term residence permits or had a Greek origin. All EU citizens were given voting rights in the local elections and could execute them under the condition they registered in the special voting catalogues after the announcement of the election date.

Additionally, with the same Law ‘citizenship’ was reformed providing Greek birthright citizenship to second-generation immigrants who were either born in the country or had continuous schooling in the country for at least 6 years.

However, the Law had an unhappy end. In early 2013 it was suspended as unconstitutional by the High Court.

Despite the legislative initiatives mentioned earlier, Greece has neither designed nor implemented a concise integration policy. The country’s integration policy is restricted to documented migrants only and formally works in three broad levels.

the policy described in the legislative framework of various laws and legal acts the EU’s Integration Fund andthe various other EU Funds indirectly affecting migrant integration.

The Greek state got first concerned with the social integration of migrants in the articles 65 and 66 of Law 3386/2005 in which it was provided that an Action Plan will be designed and implemented. However, the first Integrated Action Plan (IAP) for the integration of migrants named ‘Estia’ was not eventually implemented because it was never funded by the state budget. Neither was implemented the National Strategy Plan for the Integration of third country nationals designed for the period 2012-2015. This second Plan was withdrawn in July 2012 by the newly elected government and was resubmitted for public consultation in April 2013. However, its funding remains an unresolved issue. 

Thus, the only integration policy actions that remain are rather the European Integration Fund (EIF) for third country nationals the responsibility of which lies with the Ministry of the Interior.

In the context of the designed 2007-2013 Multi-annual Program a number of actions have been implemented, which are considered fragmented and not integrated into a national integration policy plan. EU policies, however, are not compulsory and absorption of EU funds from the European Integration Fund has been very low, not exceeding 10%.

Other indirect support and funding tools from various European programs and funds are also considered deficient and fragmentary. What has been considered as active and innovative policy (although described again as fragmented and non-integrated policy intervention) was rather the EU EQUAL program and, in principle, the Committees for the Integration of Migrants established in local government. 

Overall, the integration of immigrants seems to be the result of individual and family strategies rather than of institutional provisions and of targeted national integration policy.

In short, repeated regularizations and the remaining large numbers of undocumented immigrants in Greece confirm the failure of policy. Two decades after the first immigration flows to the country, Greece has not managed to design satisfactory and operational policies for the regularization of those already in the country for years and legal ways of entry for those the country may need.

The unforeseen crisis

Greece received more than a million immigrants in the last 20 years. The country experienced a cultural, economic, and political shock without serious social frictions. Immigrants contributed considerably to the total population increase against a declining Greek birth rate and a negative growth of native population. The increase of population is owed to migration by 97% and only by 3% to natural increase of population. The Albanian immigrant population, who are mainly married couples raising families, constitute the youngest population overall.

The improved performance of the Greek economy over the past few years owes much to its immigrants. It is estimated that they contributed by an average of 3 percent to the formation of the GDP and boosted Greece's successful participation in the EU's economic and monetary union.

Despite a relatively high unemployment rate, in the years of growth, fluctuating around 10 percent for the country as a whole, there appeared to be no serious competition by native Greeks for immigrant jobs. On the contrary, immigrants played a complementary role, often contributing to the expansion of employment.

However, the cycle of economic growth for Greece closed and a new cycle of intense economic recession and insecurity opened in 2008.

Greece's huge public debt and the government's decision to borrow from the support mechanism of the International Monetary Fund and the EU greatly altered the economic, political, and social environment of immigration in Greece. The country’s GDP was reduced by ¼, employment and incomes decreased for both native and immigrant populations, unemployment skyrocketed and competition within and between the two populations increased, resulting in even lower wages, less insured work, and fewer regularized immigrants.

Statistics have already showed that immigrant employment and unemployment are affected more. When unemployment for Greeks was 24% in 2012, it had reached 29,9 % for immigrants as a whole and 36% for Albanians, the largest and more integrated ethnic group.

Immigrants are today faced with difficult dilemmas regarding their future prospects in Greece. However, so far, return tendencies are not widespread. With the exception of voluntary (organized by IOM) and forced returns (organized by the Greek state) amounting to 22,117 in 2012, returns concern mostly undocumented immigrants - without regular employment or family in Greece, or long-term residents of Albanian origin who are over the age of 60 and had planned their return before the crisis. The rest of the immigrant population is still in a standby situation, trying to adjust to the new conditions offering more work flexibility simply because their personal/family conditions and their migration strategies do not allow them an immediate exodus.

Developments above have turned attention to immigration and cast it as a ‘growing threat’ for the cohesion of modern Greek society. Public discourse has called for stricter border control and a tougher policy toward irregular immigrants, and threats of mass deportation of those without the necessary residence permits.

Amid growing economic pressures, the uncertainties in those legal and institutional frameworks meant to regularize and integrate immigrants have lead to increased social friction, racism, and xenophobia very much propagated and exploited by the neo-nazist party of Golden Dawn as well as by other conservative political forces who have invested politically in an anti-immigrant agenda in the recession threatening irreparably the cohesion of Greek society.

The paper draws largely from publications 3 and 4 of the author provided in the References.


Clogg, R. (1979), A Short History of Modern Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

IOM (International Organization for Migration) (2008), Migration in Greece: A Country Profile 2008. Geneva: IOM.

Kasimis, C. (2013),”Greece, migration 1830s to present”, in Immanuel Ness  (ed), The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, Wiley-Blackwell, Volume III, pp. 1602-1609

Kasimis, C. (2012), “Greece: Immigration in the midst of crisis”, Migration Information Source (, accessed 19/9/2012)

Kasimis, C. and Kassimi C. (2004), “Greece: a History of Migration”, Migration Information Source, 1/6/2004 (, accessed 19/9/2012).

King, R. (2000), “Southern Europe in the Changing Global Map of Migration” In Eldorado or Fortress? Migration in Southern Europe, eds. King, R., Lazaridis, G. and Tsardanidis, Ch., Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, pp. 1-26.

Triandafyllidou, A. and Maroufof M. (2011), “Greece. Report prepared for the SOPEMI Meeting”, Paris, 1-3 December 2010.

Charalambos Kasimis Professor of Rural Sociology at the Agricultural University of Athens (