Pavlou, M.: Immigrants, minorities and discrimination in Greece

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The Myth of Greece as an Ethnically Homogeneous Emigration Country

One of the most widely accepted concepts about migration and minorities in Greece, which in fact resembles a myth, is that the latter as a nation-state has always been a homogeneous country and that only recently, namely in the 1990s, it has become an immigration-reception one. Moreover, the state acknowledges the existence of only one minority - the Muslim one of the Western Thrace - recognized through international treaties of the early 20th century. It denies such connotation (‘minority’) for social groups like Roma, gypsies etc. In reality however, Greece of the 20th century has been an emigration, as well as an immigration country, especially following the exchange of populations after clashes with the vanishing Ottoman Empire, and due to territorial enlargement whether through wars and treaties, bilateral agreements, or by opening to the Arab world in the second half of the 20th century.
On the other hand, Greece has indeed seen the growth of the percentage of foreign residents from a modest 2,5% in 1990, to 10% in 2001, according to the national census and other estimates. Immigrant population has increased four times its size since 1991, from 270.000 to 1,15 million persons. Most of them live in Athens (17% of the total population) and in Thessaloniki (7%).
The landscape of immigration, minority and anti-discrimination policies in Greece is largely marked by issues of recognition and of articulation of long term state initiatives and planning, as well as by shortcomings, critical social exclusion, racism phenomena and macro-political challenges. This paper aims to expose an overview of the situation, the main trends, as well as the problems and challenges concerning immigrants, minorities and discrimination issues in Greece.

Immigrants and Migration Policy

Regularization and Expulsion

One of the most widely known aspects of the Greek migration management system in the years 2001-2004, which is rather indicative of its inefficiency, is that due to long delays and administrative dysfunctions, residence and work permits were delivered to immigrants after their expiration date.
Furthermore, a strict bureaucratic system for admission to enter the country for work purposes has lead to hundreds of thousand of undeclared immigrant workers. Therefore, in 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 successive legalization programs took place in an effort to regularize irregular immigrants. These legalization campaigns provide employers’ amnesty, while immigrant workers are called to pay social security contributions and expensive fees in order to regularize their work and residence status for 1 year.
The most recent data for 2006 indicate that about a half million of residence permits are in force, while the immigrant population is estimated to range between 800 thousand (the minimum of foreign residents recorded by the 2001 national census) and 1.2 million persons (the estimate made by various agencies, such as the government Migration Policy Institute).
During the years 1991-2005, the police implemented a policy of increasing administrative expulsions of immigrants, especially of Albanian origin, as official data show.
Administrative expulsions in Greece are on the rise over the last decade, since very often the expelled immigrants return into the country illegally, thereby increasing the ‘stock’ of illegal third country nationals.

Employment and Detention

The migration policy that prolongs the perennial insecurity of the suspended immigrant status, preserves the subaltern and vulnerable position of the immigrants in the labour market. It seems that there is an absence of a specific integration policy on immigration and that there are a rather fragmentary measures and contradictory policies instead. The National Action Plan for Employment still does not include immigrants as a target group. Surveys and researches on integration of immigrants and minorities’ in the labor market show that they receive lower wages and pay higher social security contributions. There are however increasing claims of higher wages backed by the unions of national and local workers. There are also increasing legislative limitations and restrictions in their entrepreneurship, concerning access to certain professions.
On the other hand, protection of irregular immigrant workers in informal economy is far from actuated. The legalization programs are not accompanied by measures or incentives to keep immigrant workers’ employment regular, legal and away from the informal economy. The following chart shows the levels of illegal employment of immigrants found by the Labour Inspection Body. The Greek economy is marked by one of the higher percentages of informal activity and black labour among EU countries, estimated close to 40-50% of the GDP:
Regarding the reception policies, the living conditions in the refugee reception and detention centres, especially in the Aegean Sea islands and the police departments throughout the country still remain unacceptable in many cases and degrading for human dignity, as depicted by a long list of international and national organizations. Two of the most pressing interventions are exercised by the Greek Ombudsman especially for the detention and expulsion of unaccompanied minors ( and by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe.


The rapidly increasing participation of 2nd generation immigrant children in education is accompanied by an ever larger dropout rate, which remains higher for immigrant children in relation to the total students’ population in primary and secondary education, though it is not to attribute to school performance. Isolated incidents of exclusion and discrimination against them are recorded, especially in relation to national festivities and parades, mainly due to the strongly ethnocentric aspects of Greek education.
The main issues raised during the past years were one, the prohibition of enrolment of children of undocumented immigrants, later on withdrawn due to the Ombudsman intervention, and two, the question of whether alien pupils should carry the national flag during school parades. The later issue provokes intolerant reactions at the local level every year.
The state intercultural education consists of providing language support by specialized teachers and is implemented only in 26 intercultural schools which are operating throughout the country. It serves the needs of the children of over a million of immigrants. Measures for immigrant children in school do not challenge the structural and systemic role of the education system in the Greek society, which is still based on exclusion rather than inclusion and on ethnocentrism rather than multiculturalism.

Health and Social Protection

Irregular immigrants are excluded from the provision of public health, unless and as long they are at immediate risk of life loss, while their appearance in the public hospitals should be signalled to the police. In reality, the medical staff of public hospitals does provide medical services irrespective of the residence status of the patient.
Regular immigrants are holders of similar rights to those of Greek citizens, for a narrow field of social protection, namely provisions for natural disaster victims, and are not eligible for regular disability and subsistence welfare programs, which are connected to Greek citizenship and/or ethnic origin.

Immigrants and Political Rights

There are no provisions in place for granting voting rights in local municipal elections to subjects who are not Greek or EU nationals (third country). Nevertheless, there are isolated exceptions – in some municipalities in rural Greece, the non-voting consultative bodies representative of immigrant residents were created.
The Greek citizenship code does not provide access to citizenship to third country nationals, neither if they were born, nor if they lived their entire life in the country. Instead, the common procedure is an application after 12 years of legal residence in Greece, supported by expensive fees (1500€), with no deadline or even an obligation of the state to provide an answer. Such requests are frequently not responded to before a decade after the application date.
The Long Term Residence status EC Directive is yet to be fully transposed into the Greek legal order, while the application for such a status is possible only after paying a hefty 900€ fee, and passing an exam following a year-long course of Greek language, history and culture. However, there is a ‘numerus clausus’ for taking part in these courses, to an extent that in the best of cases, no more than 5-10.000 immigrants will be able to apply for LTR status until 2011. This is an extremely low percentage of long term residing immigrants in the country (estimated roughly between half and one million, and on the basis of the 2001 census records on the duration of residence).

Minorities and Minority Policies


There are no diversity management policies in place, neither in public nor in private sector, while no percentage of job posts is reserved to ethnic cultural minorities whatsoever. Believers of religions other than Christian Orthodox are not allowed to abstain from work to exercise their religion. No other religions’ festivities are recognised for employment and leave purposes.

Discrimination in Education

According to available data, there has been a net improvement of the situation concerning the education of Roma and Muslim minority children since the 1990s. However, there are contradictory reports about Roma children enrolment and dropout rates.
A persisting trend is that enrollment of Roma children in ordinary community schools continues to cause tensions, intolerance and violent reactions, in some cases obliging the Roma children to attend special Roma school units, despite the firm commitment of the administration to avoid segregation of minorities in education.
The major intolerance incidents in education regard the registration and participation of Roma children in primary schools. In the beginning of the school year 2004-05, serious incidents of obstructing Roma children from going to school by parents have taken place in Aspropyrgos (wider Athens area). Violence against Roma minority, especially in cases of housing – settlements and education, is marked by the appearance of a new ‘intra-minority group’ aspect. Those who strongly and violently oppose the enrolment of Roma children in schools are ethnic Greek immigrants living in the same downgraded suburban industrial area. Once more, the shortcomings are lack of infrastructure, human and material resources, in particular in education. In this way, the lacking process of integrating Roma children in school system, while declared as a major priority, becomes the fertile ground for the emergence of racist violence.
No special treatment is provided to other religions in work or schooling, except the optional exception from Religion classes, while no tension has been recorded in Greece regarding religious symbols (headscarves etc.).
A number of pro-active and positive discrimination measures is aimed at improving the educational opportunities of Thrace Muslim minority members. A large proportion of these consists of Muslim minority education EU funded projects and Roma minority education EU funded projects as the next table shows:

Roma Housing and Evictions

The housing program addressing the Roma community members, through bank loans under privilege terms represents a positive trend of the last years, and a major change in relation to the years prior to 2000. However, there is a low rate of approvals and effective loans granted, thus not corresponding to the Roma housing needs. 
Over the last couple of years (2004-2005) there has been an increase of evictions of Roma dwellings in the areas where major cultural and sport events had taken place or are going to take place in the near future (2004 Olympic Games of Athens, Patras Cultural Capital of Europe 2006, Votanikos area, site of a new Football Stadium). These are inevitably accompanied by tensions, local society intolerance and violent attacks against Roma.
Despite the efforts of the state, the Roma living, health and sanitary conditions in improvised settlements still remain a major social and humanitarian emergency.

Minority Policies

For what concerns the Thrace Muslim minority (under international treaties) and ethnic-cultural minorities in general (e.g. populations using less spoken languages), the ECRI in its second and third report for Greece has encouraged the Greek state to ensure that all groups, Macedonians and Turks included, may exercise their rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression in accordance with international legal standards, and to allow the registration of associations whose title includes the adjective ‘Turkish’. In reality, the Greek Supreme Court in 2005 judged that the ‘Turkish Union of Xanthi’ should be dissolved since ‘it constitutes an attempt to affirm the presence of a Turkish minority in Greece’ despite the fact that in relevant cases such practice was judged to be in breach with the ECHR (art.11) by the European Court for Human Rights of Strasbourg.

Racism, Discrimination and Reactive / Pro-Active Policies

In early 2005 the anti-discrimination directives have been transposed into the Greek legal order and a set of equality bodies with complementary mandates has been provided, some of which do not fully conform to the Paris Principles. After 2 years of implementation of the anti-discrimination legislation there are extremely few discrimination cases within the field of the anti-discrimination law, almost all of them handled by the Greek Ombudsman, which seems to be the only fully operative Equality Body in Greece. No official case of racist violence and crime is recorded on the basis of the relevant anti-racist penal legislation (law 927/1979), although violence against immigrants and minorities, in many cases by police officers, is a reality.
The above depict a landscape of a problematic implementation of anti-racist and anti-discrimination laws, due to institutional shortcomings and the underlying attitudes.
Moreover, there is a lack of public mainstreaming, campaigning and promoting equal treatment and anti-discrimination practices and attitudes through programs targeting either specific groups or the general population.
Negative stereotypes against minority groups and legitimisation of racial violence have proven difficult to extinguish. A football game between Greece and Albania readily sets off racist tensions that lead to clashes between Greeks and Albanians and even murders of immigrants among the largest immigrant group in Greece. What raises concerns is that the episodes cannot be attributed to a few nationalist and fascist groups, but that they are legitimised through a mainstream anti-Albanian attitude, tolerated or shared by a large proportion of the Greek society.
The problem of police and portual corps violence against immigrants-refugees and minorities is exacerbated by the fact that the internal police audit control and investigations procedures often lead to the offenders’ impunity. Only in a very small and insignificant number of cases has the investigation led to disciplinary measures, while in the absolute majority the complaint cases close as unfounded.
The Olympic policing-racial profiling of Muslims and their surveillance because of anti-terrorist measures has lead to a major incident of mass abduction and interrogation under undefined circumstances by Greek and foreign secret services in summer 2004. This issue has lead to a heated debate in the Parliament and has been under the focus of international media in 2005.

Positive Trends

The religion-oriented racism is not usually the case in the Greek society and intolerance towards Muslims or islamophobia incidents have not been detected or reported. The public policies are not terror-fear driven and no particular security measures have been taken towards Muslim religious minority group in Greece.
While there are sporadic episodes of Anti-Semitic vandalism against monuments and verbal threats through street graffiti, no violent incident against persons on the basis of their religious beliefs has been recorded over the last years. Furthermore, a 2004 law has set a date (27 of January) for Commemoration of the Greek Jews Holocaust Martyrs. However, during the 2006 Lebanon war, the state of Israel was depicted as 4rth Reich and anti-semitism has marked a segment of media and political discourse, mostly the extreme right-wing one.
Notwithstanding the great numbers of immigrants of Muslim religion and the practical absence of racist tensions against them, no official mosque still exists outside of the Western Thrace Region, while a notable number of unofficial mosques operate in Athens informally but without intolerance problems. A late 2006 law provides for building a mosque in Athens in order to satisfy the needs of Muslim inhabitants. The downside is that the law provides for the administration of the mosque by Christian orthodox public officers and the designation of the imam by the Minister of Education and Religions upon their recommendation.

Public Discourse and Attitudes

The ‘Greek majority priority’ principle, a perception deeply rooted in Greek society, provides the base for discrimination against minority groups and foreigners and constitutes an obstacle for development of the society on the basis of equality and non-discrimination. The hard-to-die negative stereotypes against minority groups legitimize racist violence. These are accompanied by the resolute and contradictory emerging attitudes versus the foreigners (co-existence of positive/negative views).
A major challenge for the future is a decisive role of the representatives of the political spectrum in shielding the public sphere from extreme right-wing xenophobic and racist discourse and practices legitimized in the name of a nationalist patriotism and the preservation of the ‘Greekness’. While public condemnations against such views are frequent and generalized as rhetoric, the main arguments and repertoires of racist discourse permeate a great part of the political class and parties, while media offer ground to xenophobic and racist discourse, encouraging similar opinions and practices.
A number of noteworthy good practices and civil society’s voluntary activities depict a rather robust and dynamic landscape of anti-discrimination action, some having significant impact on the public sphere. Civil society organisations and agencies are conducting a strongly anti-racist and pro-integration activity and a considerable part of substantial good practices concern promotion of multicultural society through high impact cultural activities. A significant number of local initiatives by civil society organizations are focused at intercultural contact and exchanges as well as at provision of specialized support to vulnerable groups, especially immigrant and refugees-asylum seekers, women and minors in major cities such as Athens, Thessaloniki, and Rethymno. After a decade of immigration, Greek cinematography is producing more films with a strong reference to the migration phenomena and the way it shapes Greek modern society, while special cinema tributes are dedicated to migration.

Immigrants’ and Minorities Social Inclusion

A significant 2006 initiative is the foundation of a political party by the Greek Roma under the name ASPIDA by federations and associations of Greek Roma. Their aim is to represent the Roma community through national elections, a minority currently not represented in Parliament and roughly estimated to amount 200.000-300.000 members.
Under the light of public discussion regarding the management of migration it is obvious that some things have changed indeed in terms of dealing with immigrants as subjects entitled to basic rights, while the declarative perspective is their integration into, rather than their exclusion from, the Greek society.
The debate about concession of political rights to immigrants has been initiated, and all parliamentary parties propose full political rights especially to long-term residents and at the local or national elections, except for the right majority party in government.
As the newly elected president of the Hellenic Republic has put it at his first presidential address to the nation for the occasion of national independence anniversary of 25/3/2005, integration of immigrants is one of the main future challenges for Greek democracy: ‘(…) the protection of human rights and personal freedoms without discrimination and smooth integration of immigrants, are serious challenges for modern Greece’.

Miltos Pavlou, Hellenic League for Human Rights (HLHR) and Research Centre for Minority Groups (KEMO), 2006