The challenge of migration in Greece

Ilias Roubanis

When it comes to Greek policies on migration, the primary objective is to create a clear path to citizenship, argues Ilias Roubanis. For ultimately, it is only a subject of rights and obligations that can negotiate his or her future as inter paris. We need to codify intermediate stages between outright illegality and citizenship and, at the very least, guarantee that everyone has human rights, citizens or not.Migration is neither desirable nor undesirable, migration is like the rain, sometimes revitalizing, sometimes devastating, yet unmistakably unavoidable; people have been moving around the globe since the dawn of time and will continue to do so. Secondly, migration is a crisis. The Chinese letter for crisis – as I am told – combines two letters: one which stands for extreme danger and one that stands for extreme opportunity. The challenge is not whether we are going to have migrants, but how we will deal with the migrants when {not if} they come! 

The imaginary dimension of Greek nationalism

For better or worse, Greece faces the challenge of migration as a Nation-State. The Nation-State has been founded upon the premise of a social contract – which was never actually signed, but always imagined – which holds the main political subject to be the citizen. Citizenship is a legal abstraction, an imagined and impersonal subject of rights and obligations. However, the interchangeable use of the terms nationality and citizenship assumes that this abstract legal entity corresponds to a very real person who is, in significant ways, culturally similar to all other citizens. Citizens of Greece have learned that access to public goods, such as education, public office, political representation, etc., is made conditional to the acceptance of a single cultural package or, in legal terms, a unicultural regime, involving competence in a single dominant language, acknowledgment of a single dominant religion, the sharing of a single specific historical narrative, etc. In seeing ourselves as ‘genuinely Greek,’ we are in fact demanding to be treated as people with particular power.

Migration is not a new phenomenon in Greece. In the 1920s Greece was able to socially integrate the refugees of Asia Minor, a population that amounted to no less than 20% of its population at the time. The fact of the matter is that the biggest periods of economic boom in Greece (end of the 19th century, 1920s and 1990s are associated with massive waves of immigration to Greece.

Perhaps the problem with modern immigration to Greece is that many of the newcomers are categorically similar and substantially different from the indigenous population. For example, ‘they,’ just like ‘us,’ have been raised with a dominant book of historical truth; vis a vis the Greek national historical thesis there is an equivalent Albanian, Turkish, Bulgarian, etc. Every nation has a book that falls under the category of the official, true, national history.

These narratives in themselves are as mutually exclusive as our physical borders. For example, Greek national historiography always refers to Southern Albania as North Epirus, implying an ‘organic’ link with Greece, or an unnatural link with Albania. Similarly, Albanian historiography refers to Southern Epirus as Tsamouria, or an unredeemable fragment of the motherland. Both the indigenous and the immigrant population are equipped with pools of ‘common,’ yet mutually exclusive sets of historical truths. What immigrants have done is bring the borders we had painfully agreed to set in Epeirous, in the Aegean, in Thrace, and in the Ionian Sea, in the heart of our cities and our neighbourhoods. The ‘imaginary other’ is now living next door, goes to school with our children and, not infrequently, works with and for us.

Problems of integration

Sooner or later cultural characteristics have a specific equivalence to a socio-economic status. For example, there is a globally observed phenomenon of suburbanization. Immigrants usually settle in areas where jobs and cheap housing are available and, moreover, where newcomers are likely to be supported by a greater community of people originating from the same source country. Therefore, people with specific cultural characteristics are likely to be found working and living in specific areas. For example, immigrants from Asia Minor resided in specific districts of Athens with distinctive names; today’s immigrants find themselves in particular areas of Athens; the word ‘Ghetto’ itself comes from a quarter of Venice were the Jews resided.

As one may suspect, cultural characteristics may also be found to be in greater concentration in a specific niche in the job market, for much the same reasons they are found living in specific areas. The international jargon used for the kind of jobs taken up by newcomers is usually referred to as the ‘three D’ market: Dirty, Difficult, and Dangerous. Many immigrant populations, including the, so called, ‘omogeneis,’ often experience a decline in social status.

Time and again I have been told that Greeks were also migrants, ‘but Albanians are different!’ From the age of five, studies indicate, children will begin in their games to imitate in their playing grounds the behavior of adults. In these games, which are always very serious, the children will also effectively learn and replicate dominant stereotypes about the other, ranging from sex roles, to dominant ideas about the other, including stereotypes made about migrant populations. From this sensitive age children will begin to prefer members of their own group, which may or may not include migrant children. Social exclusion begins early and there is very little innocence in childhood, since childhood is nothing more than an initiation process into adulthood. Social exclusion has a specific rational: to keep everyone at their own place!

If one was to shortly summarize the political priorities for the immigration regime in the years to come, that would be, first and foremost, that the Greek society needs to open its eyes to this new reality. Immigrants are here to stay. They can be a danger, or they can be a revitalizing opportunity, a problem, or a source of wealth and rejuvenation, for a society that is aging, both in ideas and in human resources. The socialist, labor, and even communist traditions have been founded on compromising dreams. The word compromise has been used by a good company of people, ranging from Lenin to Berlinguer. The left and centre-left vision for the future of migrants in Greece is also a compromising one.

A clear path to citizenship

George Papandreou, has in parliament committed the Socialist party to specific measures. Three years, he said, in Greek formal education should constitute the basis of citizenship. It has also been suggested that migrants should immediately acquire the right to vote in regional elections. Finally, certain parties – the Communist party, Synaspismos and PASOK – have opened party membership, at different levels, yet not proportionately, to migrants. These measures activate the migrant, from being an object of discussion, to being a subject active in negotiation. This is the way forward, for if we imagine a grand reformer who, with a magical stick, modernizes, innovates, destructs and creates, as deus ex machina, then we are actually fantasizing about a Fascist, despotic or, in any case, absolutist regime. Democracy is a process as well as an objective.

Someone who adheres to the left tradition is not neutral. Neutrality is the prerogative of the neo-liberal tradition, believing in automatic social harmony, one-way streets, and the fatalism of a society where the market harmonizes conflicting interests, firmly believing that the interest of the one is the interest of the whole. To quote Mrs Thatcher: “There is no such a thing as a society, there is only the family and the individual.” I think not!

When it comes to the migration regime the primary objective is to create a clear path to citizenship. For ultimately, it is only a subject of rights and obligations that can negotiate his or her future as inter paris. We cannot create a regime of immediate access to citizenship upon arrival for, even if we wanted to, we would not be allowed, as our borders are also the borders of the E.U. However, we cannot continue to sustain an all or nothing approach. We need to codify intermediate stages between outright illegality and citizenship and, at the very least, guarantee that everyone has human rights, citizens or not.

There is no such thing as a pure culture

We must search for ways to make the concept of Hellenism a gift, an appeal to universality, not merely a defensive shield. There is no such a thing as a pure culture. Our musical tradition, our customs, our food, even our speech are hybrids, and yet deeply unique as these particular forms of expression would only be possible in this place. Any food product that includes tomatoes is deeply indebted to the Americas, for that is where this fruit came from. And yet who can call pizza – in which tomato plays a protagonist role – less than Italian. Similarly, what would Greek traditional music be without the clarinet, which is clearly not indigenous to the region?

Our culture has nothing to fear from foreign influence, for cultures are not static entities, they live and evolve with time. We should welcome the new slang in our tongue, the new ingredients in our kitchen, and the new names in our streets. Afro-Greeks exist, Philippino-Greeks exist, Albano-Greeks exist, whether we want to see them or not. If we do not create whole personalities, people with dreams and hopes, we should be preparing for a society dominated by fear.


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