When communism ended in Albania twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Albanians began crossing into Greece to escape social unrest and poverty. Greece responded by criminalizing them, pushing them into sections of central Athens that have become immigrant ghettos. As some 150,00 brown and black people from the developing world continue to enter Greece illegally each year, little has changed in the country’s immigration policy. The police still round-up immigrants, loading them into buses that transport them to “hospitality centers,” most of which have yet to be built, and ultimately releasing them. At the behest of other European countries, Greece is now planning to install a 12.5-kilometer fence of razor wire along the border with Turkey — the dividing line between Europe and the millions of poor people to the east.
The only substantive change that I can see has been in the discourse about immigration, which in the least few years has expanded to include voices critical of the inhumane and racist treatment of immigrants in Greece. In self-defense, Greeks have enriched their lexicon with the word, lathrometanasteysi — a compound word (lathraios or smuggled and metanasteysi or immigration), meaning illegal immigration. It’s a clever construction, marrying those two words every time there is a reference to the unwelcome visitors, because the word shifts attention to the illegality of the immigration, rather than to the presence of immigrants in the homeland. And perhaps it would be convincing if Greek society had not spent the last two decades persecuting, exploiting, and demonizing immigrants, or if Greece had a workable process for legal immigration.
I hear Greeks also suggesting that the country simply cannot afford to care for or to legalize its illegal immigration population because its economy is collapsing. Indeed, immigrants account for people with whom Greeks must compete for meager public services, and perhaps increasingly for low-paying jobs and substandard housing. The argument would be credible, of course, if conditions were any different for immigrants in Greece before the economic crisis.
A Greek friend of mine, now in his mid-40s, is immigrating with his family to Switzerland. His immigration, sponsored by a multinational corporation, is legal, as was mine to the United States back in 1980. But the economic reasons to uproot his family at this stage of his life are quite similar to those that are driving others to immigrate to Greece. (Is this point even necessary to make anymore?) My friend, and many other Greeks who are, themselves, immigrating, are joining about ten million other people of Greek descent who already live outside of Greece. And while many people in this Greek diaspora started out as undocumented immigrants, that’s all ancient history. Today’s Greek immigrants are clearly legal, European, white, and educated — and lest I forget, far less desperate than those others.