Immigrants in the port of Patras, Greece (source). An immigrant community as large as three million people, in a country of eleven million.
It was during the early 1970s—the time of the Colonels—that Greece began to receive large numbers of immigrants, mainly Africans recruited for insecure low-paying jobs in construction, agriculture, and shipping. In 1972, they numbered 15,000 to 20,000 officially and 60,000 unofficially (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 163).
The same years also saw the start of a related trend: loss of employment in manufacturing. These jobs were relocated to countries with cheaper labor and less stringent work regulations. But other jobs could not be relocated by their very nature—jobs in tourism, construction, agriculture, and shipping. It was in these same sectors that employers began to import low-wage labor:
[…] the economic crisis that hit Greece beginning in the mid-1970s led to a process of deindustrialization. But not all sectors of industry were affected in the same way. The more traditional labor-intensive sectors that served the domestic market were less penalized than the more modern sectors that were open to foreign competition. The traditional sectors that held up were also those in which the possibility of using foreign labor was greater (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 164).
When one employer began to hire lower-priced foreign labor, usually without authorization, pressure grew on others to follow suit. By the mid-1990s, foreigners made up 10% of all workers and even more of the “informal” labor force:
More generally, the development of the parallel economy was linked to clandestine immigration. Other than tourism and agriculture, the underground economy assumed considerable proportions in the sectors of construction, industry, and trade. The parallel economy contributed in the early 1990s to 30-35% of Greece’s GIP […]. For some authors it was the development of the size of the parallel economy that attracted the clandestine immigrants […], whereas for others the use of clandestine labor supported the informal economy (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 164).
In theory, the clandestine foreign workers were distinct from the documented ones. In practice, legal immigration facilitated illegal immigration:
Not all of the non-European Community foreigners present in Greece were clandestine workers. In some sectors they coexisted with documented workers. This was for example the case with the merchant marine. As early as the late 1970s, this strategic sector of the national economy resorted massively to foreign labor, especially in low-skilled jobs. In 1990, there were around 10,000 foreign sailors out of a total of 37,000 people employed on Greek ships. But according to other sources, alongside the documented workers, the merchant marine was employing 12,000 to 14,000 workers from Egypt and Pakistan and 30,000 clandestine foreigners.(Pteroudis, 1996, p. 165)
According to a review of the literature in the early 2000s, this immigration was slowing down the rise in incomes of poorer Greeks:
[…] the wages of Greek workers have not been reduced during the period of immigration (since 1990) but the rate of increase is much lower, in real terms, than in the past. It is interesting to note that the money wages of workers paid with minimum wages have increased at very low rates, between 1% – 2% per year, whereas wages in general have increased by higher rates. The difference between the increases of the two wage rates may be attributed to the fact that those working with minimum wages are unskilled workers without work experiences and therefore these are the people who, in general, are in competition with immigrants in the labour market. (Lianos, 2004, p. 11)
Nonetheless, little has been done to restrain the influx of low-wage workers. In fact, it has actually increased. Why?
Several reasons may be given:
Costs and benefits fall on different people
A big reason is that the adverse impacts fall on those people (the working poor) who have the least input into public policy.
[…] immigration is increasing the inequality of income among various categories of income and profit recipients. A general equilibrium study […] has found that immigration to Greece has indeed this effect. It has reduced real disposable incomes of poor households and has increased the incomes of middle and rich households. (Lianos, 2004, p. 13)
The latter households, who benefit from immigration, have the most input into public policy:
It is interesting to mention that many economists in Greece see immigration as an important factor in keeping wages low, thus keeping the cost of production low and therefore the rate of inflation in a period when Greece was making a serious effort to join the economic and monetary union (EMU). One can go one step further and argue that the policy of low inflation was served by immigration and perhaps even better by illegal immigration. Thus, the lack of haste on the part of the Greek governments to regularise illegal immigrants is attributed to a conscious policy rather than to a lack of administrative ability. (Lianos, 2004, p. 11)
Besides influencing public policy directly, the elites also exert an indirect influence via the media, the arts, and entertainment. This influence builds on an existing tendency among artists, entertainers, and writers toward individualism and post-nationalism.
In Greece, post-nationalism has replaced nationalism since the Colonels left in 1974 and even more so since the country entered the European Community in 1981. The increasingly prevalent view is that the nation-state no longer matters and that there are only individuals buying and selling in a global marketplace
Post-nationalists are aware that many immigrants see things differently. But this fact is usually blamed on the host society; if the Greek people would just be more welcoming, fewer immigrants would seek refuge in their own cultural and religious identities.
Such refuge is even seen positively as an understandable response to the challenges of an alien society. Post-nationalism has thus become wedded to multiculturalism.
Belief in unrestrained markets
There has also been a growing belief in the virtue of unrestrained free markets, especially among government officials:
“I am enthusiastic about the Albanians. They certainly work illegally, but that is a prerequisite to their being able to offer their labor at a low price,” declared the minister of the economy in 1993 […]. The usefulness of this very flexible labor is to maintain the competitiveness of certain branches of work […] It is estimated that the cost of clandestine labor is 50% less than that of documented labor (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 177-178)
Collapse of the Eastern bloc
Finally, external circumstances have greatly increased the pressure of immigration, both legal and illegal. One set of circumstances was the end of the Cold War and the collapse of regimes throughout Eastern Europe:
But the increase in the volume of clandestine immigration is to be understood above all as a consequence of the opening of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Until 1989 there were practically no citizens from the Eastern bloc in Greece. Only a few thousand Poles had requested asylum […]. But the collapse of the communist regimes and the opening of the borders fundamentally changed migration between the East and the West of the continent (Pteroudis, 1996, p. 165-166)
The 1990s brought hundreds of thousands from the former Eastern bloc. They were difficult to keep out because of the long land border and also because many were entitled to Greek nationality by virtue of having Greek ancestry (i.e., jus sanguinis, as in Israel and Germany). These “ethnic Greeks” usually had only a vague connection to their ancestral homeland. While studying in Voronezh, I worked at a language school where one of our students was preparing to “return” to Greece. He had in fact only a limited understanding of Greek.
These legal immigrants thus created a cosmopolitan environment that could support and conceal illegal immigrants from the former Eastern bloc and, increasingly, from elsewhere.
A Third World baby boom comes of age
Another external circumstance has been a baby boom in a zone stretching from West Africa and the Sahel, through the Horn of Africa and parts of the Middle East, and into South Asia. This boom is fueled by three interacting causes: traditionally high fertility, modern medicine, and relative peace. As these children come of age, most have nowhere to go but out. And “out” is increasingly Europe.
Initially, they went to the countries of their former colonial masters, usually Great Britain or France. This flow of people was seen as “chickens coming home to roost”—payback for the sins of colonialism and imperialism. In the 21st century, however, the chickens are also flocking to other homes. Something else is going on, and it isn’t payback.
In the mid-1990s, Pteroudis (1996, pp. 174-176) cited Greek estimates that ranged from a low of 180,000 illegal immigrants to a high of 1 million. The number of legal immigrants was likewise uncertain. The 1991 census gave a total of 167,000 whereas other sources pointed to a much higher figure.
Today, estimates range from a low of one million foreign-born to a high of three million. That’s a lot for a country of eleven million people. The low figure is extrapolated from the 2001 census:
[…] the number of immigrants living in Greece in 2001 was 762,191, making up approximately 7 percent of the total population. This figure includes all foreign born irrespective of immigration status, as well as the 46,869 individuals who were citizens of the countries comprising the European Union at that time.
[…] Nevertheless, the actual size of the foreign-born population is estimated to be significantly higher: Many analysts believe that there are between 1 million and 1.3 million immigrants in Greece, making up as much as 10 percent of the population. (Kasimis, 2012)
We may know more when the results of the 2011 census are fully released. But even those numbers will be doubtful, since illegal immigrants tend to shun census-takers. As Kasimis (2012) notes: “The data from the 2011 census […] are not expected to be detailed nor particularly credible because of the problematic organization and management of the census.”
The problem here is not just methodological, It’s also definitional. The term “foreign born” excludes Greek-born children of immigrants. Yet children tend to identify with their parents’ ethnocultural background, and this is especially true for Muslim immigrants (Gogonas, 2011).
Here we come to the high estimate of three million, which is denounced as fear-mongering and yet is probably close to the truth. There might indeed be that many if we add the children of the foreign-born. Of that total, fewer than a quarter are easily assimilable, i.e., ethnic Greeks and other Orthodox Europeans. The rest are mostly Muslim Albanians, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and Africans.
The past forty years have drawn Greece into a two-way movement of jobs and workers. On the one hand, industries have been relocating to countries where labor costs are cheaper. On the other hand, low-wage labor has been coming in and displacing Greeks from those jobs that cannot be relocated.
This two-way movement initially caused wages to rise more slowly than they would have otherwise. Now, a second phase has begun: a downward leveling of wages and working conditions.
Of course, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Greece. It’s unique only to the extent that the Greek people are (1) less able to keep up the fiction of a First World lifestyle by borrowing money and (2) geographically more exposed to the forces of globalization. Greece is, so to speak, the canary in the coalmine.
But there’s a larger question at stake. Will the Greek people survive? If we accept the logic of post-nationalism and globalism, there can be only one answer and that answer is “no.”
Keep the following points in mind:
– The Greek people number only eleven million and are on the front of a massive population expansion that is pushing out of Africa and southwestern Asia.
– Their fertility rate is only 1.3 children per woman, in contrast to rates up to six times higher only a short distance to the south.
– The ideological environment is hostile to any collective defense of the nation-state. There is a transnational system of defense, NATO, but its aims reflect the geopolitics of another age.
These are admittedly current circumstances, and circumstances can change. But change will have to come soon.
Gogonas, N. (2011). Religion as a core value in language maintenance: Arabic speakers in Greece, International Migration, 50, 113-129.
Kasimis, C. (2012). Greece: Illegal Immigration in the Midst of Crisis, Migration Information Source
Lianos, T. P. (2004). The impact ofimmigration on Greece’s society, European Migration Network, Greek National Contact Point, Center for Planning and Economic Research.
Pteroudis, E. (1996). Emigrations et immigrations en Grèce, évolutions récentes et questions politiques, Revue européenne de migrations internationals, 12, 159-189 (Espagne, Portugal, Grèce, pays d’immigration).