The history of the population movement from and to Greece since the 1830s focuses on emigration: the first wave in the 19th-20th century with about 1/6 of the Greek population leaving to the USA and Egypt and the second wave after WW2 when over one million of the Greek population emigrated to Germany, Belgium, USA, Australia, Canada. Since the 20th century, there have been three main immigration waves: refugees from Asia Minor -- approximately 1,4 million in the 1920s and again around 350 000 in the 1950s from Istanbul, refugees from Egypt, who had emigrated in the late 19th century and then inflows from the Balkans due to the Balkan wars. It is worth noting that in 1912 almost 10% of the population had emigrated to the USA - the highest percentage amongst the other European countries since 1900 (Mazower, 2000), while in 1974-1985 almost half of the emigrants of the post-war period returned.
In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to Greece without documents or permits. They crossed the northern mountainous borders between Albania or Bulgaria and Greece on foot at night, or landed with tiny boats on the Greek islands of the Aegean, usually ferried by human smuggling networks. According to the Economist, by 1996 there were about 600,000 foreigners living in the country, most of them Albanians, but also increasing numbers of Pakistani traders, Polish builders and decorators, Filipino household servants and nurses, and unskilled workers from Africa.
The presidential decrees 358/1997 and 359/1997 inaugurated the first immigrant regularisation program in the spring of 1998. In total, 371,641 immigrants applied for the white card (limited duration permit), which was the first step in applying for the temporary stay permit or green card (of 1, 2 or 5 year duration). Only 212,860 undocumented foreigners managed to submit an application for a green card. While this first regularisation program was ambitious in its conception and rather open in its conditions, it met with insurmountable organizational and practical difficulties.
In Greece as in many other European countries after the 1980s previous perceptions of social, economic and political identity in Europe were called into question, with migration becoming one of the main issues. In the 1990s, Greece experienced a shift from being a country of emigration to one of immigration. Greece’s immigrant population today, including aliens and co-ethnic returnees, such as Pontic Greeks and ethnic Greek Albanians, has risen to well over a million. This represents about 9% of the total resident population, a strikingly high percentage for a country that until only twenty years ago was a migration sender rather than host. According to the 2001 census, 7% of the legal(ised) population of Greece are ‘foreigners’/immigrants, while it is estimated that 2-3% appears not to have registered, amounting in total to almost 10% of the (adjusted) population. More precisely, Greece was host to 762,200 foreigners, including 413,000 foreign workers. However, also over 300,000 illegal immigrants were detected, a significantly higher number than in previous years. Half of the registered immigrants come from Albania, followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Pakistan, Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. The main sources of foreign workers were Albania (again over half), Bulgaria and Romania. Twelve percent of this population has settled in Central Macedonia (Central Northern Greece) and 47.5% in Attica. The percentage of immigrants to the total population is 17% in the Municipality of Athens and 7% in the Municipality of Thessaloniki. Approximately three quarters of the immigrant population currently has legal status (both work and stay permits).
Greece’s approach to immigration and inclusion remains centred on economic concerns – with the need for labour to shape the distribution of residence permits. Policy debate remains focused on low-skilled labour, with six-month temporary permits for workers. Both politically and legally, long-term residency has been overlooked: the legislation on this area is very limited, in spite of the fact that a new immigration law came into force in 2001. Migrants have contributed to the Greek economy’s boost over the past decade. There is a sensitive tension that needs to be addressed between a rather hostile public opinion towards immigration and the need for an inflow of new citizens to counterbalance Greece’s aging population, and consequently the future viability of the country’s social security system.
Since the 1990s immigration policy in Greece was developed in terms of putting into practice stricter border controls and other enforcement measures. However, there has been a significant time lag in designing and implementing a more comprehensive policy framework that includes the regularisation of undocumented aliens, aiming toward the integration of this population across all sectors and areas of the host country. It is interesting to note that most immigrants have entered Greece illegally and have survived in the country ‘without papers’ for periods ranging from a few months to several years. The prolonged undocumented status of many migrants and the policy vacuum that lasted for over a decade has not facilitated active civic participation on the part of immigrants in Greek public life. Recently adopted immigration legislation has been criticised for continuing to ignore the majority of the country’s illegal migrant population and effectively hinders approximately 70% of immigrants from obtaining residence permits.
In 2001, and before the first regularisation program had come to a close, the government issued a new law (law 2910/2001) with a twofold aim, entitled ‘Entry and sojourn of foreigners in the Greek territory. Naturalisation and other measures’. The law included a second regularisation program that aimed at attracting all the applicants who had not been able to benefit from the 1998 ‘amnesty’ as well as the thousands of new immigrants who had, in the meantime, arrived in Greece. Also the new law created the necessary policy framework to deal with immigration in the medium to long term. Thus, it provided not only for issues relating to border control but also for channels of legal entry to Greece for employment, family reunion, return to their country of origin (for ethnic Greeks abroad), and also studies or asylum seeking.
Law 2910/2001 laid down the conditions for the naturalisation of aliens residing in the country. Residence permits are required for all foreign nationals over the age of 18 residing in Greece and covered by law 2910/2001 (as amended). This requirement excludes European Union nationals and "ethnic Greeks" (homogeneis, or persons of Greek heritage born outside of Greece) to whom different legal provisions apply. An issue that is particular to the Greek case is the fact that the Greek state has distinguished between immigrants of Greek ethnic origin and others.
Following repeated recommendations on behalf of trade unions, NGOs, and the Greek Ombudsman the law was revised and the relevant deadlines extended as another 370,000 immigrants applied to acquire legal status within the framework of the new program. Yet resources were again insufficient as work and stay permits continued to be issued for one- year periods only. By the time one immigrant was done with the issuing of her/his papers, s/he had to start all over again to renew it. In 2001, the government issued a three-year program, the Action Plan for the Social Integration of Immigrants (for the period 2002-2005). This Plan included measures for their inclusion in the labour market, their access to health services and overall a series of measures promoting cultural dialogue and combating xenophobia and racism within Greek society. Unfortunately, many of the provisions of this program remained on paper. In January 2004 (Act 3202/2003) the government decided to issue permits of a two-year duration, facilitating the task of both the administration and the immigrant applicants.
In August 2005 the Parliament adopted a new immigration bill, effective as of 1st January 2006, on ‘Entry, stay and integration of third country nationals in Greece’. The objective of this new legislation was to rationalise the co-ordination of Greece’s immigration policy, simplify procedures and reduce red tape. The innovative features include unifying residence and work permits into one document, clarifying family re-unification conditions, addressing the status of victims of human trafficking and strengthening regional migration commissions.
According to the European Civic Citizenship and Inclusion Index, Greece’s performance over five strands of EU policy indicators-- Labour Market Inclusion, Long-term Residence, Nationality, Anti-Discrimination, Family Reunion – is below the European average. It is closest to the average in terms of family reunion, and furthest from the average in terms of antidiscrimination. Greece’s scores are thus less favourable in the cases of labour market inclusion, long-term residence and family reunion, and moderately unfavourable on nationality and anti-discrimination.
In terms of labour market inclusion, Greece is above the European average in access and eligibility but below the European average in other areas, especially rights associated with labour market participation. Long-term residence is an area of low scores, with performance below the European average across all sections, and moderately unfavourable in terms of eligibility. While marginally above the European average in terms of both security and rights (where it enjoys solid moderately favourable scores), Greece performs poorly in the other areas of family reunion. Nationality is another area of weakness, as Greece performs below the European average in all indicators. This is most noticeable in security of status. In terms of anti-discrimination, Greece performs well in the area of equality agencies.
Immigrant activism in mainstream associations such as trade unions or political parties is barely existent, mainly due to the insecure legal status of many immigrant workers, their mistrust towards the Greek state, their lack of time and resources to devote to activities other than paid work. Yet there are positive signs as Greek authorities and citizens have made steps towards migrants’ incorporation in Greek society, such as the inclusion of immigrant families in state housing for the first time in October 2004.
With regard to the media, it has been inclined to privilege the perpetuation of negative prejudices. Yet recently there have been initiatives or measures targeting xenophobic attitudes and perceptions of Greeks towards foreigners. There are more and more efforts, largely supported by EU initiatives, aiming to promote tolerance, cultural pluralism and to promote the positive aspects of migration. Greek accounts of national identity seem also to be significantly informed by migration.