A Changing Society, Like It or Not
By John Psaropoulos,
Editor, Athens News
Admittedly, Albanians have logged a disproportionately high arrest rate for break-ins. But the real complaint seems to be economic. Greeks have usually seen foreigners walking over the northern border, or alighting on an Aegean shore, as takers of jobs and public services. Those who hold this view believe the legalisation procedure, whose rules are nebulous and whose bureaucracy keeps people in queues for days at a time, is rightly befuddling and apotropaic.
Economic immigrants are undeniably in search of their self-interest; but as our survey shows, that self-interest has brought benefits to the economy; moreover, it shows that immigrants bring the greatest benefits when their presence is legally recognized, not merely tolerated.
Few immigrants go through the expenses, risks and travails illegal travel here often involves in order to be lazy. The majority has demonstrated it is here to work and make money.
As illegals, immigrants provide cheap manual labour Greeks are unwilling to do affordably. In some cases, they even bring in skills Greeks have lost because these are not formally taught, only handed down. Island developments, for instance, often employ Albanian stonemasons who have preserved the art of building streamlined, six foot-high walls without concrete.
As legals, immigrants have demonstrated they can do a lot more, though. They build up savings at a time when Greeks are depleting theirs. Economic migrants are now lending about 3 billion euros to Greek banks through savings accounts, our survey has found. Legal migrants contribute to social security. Since the last legalisation procedure began two years ago, 350,000 immigrants have paid an estimated two billion euros into public health and retirement plans. (see page 13 of our survey). Finally, they are able to move from the black labour market and participate in the legal, free and competitive market which constitutes such an appallingly small percentage of the Greek economy. The immigrants with the strongest stomachs for bureaucracy eventually make the leap from employee to employer.
An impressive example both of the self-reliance and the entrepreneurship of immigrants is the co-operative fund created by seventy Filipinas to support themselves in times of unemployment or unbudgeted-for expenses. They earn dividends from the fund and take out low-interest loans. Other communities may follow, and such co-operatives can grow into large concerns, as credit unions have demonstrated in the US.
Another part of the blame lies with the international community in general for failing to resolve regional conflicts and alleviate poverty. The last round of world trade talks foundered this month over a refusal by the US and EU to open their markets to third world agriculture and cut subsidies of their own farm industries.
In human history, societies have never been discrete. Social or economic friction has always caused population movements. How much more difficult isolation is in our era, when Europe is not only connected to the world's main landmasses by virtue of geography, but also by a global economic system. It is entirely in the interest of that system to spread its benefits. Moreover, by refusing a legal avenue for immigration, Europe swells the illegal avenue and deprives itself of what power it has to choose who will enter this society.
A large part of the blame, however, rests with the Greeks, who see their interests and those of immigrants as mutually exclusive. In the absence of an EU-wide policy, Greece ought to have formed a policy of its own based on the needs of industry. Greece failed to act partly because it was unprepared for the overnight transformation of the iron curtain that once isolated it into a tsunami of refugees following the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. It is still an unusually homogenous society. Immigrants are recorded by the latest census at 800,000 out of a population of 11 million (7%). An estimated 90 percent of the 10.2 million are Greek Orthodox, and all speak the same language.
But there is more to the Greek attitude than shock. Greeks are seemingly not ready for the idea that their society will look entirely different in a generation. Although the majority of immigrants say they are in Greece for the short term, experience shows that the rate of return is low. Many are already raising families here, some in mixed marriages with Greeks. The next generation of Filipinos, Albanians, Romanians and Nigerians may not be builders, cleaners and pirated goods sellers; they may well be doctors, lawyers and politicians.
(Posted 23 March 2005; reformatted 29 October 2012. Reproduced with permission.)
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