Unrest en Grece

By Kathy Tzilivakis

Athens News

Greece's centre-right New Democracy government pledges to pay more attention to the integration of immigrants as a result of the ongoing violence in many of France's poorest slums that are home to thousands of first-, second- and third-generation migrants

GREEKS have watched with great interest and growing unease as the rioting that began in the bleak suburbs of Paris quickly took hold of nearly 300 cities across France and wondered if similar violence could erupt in their own backyard.

Immigrant workers in Greece have so much to worry about making
ends meet and obtaining and keeping their legal status (residence
permit) that many have not had the time to follow the developments
unfolding in France

Key government ministers and politicians urged the public not to overreact while acknowledging that poor integration of minorities, unemployment and poverty posed serious threats. The social revolt among French suburban youth, mainly Muslims of North African and black African origin, is seen as a bad omen of an intensifying class struggle.

Greek Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos and his public order ministry counterpart, George Voulgarakis, spent much of last week speaking to reporters about how the government will place more emphasis on integrating foreign newcomers and their children into society and the labour market. Both men were quick to stress that steps will be taken to ensure that the conditions of social exclusion which drove Paris' disaffected youth to the streets would not take place in Greece.

"What is going on abroad I hope will not goon here because aside from isolated extremist [views]... we have embraced immigrants... and this is a plus of the Greek society, the Greek state, our culture..." said Pavlopoulos. "Integration means that the immigrant is a sacred person, someone who has rights, who has the right to work if he lives here legally... someone who must have his right to security and to social insurance and freedom to develop his personality.

According to most European commentators these days, France is paying the price for doing little or not enough to integrate the children of immigrants - citizens of foreign descent, who are doomed to a life of poverty and exclusionin ethnic ghettos.

"We are not France," Voulgarakis told nationwide television on November 13. "First, immigrants here do not live in ghettos... Also, immigrants here are not unemployed, Even though they work for less, the rate of employment among immigrants is higher than that of Greeks...they are not as prone to crime as we may think.

"It's not that racism and xenophobia do not exist in Greece,"said Voulgarakis. "It's that the conditions of social exclusion that exist in France do not exist here.

"Xenophobia and racism will always exist,"added main opposition Pasok MP Michalis Chrysohoidis. The former public order minister also said that integration is "the key", quoting a blizzard of bleak statistics characterising the alienation and social exclusion of French-born children of immigrants. "They are ghettoised. Only five percent go to university. Many don't even go to school or they go to bad schools.

"If the second-generation immigrants do not feel they have a future in this country, they will feel trapped," said main opposition Pasok leader George Papandreou, who was addressing a local government conference on November 10. "We must make them feel that Greece is their home."

To stress the importance of embracing diversity in public schools and society, Alekos Alavanos, leader of the Coalition of the Left (Synaspismos) party, on November 13 visited a local Filipino community school, Munting Nayon,for some 150 children of different nationalities.The school was founded by KASAP-Hellas (Unity of Filipino Migrant Workers) 20 years ago.

"We live in a small world in which we can all be brothers," said Alavanos. "This school is not just a place for learning. It is a place for social cohesion."

In turn, Papandreou called for the creation of a special parliamentary committee to discuss the problems facing immigrants living and working in Greece. "The aim of this committee will be to draft and present proposals for the substantial and successful integration of immigrants in Greek society, for the protection of their civil, social and political rights... Our country has taken measures, legal and other measures that do not make up a complete answer to the problem.

The riots in France have shot the issue of integration to the top of the government's agenda. All eyes are now on Pavlopoulos, who is scheduled to unveil an action plan aimed at integrating immigrants into society and the labour market before the end of the year. Sources close to the minister say he will steer clear of the model of integration adopted by France, which calls on immigrants to assimilate and forget their roots and become French citizens.

According to Pavlopoulos, assimilation is not the best way to go. "Because when we talk about assimilation, we have to allow immigrants themselves to decide if they want to assimilate or not. It can not be forced," he said.

In Greece, the vast majority of immigrants hail from neighbouring Albania - one of Europe's poorest countries - and the Balkans and Eastern European countries.The former socialist Pasok government had put the integration of immigrants into Greek society and the national labour market high on the national agenda in its last administration. Yet the big-budget 260 million euro four-year integration programme announced in 2003 never got off the ground.

Immigrants speak out

Ahmet Moavias, local Sudanese community leader and co-founder of the Migrants' Forum (a network of more than 32 foreign community organisations) says immigrant workers in Greece have so much to worry about making ends meetand obtaining and keeping their legal status (residence permits) that many have not had thetime to follow the developments unfolding in European Union member France.

"This shows just how isolated migrants are in Greece," he said. "Certainly, the incidents in France signal the need for Greece to adopt a longterm integration policy... There is currently a policy gap.

"The situation in Greece is very different [from that in France] because there we are talking about French citizens of foreign descent," added Moavias, who has been living in Greece for more than 20 years. Most immigrants here are relative newcomers, and few have become citizens. "But despite the problems in France, the immigrants there enjoy more rights than immigrants in Greece. At least the immigration policy there [in France] is more concrete, even if the integration measures did not have the desired results.

Moavias and other local immigrant community leaders warned that French-like riots could take hold in Greece in five years' time if no measures are taken today to integrate the children of immigrants.

"The French government didn't handle the issue of integration properly," said Syed Mohammed Jarnil, president of the Greek Pakistani Culturai Association. "Though we strongly condemn the violence, we understand their frustration. Their standard of living is not good. Even the behaviour of the French people is very bad. This is the root of the problem. My friends in France say they are disturbed, afraid.

As regards immigrants in Greece, Jarnil focused on the ongoing legalisation of undocumented migrants. He said immigrants are frustrated. "Many will not be able to legalise their status. What will they do? They have paid a lot of money and it was very difficult for them to come here. They have families and responsibilities. Maybe this frustration will grow and become so big that it creates the same problem as in France.

The Syrian community leader in Hania, Crete, agreed with Jamil. "If you feel oppressed and feel you have no rights and are alienated from society and feel you are being discriminated against, this drives you to revolt," says Kahtan Ibrahim. But he added that "though immigrants here are still struggling for a place in society, I don't believe [riots like in France] can happen here". According to Munir Mahmud, who is responsible for the first unofficial mosque established in Athens 21 years ago, "in equalityand marginalisation will invariably lead to social unrest". He said it is "up to the state and society to prevent such events".

Local immigrant community leaders speakout about the back-breaking bureaucracy and tough-to-meet application requirements, plus alot of dissatisfaction and frustration. The most pressing concern of immigrants is how the government will ensure bureaucracy does not undermine the intentions of the country's third legalisation since 1998.

Greeks think foreigners are bad news

While removing bureaucratic obstacles preventing immigrants from acquiring legal status in Greece is vital to any integration policy; the biggest challenge is to make immigration welcome.

A whopping eighty percent of the Greeks polled by the research firm Alpha Metrics last week blame immigrants for a reported rise in crime in Greece. This is in line with a study conducted by researchers at Athens' Panteion University last year, which found that 61percent of civil servants employed at offices processing applications for the renewal of residence and work permits believe that immigrants contribute to crime in Greece.

The Alpha Metrics telephone survey, which was commissioned by the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute, also found that 45 percent of the 1,000 Greeks questioned believe that immigrants contribute very little to the country.

Earlier this month, the European Social Survey (ESS) - a second biennial attempt to gauge attitudes, social trends and values of European area citizens, found that 64 percent of Greeks believe immigrants make the country a "worse" place to live in. That's nearly double the 37percent average in the 17 polled European Union countries (Greece, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Spain, Finland, United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Slovenia).

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