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Greece: What are the contemporary migration challenges?

By Aymeric Faure, Deputy Editor in Chief of the Open Diplomacy Institute

· Europe,Social-développement

This article is based on interviews conducted in April-May 2017 with a source from the Syriza party; Adonis Georgiadis, Vice-President of the right-wing party New Democracy as well as actors of the civil life such as Alexander Theodoridis, co-founder of the non-profit initiative Bouroume, and Yannis Mastrogeorgiou and Takis Karagiannis from the progressive think-tank To Diktio.

Modern Greece is traditionally an emigration country. Three waves can be identified: the first occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, the second took place after the Second World War - due to difficult economic circumstances and the civil war followed by the Colonels’ dictatorship - and the third one happened after the economic crisis that Greece experienced after 2010.

Since the 1980s, Greece is also an immigration country: the initial flows of low-skilled migrants from Africa and Asia became flows of refugees and migrants from the Middle East mainly.

The objective of this analysis is to understand the policies that Greece conducted to manage those flows, as their consequences represent strong challenges for this country already severely hurt by the crisis and the weakness of its political and economic systems.

First, this article analyses the emigration challenges posed by the demography of the new emigration wave, and the general mistrust climate. Second, it examines the challenges posed by the new wave of immigration and the policy-making demands induced by the current migration crisis that Greece is experiencing.

Emigration Challenges

New Demography - The two first emigration waves were constituted of unskilled Greek workers expecting better opportunities abroad - mainly in the U.S., in Germany, in Australia, and in the Netherlands. Since the 2008 crisis, the emigration increased and its demography seems radically different from the ones the country has already experienced. 75% of those who emigrate have a university degree (Cavounidis, 2015, Pratsinakis et al. 2017). This new wave of emigration is constituted of people who consider they have no future opportunities in Greece, such as skilled workers and students (Labrianidis, Pratsinakis, 2014). The departure of those specific populations could cause a brain-drain effect. Their absence leaves the country without talents who have intellectual and material means to help improving the country’s economic and political situation (Kapur, 2014). Discussions with many key actors of the Greek political scene and civil society had confirmed that statement. All stated that Greek migrants in the United States, Australia and Germany are very successful in material and intellectual terms, and constitute a huge shortfall for the rest of the country. However, this shortfall is not compensated by significant remittances sending, nor by foreign investments from the diaspora, and nor by a yet-visible tendency of return migration.

A mistrust Climate - A possible explanation of the reduction of the remittances sending and investments could rely on ideological and political aspects. Some analyses evoke the issue of “Greekness” that may have an impact on the remittances sending and investment behaviour. The feeling of belonging to the homeland could erode in different ways. The lack of coherent Greek policy for migrants abroad is an important factor of non-engagement, as exemplified by the absence of the possibility of vote from abroad - all this has an impact on the will to help the homeland (Mavroudi, 2015). Another aspect raised by Alexander Theodoridis, CEO and founder of Boroume[1], who works in direct contact with diaspora’s representatives in the U.S., Australia or Germany, is the issue of confidence in the political system. Successful Greeks abroad are ready to help the country and to finance his non-profit organisation, but they want to know who will use the money and how it will be spent. The corruption climate in Greece leads Greeks abroad to distrust the political system and be less prone to give money back in the homeland.

Syntagma Square, Athens, May 2017 (c) Aymeric Faure.

Immigration Challenges

A different immigration situation - Greece is considered to be an immigration country since the 1980s. At this time, the country experienced small-scale flows from Africa and Asia. In the following decade, the flows increased and the country became a destination for many people from the former Soviet Republics (IOM - International Organization for Migration, 2008). In 2015, Greece experienced unprecedented arrivals of refugees and migrants mainly from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. However, the country was in a large extent a transit country in the route of the Balkans to reach Western Europe (Triandafyllidou and Mantanika, 2016). The European Commission estimates that more than 850.000 persons transited through the country in 2015 and 63.000 of them are stranded in Greece (European Commission, 2016). The flows have been stabilized since the closure of the Balkan Route and the EU-Turkish agreement in March 2016.

The incoming population flows are diverse both in terms of origins and motivations. Banulescu-Bodgan and Fratzke (2005) identify three primary groups: the first one is constituted by people seeking protection and who are recognised by European authorities as refugees - Syrians, Eritreans. The second group is made of people fearing insecurity and violence but who are not necessarily qualified as refugees - Somalis, some Syrians. Finally, the third group is made of people leaving mainly for economic reasons - mainly people from sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans. Despite the necessary limitations of such a model and the intrinsic uncertainty about the true motivations of migrants, this classification underlines the multiplicity of flows and thus renders tougher the challenge of asylum authorities.

A policy-making challenge - By its geographical position at the crossroads between Europe and Asia Minor, Greece faces migrations due to the increasing gap between those regions, both economically and in terms of security. The management of the land and sea borders is a huge challenge for the Greek migration policy. The first Greek response was a reinforcement of the security at the borders from the inside, by the creation of the Synoriofylaki (Border Guard Force) in 1998. Since 2014, the EU helped the country to modernise its structures aiming at controlling the borders (Triandafyllidou and Mantanika, 2016). Progressively, the paradigm changed and Greece, instead of strengthening the border from the inside, launched programs of cooperation and development aid with neighbouring countries.

Despite this evolution, the legal instruments to manage immigration are clearly under-developed. There was no legal framework for controlling and managing migratory inflows until the 1990s. The first comprehensive law was voted in 2001 and had two goals: implementing a new regularisation programme and managing of immigration including border control, insurance and renewal of stay and work permits and redefining of naturalisation rules. Several waves of simplification followed in 2005 and 2007. This was accompanied with the opening of migrants reception centres and migrants camps in the islands (Chios, Lesbos) and in the semi-periphery of Athens and Thessaloniki.

The paradigm of Greek migration policy changed from an enforcement and deportation philosophy to a philosophy of confinement into camps in which the living conditions are dreadful. Some are infested with bed-bugs, scorpions and snakes, and are unsafe places, especially when the police and the army leave the camps at night - leaving free place to gangs, attacks, rapes, prostitution - according to aid workers (Kingsley, 2016). There is considerable physical and mental suffering, and basic health services are limited (Dearden, 2017).

Despite the increase in the number of nationalisations, the EU-Turkish agreement, the actions led by NGOs, migrant associations, and humanitarian international organisations, the action of the government is only oriented to emergency measures and did so in a quite uncoordinated way. The Greek government lost a part of its credibility as the administration in office in 2014 was not interested in taking the first steps to have access to the European Commission funds to create a managing authority and implement a strategic plan to anticipate the crisis which was predicted (Howden, Fotiadis, 2017). Since then, the government was not trusted and the funds and actions were directly led by international organisations (UNHCR and WFP - World Food Programme) and NGOs. The absence of a well-functioning “chain of command” and of coordination (Howden, Fotiadis, 2017) is the main conclusion that could be drawn by analysing the Greek experience of a recent immigration policy building.

To conclude, Greek government but also the entire international community might focus their action on the three following aspects in order to overcome the identified obstacles:

  • Limit the brain-drain by providing better opportunities in the country,
  • Improve the level of confidence in the political system to generate a higher likelihood for remittances sending and return migration,
  • Continue reforming by thinking transversally in coordination with other actors, and coupling short-term measures with long-term planning in order to have a direction to follow, especially in immigration management.

[1] Boroume is a volunterr group putting in relation people suffering from poverty and hunger with food shops and producers that have surplus.


Banulescu-Bodgan, N., Fratzke, S., (2015): “Europe’s Migration Crisis in Context: Why Now and What Next?, Migration Policy Institute’s-migration-crisis-context-why-now-and-what-next

Cavounidis, J. (2015) “The changing face of emigration, Harnessing the Potential of the New Greek Diaspora”, Migration Policy Institute

Dearden L., (2017): ‘Child refugees attempting suicide amid increasing desperation among thousands of trapped migrants in Greece’, The Independent, March 2017

European Commission, (2016): “Greece: Response to the Refugee Crisis”, Echo Factsheet, Humanitarian aid and civil protection, December 2016

Howden P. and Fotiadis A., (2017): “Where did the money go? How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis’, The Guardian, March 2017

IOM - International Organisation for Migration, 2008, Migration in Greece, a country profile,

Kapur, D. (2014), “Political effects of international Migration”, Annual review of political science, 17, pp.479-502

Kingsley P., (2016): ‘Prisoners of Europe, the everyday humiliation of refugees stuck in Greece’, The Guardian, September 2016

Mavroudi, E. (2015) Chapter 13 “Helping the Homeland? Diasporic Greeks in Australia and the Potential for Homeland-Oriented Development at a Time of Economic Crisis”, in Christou, A. and Mavroudi, E. (eds), Dismantling Diasporas: Rethinking the Geographies of Diasporic Identity, Connection and Development, Ashgate.

Pratsinakis, M., Hatziprokopiou, P., Grammatikas, D. and Labrianidis, L. (2017) “Crisis and the resurgence of emigration from Greece: trends, representations, and the multiplicity of migrant trajectories”, Migration and crisis, Understanding migration dynamics from Mediterranean Europe, Glorius, B. and Dominguez-Mujica, Bielefeld, J. Transcript.

Cover Picture: Monastiraki Square, Athens, May 2017 (c) Aymeric Faure.

The opinions and interpretations expressed in the publications are exclusively the responsibility of their authors, in respect of the Open Diplomacy Institute’ statutes (article 3) and charter of values.

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