No Place to Turn

by Christina Huffington:

The ancient Greeks were famed for their great and indiscriminate hospitality. Hospitality, or xenia, dominates Greek mythology, its boundless virtues extolled by Greek philosophers. To deny a stranger a warm welcome was to invite the wrath of the gods.

In the past few years, however, the descendants of the ancient Greeks seem to have forsaken the famed hospitality of their ancestors. Sit in any open-air café in Athens these days and, in between drags of unfiltered cigarettes, sips of thick black coffee, and the usual political grumblings, you will hear wrinkled Greek men detailing in husky tones their wariness of the strangers who have recently arrived on Greece’s shores. Walk a block or two away from the cafés and the source of their discontent becomes evident.

Illegal immigrants are detained by the port authority in Patras after being caught trying to leave Greece for Italy on the back of a truck. (Andrea Motta)Daniel Esdras, head of the Greek branch of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), put it bluntly. "Things are not good," he said. Many immigrants to Greece "have no place to sleep; they are hungry and in need." As a result, illegal immigrants are "very vulnerable to committing crimes."

Stasinopoulos said that only a handful of immigrants are able to get jobs because “very few employers will hire them illegally.” This, he said, “leads to them turning to prostitution and drug trafficking.” However, it is a “stereotype that immigrants are criminals. The truth is that there have been no serious attempts to integrate them into Greek society.”


Greece has historically been a homogenous country, its population composed mostly of ethnic Greeks, Christians of the Greek Orthodox rite. Yet today, Athens rivals many of the most cosmopolitan cities in the diversity of its populace. City blocks are crowded with Somali men selling knock-off sunglasses on plastic tarps, and the squares in front of cross-adorned Orthodox cathedrals bustle with women in hijabs and the occasional turbaned man.

These once-foreign images are the result of a surge in illegal immigration that has, in the last three years, overwhelmed the Mediterranean nation.

Broken Borders

Immigration to Greece has increased steadily over the last decade but surged significantly in recent years. In 2008, 146,000 illegal immigrants were detained by the Greek authorities, a 54 percent increase from 2006. The country’s proximity to Turkey, lax port and border security and, most significantly, its European Union membership have made it the ideal gateway for migrants from Asia and Africa hoping to begin a new life in Europe.

Martha Carapanos, a graduate student in economics and global politics at the University of Athens, attributes this sudden rise to a combination of the international economic crisis and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite attempts to secure the border, the Greek government has had little success blocking immigration.

Many Greek citizens blame their government’s inability to stem the flow of illegal migrants on the country’s expansive geography. “The borders are too long,” said Georgios Stasinopoulos, an Athenian and a sophomore at Yale. “There are too many mountainous areas to prevent illegal immigration.”

Immigrants to Greece now make up almost half of all immigrants to countries in the European Union. Needless to say, this population flood is creating significant social tensions. Greek citizens blame the new arrivals for the increase in urban crime while immigrants protest the discrimination and ethnic slurs they face at the hands of native Greeks.

Lack of Assistance

May, 1,000 Muslim immigrants protested after a police officer allegedly defaced the Quran of an Iraqi immigrant. The protest ended violently when police officers dispensed tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, have condemned what they consider deplorable treatment of the immigrants by Greek law enforcement. “Let’s be honest,” says Esdras, “there is lots of discrimination.”

With few other alternatives, many refugees end up living in slums or constructing makeshift camps. The camps attract the ire of Greek citizens, and police raids are common. In July, Greek authorities ordered the bulldozing of a makeshift camp in the port city of Patras. The camp had housed 1,500 undocumented immigrants, the majority of them refugees from the war zone in Afghanistan and many of them minors. Residents who did not flee quickly enough were arrested.

In the face of criticism, the Greek government complains that it has been unfairly burdened by its proximity to Turkey and bemoans the lack of assistance it receives from other EU countries to regulate immigration.

Despite the contention, all sides appear to agree on one point: Greece is, in the words of an op-ed written by Nikos Konstandaras in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, “a society woefully unequipped” to deal with the immigrants who stream into her ports and across her northern borders.

No Place to Turn

Greece’s policy towards immigrants seeking asylum has received the brunt of human rights organizations’ condemnation. Of the 20,000 immigrants who applied for asylum in 2008, less than one percent obtained it, compared to 18 percent of immigrants to Germany and 11 percent of immigrants to Italy.

Reports published by both the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch characterize the process of granting asylum as deeply flawed. Asylum interviews are often conducted not by lawyers but by members of the Greek police force, many of whom do not share a common language with their interviewees. Competent interpreters are extremely difficult to come by, especially at island ports, and the interviews are often conducted without the full comprehension of the parties involved.

As a result, many asylum-seekers who are initially rejected appeal the decision. The constant stream of appeals has created a backlog of more than 30,000 cases, and in an effort to unclog the system, the government abolished the appeals board in July, leaving refugees with only two alternatives: to leave Greece and return to their country of origin or to stay illegally and constantly face the dual threat of detention and extradition.

For many asylum-seekers, returning home is not an option: if they return, they will almost definitely face persecution. Radou Mousso, an Athens-based businessman, recounted the horror stories of some of the young Iranians he has met, most of whom are “males between the ages of 19 and 25” and “fleeing the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs.” Some “have been persecuted for crimes such as being caught with a glass of whiskey in their hand.” He added that the punishment for such crimes is “generally very severe and includes torture.” The young Iranians showed him their backs, marked with lashes.

In response to the barrage of condemnation it has received from the international community, the Greek government has simultaneously bemoaned the burden of immigration, called for the assistance of the international community, and shifted the blame onto others.

The Turks, in particular, who comprise a significant portion of the migrant-smugglers, have received much of the blame for neglecting patrol of their borders, allowing immigrants to cross into Greece by sea or over the Evros River. As early as 2007, the spokesman for the Greek foreign ministry, George Koumoutsakos, held the Turks responsible for the flood of migrants, stating that the Turkey’s insufficient border policing promoted illegal immigration.

The migrants who leave their homes and risk their lives to come to Europe do so because of the age-old promise of better economic opportunities and the prospect of a higher quality of life. They come because they are persecuted and oppressed at home or because their lives have been torn asunder by war. “These people want a better, safer life, and where can they find it? In China or Russia? No, only in Europe or in the U.S.,” said Capranos. Instead of a better life, most are met with the same hardship and persecution they faced at home.

The tensions caused by illegal immigration show no sign of abating anytime soon, though the victory of the decidedly more pro-immigrant socialist party in the October parliamentary election may help the situation. Esdras says he is “hopeful” that the new government will take up the IOM’s and UNHCR’s joint offer to “train experts in screening” for asylum seekers. The organizations had submitted this proposal to the previous government and received no response.

Esdras, along with humanitarians in Europe and worldwide, demands that Greece hear the appeals of immigrants who arrive at its shores seeking assistance. To return to the values of its ancient past, Greece must now, in Homer’s words: “raise the stranger up and seat him on a silver-studded chair.”

Christina Huffington is a sophomore in Davenport College.