Wednesday, 19 June 2013


Many of our illegal immigrants are from Africa. Black people are not a common sight in Crete; they are an unusual sight, often seen selling things in places where police are rarely seen, eg the beach. One would think that Greece was making great efforts to stop illegal immigration lately:
Two years ago, around 410 illegal immigrants a day were crossing the land border between Greece and Turkey in Evros. As a result of stricter border controls, the number of illegal immigrants who are crossing the border at the same place does not exceed three per week..." 
But this is not enough for some people: Greecem a country usually known for bowing to greater powers and giving the OK signal to almost any demand to appease them, has decided to vote against the Dublin II immigration regulation, which would rule that arrested immigrants in the EU must be returned to their original point of entry into Europe. Greece simply can't do that: she does not have the finances or the infrastructure needed to accomodate these people, and it is unfortunate that she does not have a good track record of looking after them humanely, either. The best that can be done is the EU to share the problem.

By travelling through the EU, I've met a number of Africans who had their happy start in life (I can only assume they are happy) in Greece. It's fun to speak in your own language and be recognised by strangers as a Greek. At least, we have never had any particular problem throughout our European travels, when people hear us speaking Greek. In this way, we come across people who have passed through our own country and hold specific memories of it; more often than not they have good memories, and in a number of cases, it helped them to advance in life.

Last year, as we passed through the baggage check at the London end of the Eurostar terminal, while I was instructing the children to place their bags and jackets on the conveyor belt, the man checking our bags suddenly smiled:

"Ellina, ellina!" he said, which basically means "Hellene, Hellene!" who is more commonly called "Greek" in English. And you could tell by the smile on this Nigerian's face how happily he remembered Greece when he (probably) entered the country illegally in an attempt to find paradise; he now wears an official uniform and works at the gateway to Europe between the continent and the Western Isles.

This year, while we were trying on some shoes at TkMaxx in Lewisham, a black woman standing close to us turned around and said roughly the same thing:

"Esi ... Ellada?" she asked us politely. ("You ... Greece?"). I immediately recognised on her face the smile of nostalgia. I wonder what she was thinking at that moment - which of all her memories were flooding back: the sunny weather, the view of the Acropolis that she must have seen many times (most Africans stay/stayed?? in Athens during their attempt to cross the borders), the semi-underground flats she shared with her compatriots (I used to live in an area of Athens where Africans were often seen renting the lower flats), the laiki street market (Africans were often seen selling various goods there), or maybe it was somethng else like the taste of fresh watermelon, or a frappe coffee. I doubt it was the beach though - there are places where black Africans are generally not seen working in Greece.

Maybe it was none of the above, and something completely different: maybe it was the fear of being caught as an undocumented migrant and spending time in a cell before being freed and told to return to her country within 30 days (which she never would have done because there were no checks being made to ensure that this was in fact being done). Maybe it was the annoyance of being underpaid and overworked, knowing that it was her undocumented status that was the cause of her exploitation, a problem which could not be solved because she could not trace her steps back to her homeland.  

Map of the Mediterranean Sea
Greece is one of the main entry gates to Europe. Most refugees arrive in Europe on foot or by boat, landing in Greece, Italy or Spain. Under the EU, asylum claims have to be made in the country through which refugees first enter Europe. They cannot move to another European country until they have sorted out their status. For many and varied reasons, Greece is unable to provide them with adequate facilities or help them to proceed in their quest to move on; worse still, they are unable to leave to go anywhere until their status is sorted out. For these migrants, Greece has now become a trap - they cannot leave, nor can they stay.

File:Location Nigeria AU Africa.svg
Most likely, it is not those scary moments when Greece showed her more hideous side that these Nigerians were recalling as they came across people whose language they remembered well enough to speak it, even in rudimentary form. They were probably remembering how they started their search for a better life, something Greece helped them to achieve. Possibly, it was their first taste of life in a white majority.

It turned out that this woman was also from Nigeria, like the other black man we met at the Eurostar terminal. She had stayed in Athens for five years before eventually coming to London where she had been living for fifteen years.

"Sometimes we stay all day without eating food..." "They seek safety in Europe, but Greece is not safe..." "No work, no papers, the police, it's a problem..." (Into the Fire) Coloured people in Athens are constantly under scrutiny because of their skin colour; they are the first to be suspected of illegal immigration into Greece. Asian illegal immigrants still have priority to be repatriated voluntarily over African illegal immigrants. 

Much has been written about Greece's migrant detention centres and the treatment of agricultural migrant workers in the country. But what should also be noted is that Greeks, despite facing unemployment at unprecedented levels, do not actually wish to work where migrants have traditionally worked in the country, which is traditionally in seasonal agricultural work and piecemeal manual labour. For example, when the strawberry season finishes, the peach season starts, and when that finishes, it's time for the tobacco season - but you won't find Greeks doing these jobs:
Στο κάλεσμα της Ένωσης Νέων Αγροτών ανταποκρίθηκαν 19 Ελληνες και 4.885 Αλβανοί - Δουλειές υπάρχουν αλλά οι Ελληνες δεν πάνε! Newspaper headline: "After an invitation by the Union of New Farmers, 19 Greeks and 4885 Albanians responded - Jobs exist but Greeks don't want them!"
This all creates a mockery of the crisis. Greece is not the most welcome part of the world for migrants, but migrants are still needed in high numbers. Half the Greek population live in urban centres, but few want to move from them to the countryside, because they do not want to work in the dirtier aspects of agriculture. For the time being, that will be left to migrants, until migrants no longer enter Greece, which looks unlikely in the present time. It's a bit of a vicious circle.

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