Europe

Greek Fears of Social Backlash and Destabilization

An Afghan immigrant mother with her child takes protests outside the Greek Parliament in Athens on Jan. 21, where immigrants pressured the Greek government to grant them refugee status.

The Greek state, which has been in serious debt issues for the better part of the past few years, has been led into an economic downturn with a steep GDP decrease estimated at at least 6.5 percent for 2011, after a similar decrease in 2010 and a 1.5 percent decrease in 2009. Most local finance analysts predict another decrease of around 2 percent to 3 percent for 2012, before an eventual slight growth being reached no earlier than mid-2013.

The unemployment level has risen from 7.5 percent in 2008 to more than 17 percent, and the projections that it will surpass 20 percent over the coming six months has alarmed officials in the country who fear backlash in society and riots within the country's illegal alien population, which has been particularly hit by the recession due to the decline of the construction and tourism sectors. Europe as a whole has entered a period of social instability, as the recent riots in England showed, and Greece is no exception.

Illegal immigration

In July, reports in the Greek press citing information by the police and E.U. border-control organization FRONTEX revealed that neighboring Turkey is about to release approximately 10,000 Asian illegal immigrants that were apprehended in Turkey en route to the European Union via the Greek-Turkish borders. Since the issue of unconstrained immigration from Asia has become a focal theme in Greece and in conjunction with the recession in the economy, these reports alarmed quite a few pundits that predict a "hot winter" within the Greek urban centers, due to the further increase of illegal aliens in the country lacking employment and shelter.

Dr. Nestor Kourakis, professor of criminology in Athens, in a recent university survey revealed the extent by which criminal rates have affected the daily lives of Athenian citizens. According to the survey, 85.1 percent of the residents in the center of the city have been victimized by criminal action, and 76 percent state that they are afraid to live in their neighborhoods. Moreover, 70 percent state that the police cannot do anything to assist them, and more than 50 percent say they should take the law into their own hands. The statistics reveal a situation that contains elements of social implosion not far away. The vast majority of the participants in the survey blame illegal immigration as the primarily factor for the criminal rates.

Far-right groups started patrolling in certain regions in Athens, the most notable one named "Golden Dawn." There are also many incidents of small-scale rioting and violence between different ethnic groups and attacks against immigrants that have surpassed the level of spontaneous violence and seem to be organized by competing centers of local criminal power aiming to control parts of the city's center for reasons mostly related to narcotics contraband and the accumulation of capital through illicit means.

The scope of the issue becomes even more compelling when one calculates that, in 2010 alone, some 150,000 illegal immigrants entered Greece, almost exclusively from the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent, with the assistance of powerful transnational mafia groups. Once employed in Greece, each individual is estimated as generating a minimum annual income of 10,000 euros for the organized crime networks (while being allowed to keep precious little for himself). In short, this makes 1.5 billion euros just from the newcomers (let alone those who have been in Athens for years).

It has become common knowledge that organized crime kingpins in Greece have acquired hefty profits along with political clout in order to continue their businesses. The Greek National Intelligence Service produced a report in early 2011 that was leaked to the daily paper Ethnos, in which it stated that crime syndicates have been able to create pro-immigrant NGOs, buy real estate and create "zones of influence" within Athens, so as to construct their ghettos and evade possible police surveillance. In addition, the intelligence report noted that organized crime groups have made the necessary "investments" by buying influence in certain sectors of public opinion, so as to neutralize opposition in many cases.

On another level, the fact that the vast majority of the new immigrant wave is composed of Muslims has surfaced fears across the spectrum of the Greek society of an "Islamization process," a term often quoted in mainstream press and political debates. Within the Athens metropolitan region there are between 100 and 120 unregistered mosques operating and maintained mostly by Pakistani and Arab communities. For a few of those there have been allegations of congregation of extremists within their premises, and police sources have confirmed that various individuals associated with those are under surveillance. In the whole of the country the number of mosques operated by Muslim immigrants exceeds 350, whereas just a decade ago they numbered fewer than a dozen.

The incumbent minister of public order, Christos Papoutsis, recently admitted the deficit the country faces in terms of domestic security by commenting in a press conference that "although the police can deal with the illegal immigration issue in an organized and lawful manner, by identifying and arresting all immigrants in less than three days in the whole of Athens, there are no facilities available and no planning on what to do with all these people to be deported."

Since early 2011 the government promised to quickly build five centers across the country that will facilitate the concentration of illegal immigrants. Nevertheless none has started to be constructed and no practical action has been taken to form an overall strategy for the issue. Approximately 50 percent of Greece's 800,000 illegal immigrants are unemployed and live on the thin line between bare survival, crime and assistance by charity agencies.

The general attorney of Greece, Ioannis Tentes, in a speech in June 2011 in the annual judicial convention of the country, cited illegal immigration as "the top security and social issue in the country nowadays that has to be dealt with before grave consequences make their appearance and threaten the stability of the country."

Countermeasures and obstacles

The magnitude of the issue has prompted the security agencies in Greece to draw several plans on how to ease the social pressure being accumulated. Increase in police patrols, intelligence gathering in sensitive areas and provision of motives for illegal immigrants to return to their homeland are the most basic ones.

Presently plans are being drafted for illegal immigrants to gain their ticket back home, paid by the Greek state, and at the same time be able not to have their data entered into the Greek border's system "black list," a kind of a bribe for those whishing to return back. Another E.U. and U.N. funded program stipulates also the payment of about 500 euros plus the transport expenses for those wishing to return, and since early 2011, some 3,000 Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants have taken up the offer and left via the Athens international airport.

The main issue is that Greece, due to the financial scarcity of its state budget, cannot afford a mass imposition of such a return program, meaning that either the immigrants will stay in Greece and become a potential source of social destabilization, or that the country will alter its long-standing agreement with other E.U. states and will ease its own pressure by letting hundreds of thousands of mostly Asian immigrants to travel to other E.U. states. For the moment, very few immigrants managed to enter Greece and then exit towards Western Europe, since the Greek authorities are apt to stopping them from doing so.

The economic effects of illegal immigration has started becoming widely known in a period where the Greek state budget is anxiously trying to garner any kind of capital needed to pay off the country's explosive debt.

According to announcements by the Greek Ministry of Labour and various press reports, the Greek insurance system loses more than 5 billion euros annually by the undocumented labour of illegal immigrants, who are preferred by local businesses exactly for that reason.

Another 5 billion euros are being sent annually through money transfers outside the country, and another 5 billion are being lost through medical and education costs and VAT tax losses from illegal immigrant street vendors. Roughly, the cost of illegal immigration exceeds 6 percent of the country's GDP on an annual basis without counting other secondary expenses.

It is important to add that all border-control statistics indicate that the overwhelming majority of the recent illegal immigration wave is composed by unskilled male workers who bear no qualifications needed for increase in productivity in the industrial, scientific or agricultural sectors of the country. Meanwhile, specialized Greek personnel emigrates in significant numbers without being replaced, a process of disastrous consequences for the local economy.

Estimations

For the illegal immigration issue, the three months between October 2011 and January 2012 are going to be crucial. Social stability in Greece is already fragile due to the harsh economic climate, which is the worst since the early post-War years. The Greek confederation of commercial businesses presented its gloomy report in August, stating that 185,000 small businesses will close down by early 2012, leaving more than 300,000 people unemployed.

In parallel, the banking savings of Greek citizens is declining at a monthly pace of 2 percent of the total net savings in the banking system, and the credit of financial institutions for businesses and individuals alike has been on a negative term and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Another indicator of potential social trouble is the general dissatisfaction of the public towards the political system. Negative sentiment reaches almost 90 percent in the public polls. Notable corruption scandals involving politicians and prominent figures in Greece have added to criticism across the Greek society regarding cover-up and under-the-table agreements between the parties involved in these scandals.

In short, Greece may well become entrapped in a vicious circle of social destabilization within the coming months, due to multi-layered issues embedded in an economic downturn. For the time being, the rest of the E.U. countries seem absorbed in their own societal issues, and the neighboring Balkan and North African countries are either in a state of flux or rocked by civil wars, violence and general disorientation. Greece, as in other parts of the Mediterranean Sea, seems to be making history over the past year and proceeding into the unknown through a circle of violence, change and transformation. 

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Ioannis Michaletos.

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