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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 14:39 GMT
Immigrants fear Greece amnesty

By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs correspondent

Albanian demonstration
Albanian immigrants have demonstrated against the new law
Greece has announced an amnesty for up to half a million illegal immigrants. But many believe that the law excludes them so they will have to remain outside the law.

The centre of Athens is like a Little Albania. At newspaper kiosks Albanians buy newspapers in their own language.

In Omonia Square, next to parliament, groups of Albanian workers come each morning to get day work on building sites for 30 euros (20) a day.

This is part of the workforce that built the stadiums for the Athens Olympics. The Greek authorities praised them highly for that.

But up to 400,000 are now estimated to be in Greece illegally. They came to Greece because they say there is no work at home.

They are part of Europe's black economy, often exploited and living in extreme poverty.

The Greek government has passed new laws, to end uncontrolled immigration and integrate the one million foreigners in the country more effectively. The amnesty deadline is the end of December.

As they wait for the offer of work in the square, those without official papers keep watch nervously, trying to avoid police searches.

New reality

And many seem convinced that the amnesty will exclude them.

"The Greek government is a thief," one man said. "It is trying to steal from immigrants."

He said he could not afford the 2,000 euros (1,356) it would cost to buy the backlog of social security stamps and so qualify for the amnesty. He is one of the many who expect to remain outside the law.

Any illegal immigrants will have to leave the country
Thanos Vezyriannis
Greek deputy interior minister

Dede was one of the lucky ones, who found work on an Athens construction site that day. But he too said he would be left out of the amnesty, because no employer was willing to pay their legal share of his social security stamps.

"I feel trapped," he said. Without the papers to work in Greece, he will also be barred from going to Italy, or further afield, to seek work.

Greece's new immigration law, passed this summer, is meant to recognise a new reality - that Greece, after a long history of emigration to countries around the world, has become a land of immigrants. At least one in 10 of the Greek population is now a foreigner.

The amnesty will give legality to thousands of illegal residents, from the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They include visa overstayers and failed asylum-seekers.

Deportation threat

But the new law was the product of bitter political disputes, and it shows. It has been criticised for having too many exceptions and complex rules, which baffle many foreigners.

Immigrant workers in Athens
Many immigrants work on building sites (photo: Iro Kyriakou)

At the migrants service centre in Athens, where claims are being collected, officials say eight out of 10 applicants will not be eligible at all. Most of them will go back into the black economy.

The main obstacle is that the amnesty is not on offer to anyone who entered Greece illegally and cannot meet a key condition - prove they have been living in the country for at least one year.

Those trying to help them say the law is absurd: the illegals have no official papers precisely because they have long been in hiding from the authorities.

The law also carries a new threat - of deportation.

The Greek deputy minister of the interior, Thanos Vezyriannis, says systematic checks will be carried out on employers and individuals.

"Any illegal immigrants will have to leave the country," he says.

The amnesty deadline has sown near panic among the Albanian community.

Outside the Albanian embassy in Athens, large crowds wait in line every day to get their national identity papers stamped - the first in a long list of requirements before applying for the residence permit.


The black market is reported to be thriving, as up to half a million illegal residents try for amnesty. Forged documents of every kind - from visas to health certificates - are said to be on sale, for those who can pay. There have also been allegations of official corruption.

The pressures of the immigration law have exposed a bigger problem: Greek employers, in these hard times, often prefer to hire cheap, illegal workers. And so far, the government has failed to make them obey the law and pay the social costs of employment.

Newspaper kiosk
Albanian papers are on sale in Athens kiosks (photo: Iro Kyriakou)
The International Organisation for Migration says there are signs of an increase in the trafficking of illegal workers into Greece. The victims of trafficking are open to the worst kinds of abuse and exploitation.

A fringe anti-immigration party called Laos claims to voice the fears of many Greeks about an immigrant "invasion". Its deputy leader, Georges Georgiou, claims immigrants already account for 20% of Greece's population of 11 million.

"If they all come in they will just create a new centre of misery and poverty," Mr Georgiu says. He urges the government to set a limit of up to 5%, and turn away the rest.

Greece sees itself as on the frontline of a European immigration crisis. With its land borders, unstable neighbours and long coastline it is unlikely to be able to stem the influx, despite border controls and police crackdowns.

But the illegal workers will still be in the shadows. And even those who win the right to stay will still be labelled "foreigners", living on short-term visas.

So the amnesty looks unlikely to clarify the Greeks' ambivalent attitude to the immigrants among them.

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