The article published in newspaper Kathimerini on 25 December 2015.
The risk of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants being trapped in Greece naturally dominates the news and the minds of politicians. Unlike those who pass through, those who remain trapped, if numerous and desperate, will become a serious problem for the communities that harbor them; because they are here without seeking to build a new life; and because society will not invest to integrate them.
But there are also refugees who are neither trapped nor in transit. They are the ones who decide to settle in Greece, find a job and send their children to a Greek school. There is not much public discussion about them, perhaps because they are few, and perhaps because politicians do not dare to raise the issue out of fear of voters’ reactions. We have however committed to our EU partners to accept 50,000 refugees to settle here. We must do the best we can. And better yet, see it as an opportunity.
Many Greeks will probably react to the prospect of poor foreigners, of a different religion, and with strange manners, arriving in their neighborhood. They will fear the sound of foreign languages in schools, mosques hidden in warehouses, perhaps also a proliferation of beggars, or a peak in criminality. They may also say that with over one million unemployed we cannot give jobs to foreigners, and with a bankrupt state we cannot provide social benefits. Understandable fears, but we can prevent the risks; predictable economic objections, but they are wrong.
Let us think back to the 1990s. After the regime of Enver Hoxha regime collapsed, we had hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Albania arriving in Greece without any previous experience of the western way of life. We were afraid of them in the beginning; rightly so to some extent, as criminality increased. However, the biggest fears of neighborhoods being degraded, of Greeks losing jobs, and so on, were not realized. Albanians and other immigrants from Eastern Europe were generally well integrated, and they strongly supported the economy; just as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis did a few years later. Small Greek farmers could never have imagined themselves as employers before the arrival of immigrants, nor could they cultivate as many strawberries, tomatoes and grapes as they began to produce at that time. In households, migrant women looked after the elderly and the sick, not only of the upper class, like before 1990, but also of the broad middle class. In construction, Albanians became excellent craftsmen.
Today, with high unemployment, it will be more difficult for newcomers to find jobs. This does not mean that they will displace Greeks from sought-after positions. Even now, there are needs that locals do not want to serve, while some educated Syrian refugees who own some assets could directly create additional jobs. Immigrants often complement natives in the labor market, rather than displace them; and contribute positively to GDP growth.
As for the welfare state, we should not fear that these people would become a drain on our system of benefits, as we have very few unemployment and social benefits anyway. On the other hand, we do spend a lot on pensions. Refugees will contribute positively to the pension system, as they will be working for decades before starting to collect.
Therefore, 50,000 people from Syria and Iraq should be welcome to settle in Greece. Nevertheless, a real danger exists: that these people get stacked in a few districts, in appalling conditions, forcibly changing the neighborhood, as in St. Panteleimon. To prevent this, let’s implement a proposal by the organization SolidarityNow, which deals particularly with refugees.
Disperse this population in all 325 municipalities, i.e. 150 individuals or 30 families in a medium-sized municipality. Central government, municipalities and voluntary organizations need to work together to achieve the following:
1. To locate available housing, and to subsidize the rent from the relevant EU fund;
2. To issue work permits quickly;
3. To offer language courses and job training by volunteers;
4. To provide some small financial support for 6 to 12 months;
5. To encourage people from the local community to become mentors for each family: e.g. a woman that will introduce the mother of the family to local services; a student who will mentor and support a migrant child in school; a teacher or a social worker who will offer advice on all their needs.
If numbers in each place are small, the plan is feasible and without major organizational difficulties. All over the country there are Greeks who will want to help foreigners to reset their lives.
Unfortunately, there are also those who will react, out of fear, or racism, or for political gain.
To deal with this, we need politics in the best sense of the term. To mobilize citizens, to motivate mayors, to protect volunteers, to isolate the bigots. I hope the government and party leaders will not be afraid. I also hope that the Church will remember the manger of Bethlehem.