The recent shooting of Bangladeshi workers in South Greece after they demanded outstanding wages might have shocked the nation, but it has put in the spotlight the plight of migrants who enter Greece every year; migrants seeking a better life within the European Union.
As Greece enters its fifth year of recession – and Greeks are reeling under the weight of salary slashes, a rising tax burden and the eurozone’s highest unemployment rate – life for migrants is becoming tougher amid rising racism as well as a drop in living standards. However, third country nationals are still widely used as cheap labour, notably in constructions and the agricultural sector.
Some 550,000 people of Greece’s four million working population work in agriculture, with 95 per cent of its cultivated surface owned and operated by small farmers. Every year, thousands of migrant workers are employed in farms and greenhouses, which earn more than 3 per cent of Greece’s GDP.
Half of Greece’s plastic-topped greenhouses – that account for 51,360 square metres – are located on the island of Crete. The majority of those – some 17,000 square metres – are found in Ierapetra, a small town of 27,000 inhabitants, on the south east coast of Crete.
It is estimated that more than 10,000 foreign workers are employed each year in the farms and greenhouses of south eastern Crete. Most often they are undocumented and housed in primitive conditions.
Salim*, a 25-year-old Pakistani national, crossed the border illegally into Greece in 2009 after having paid Turkish smugglers $2000. He arrived in Ierapetra two years ago to work in the greenhouses. When he started, he said he could earn around 17 euro per day, but now he can barely survive. Salim has not been paid for four whole months.
He shares a two roomed house with another two men. The smell of dampness and stale food fills the air. There is no bathroom and the three men use an outbuilding transformed into a makeshift ‘toilet’. Each month, they pay 100 euro to live like this.
Salim points at one of his roommates, a young skinny man who stares nervously at the floor. “His boss promised to pay him 15 euro per day to work in the greenhouses. It’s been a year now and he still did not get paid. When we asked for the money, the boss threatened to call the police,” he says. The greenhouses need a constant supply of cheap labour to operate. The work is tough and the temperatures inside can reach 40-45C. The legal minimum wage for a day’s work is currently fixed at 33 euro but migrant workers rarely get paid more than 15 euro. More often than not, they don’t get paid at all. The employer refuses to pay the wages, threatening to report the migrant to the police if he complains.
“The bosses prefer to employ migrants without papers,” says Salim. “When the work is done, they threaten to call the police. You have to shut your mouth if you want to survive.”
Even in times of crisis, young Greeks have a preference to find employment in their chosen industry or skills set whilst relying on their families for financial support. They do this instead of taking what they perceive to be low-class and low-paid work. Therefore, farmers have to rely heavily on low-paid migrants to work in their fields. The economic crisis has also aggravated the situation. With the price of fuel and fertilizers tripling in the last two years, and the high transportation costs, farmers claim that the only way to survive the crisis is to cut down on wages.
“Prices have gone up during the last three years and it’s very difficult to make a profit any more,” says Manolis*, a producer at the local farmer’s market of Ierapetra.
“Conditions are tough and very few Greeks accept work for 20 euro. I use foreigners and I never face problems. Those who have problems are the ones who don’t pay them.”
“Foreigners are not welcome here,” says Katerina*, a woman in her fifties and the owner of a restaurant in the centre of Ierapetra. Although she has been married to a third country national for more than 20 years, she can still feel the discrimination in her community because “people will point their finger at the one who mixes with the foreigners”.
The two communities remain largely segregated. Migrant workers – notably from south Asia – live hidden in old houses and shacks near the fields, slowly creeping into town at daybreak, queuing up in the roads and looking for casual work. For Katerina, the working conditions are equal to slavery.
“Everyone knows this system exists but nobody wants to acknowledge it. The Pakistanis here live worse than animals,” she says.
“They are being constantly harassed and accused of all sorts of things: from assaulting old ladies to eating dogs. They are so poor that they are an easy target. If a gang of youths wants to have fun, they beat up Pakistanis”.
Only two months ago, three Pakistani migrants were attacked in the small village of Vainia, north of Ierapetra, by a gang of ten men. They were beaten with wood and iron sticks. The men were members of the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn, the same political party that won 18 seats in last June’s parliamentary elections. The violence occurred after a series of racist attacks against immigrants in the broader region of Lassithi, causing a public outcry in Crete.
“Foreigners are excluded from any decision about the community regardless of whether they reside legally or not,” says Alexia, an elementary teacher, who has been living in Ierapetra for the last five years.
“Three years ago we started a centre for immigrants offering language courses and vocational training. We had to shut down quickly due to lack of support from the community.”
“Greece does not have a fair and effective asylum system and the immigration laws are complicated and often unclear. As a result, asylum seekers and migrants face many obstacles even to register their claims. Those who do not succeed in lodging an application are often detained in inhuman conditions,” says Emmanouil Androulidakis, an immigration lawyer and member of the Human Rights Committee of the Herakleion Lawyers Association.
Government figures indicate that only 1545 of the 45,089 applications for asylum filed between 2009 and 2012 were successful, and Greece has been often under criticism from human rights groups for its immigration policies.
“There is an increase in negative attitudes towards immigrants,” admits Emanouella Tsatsaki, social worker at the City Council of Herakleion, but she insists that racist violence is marginal in Crete.
“At municipality level we encourage the participation of migrants in decision making through structures such as the Immigrant Integration Council and through municipal consultancy services and awareness events.”
The financial crisis might have made people suspicious towards foreigners but it has also enhanced solidarity.
“People might say that free food distribution should prioritise the Greeks but there is a strong support network in the community regardless of origin,” she claims.
This is the case in Anogeia, a mountainous village some 36 kilometres west of Herakleio – where the Reception Centre for Refugees Unaccompanied Minors of the National Youth Foundation opened its doors 12 years ago thanks to funding from the European Refugee Fund. Since then, the centre has accommodated some 300 unaccompanied children, aged between 13 and 18, offering vocational training, language courses and much needed psychosocial support.
Ahmed’s story is typical of thousands of adolescents who escaped war-ridden Afghanistan, eight years ago at the tender age of 14. After having paid smugglers in Iran $3000 to cross the mountainous borders with Turkey on foot, he was asked to jump in a rubber boat with another five men. He survived a three-day perilous sea journey before being intercepted by the Greek coast guard on the shores of the island of Chios. Released on a deportation order, he spent eight months in Athens, sleeping in a public park and eating free food rations.
With the help of UNHCR, Ahmed lodged an asylum application and was sent to the Anogeia Unit.
“When I first arrived at Anogeia, I did not want to get out of my room. I would stay inside for days staring at the ceiling,” recalls Ahmed, now 23. But thanks to the support of the centre’s personnel, Ahmed was integrated into the local community.
“I have friends here and my life is good, but some people don’t like to see foreigners progressing,” he says, and recalls the day that someone cut the tyres of his newly bought second-hand car.
His former employer at a local dairy factory still owes him wages that account for 8000 euros.
Ahmed does not want to leave Greece, and has dreams of starting a family. But any interaction with local girls is excluded as the local community does not encourage such contacts. He is still waiting for his asylum application to be processed.
Yannis, a 24-year-old national from Afghanistan who wants to be identified with his Greek name, came to the centre seven years ago. He paid smugglers in Iran to hide him in the baggage space of a bus crossing into Turkey. From there he was packed like cargo into a fishing boat and arrived at the Greek island of Mytelene.
Like Ahmed, he wandered for several months in Athens, sleeping in public parks and eating food rations until he was sent to Anogeia through the Greek Refugee Council.
He says that life in Anogeia is much better compared to other villages and towns in Crete.
“The mayor and the community are very supportive. People treat us well because they know that we come from the centre.”
Marina Stavrakaki is in charge of the Anogeia Unit. “The children are fully integrated in the community. They learn Greek, they work, some of them attend the local high school, but the state still refuses to grant them papers,” she says. From the 280 children that have been living in the Centre since its opening, only five have been granted asylum.
Today, Mohammad is 22. After a long journey on foot from Syria to Turkey and then Greece, including two months in a detention centre, he came to find himself in Anogeia.
“I have my friends, a good boss, people take care of me and love me. I don’t want to go back to Syria, this is my home now,” he says.
But Mohammad cannot plan his future. Without papers he lives in constant fear of deportation.
“The children have experienced a lot of trauma, and when they come to our centre they are withdrawn and deprived of stimulation. Often they suffer from depression and emotional problems,” says Stavrakaki.
“We help them build a new life but without papers, what choices are left for them?”
*names have been changed to protect identities.
*Frangkiska Megaloudi is a former lecturer of Archaeology at the University of Western Australia. In 2007 she joined the NGO Medecins du Monde where she worked for a year as Mission Coordinator in Amman Jordan. She now works as a humanitarian journalist.