It seems inconceivable that a nation like Greece, once a core source of immigration to North America, Australia and Western Europe, would become a home to over 780,000 immigrants. A conference titled; Australian and Greek Migration systems: a comparison last week hosted the director of the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute (IMEPO), Alexandros Zavos, along with his colleagues who met with Australian multicultural policy makers to compare models and approaches to migration.

On Thursday morning Mr Zavos layed out the complexities of Greece’s position and pointed out that while most immigrants in Greece are “Albanian, more people from Bulgaria, Romania and ex-Yugoslavia and the African continent, Asia Minor and the sub-continent of India and Pakistan are now flowing into Greece.”

Australia has a years of experience with multiculturalism, while Greece is more recently coming to terms with its rapidly changing demographic.

Like much of Europe, Greece while reliant on immigrant labour has also exhibited the ugly face of racism and xenophobia towards new arrivals.

Mr Zavos when asked by Neos Kosmos English Edition (NKEE) what the Institute and the Greek Government are doing to change Greek attitudes towards immigrants said, “For the Greeks there are no immigrants there are only people. We see the benefits of migration to Greece and we want to communicate that to all.”

He added, “One of the institute’s primary roles is to run a projects aimed at fighting racism. We see sport and art as an easier way for nationals and immigrants to come together and share.”

The efforts of the Institute seem extensive, “We developed an exhibition by students of diverse cultural background as well as Greek nationals working together with photographers to capture their own experiences. Then we drew on photographic material from across the globe where photographs of Greek migrants going to America and Australia are juxtaposed with images of immigrants coming into Greece. We have also brought over 700 students through the Greek National Archaeological Museum and through workshops showed them how immigration always existed and was important to Greek civilisation – for example the way African art and culture impacted on Greek art on how through various ancient stages of migration Greek art changed on the statues, the motifs and so on.”

Mr Zavos acknowledges that Greece has racism, but also underscores Australia’s past responses to Asian immigration and more recently African immigration. Greece is in now in line with the EU and has developed new legislation aimed at culturally sensitive approaches aimed at ‘social inclusion’.

Mrs Anna Markaki the General Director of Migration Management and Social Integration of the Hellenic Ministry of Interior, highlighted the way Mediterranean nations are dealing with illegal immigrants: “The initiative of the Euro Mediterranian alliance, including north Africa, is looking for solutions to of illegal migration including policies that assist the development of third world nations. It’s not only about the border control of our nations, but about making conditions of life better in the developing world as a way of halting the current wave of illegal migration.”

George Lekakis Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC), emphasised Australia’s longer legislative history in dealing with migration established in 1901. He acknowledges that the experience between Greece and Australia are not “dissimilar, and the challenges that Greece is facing are those we [Australia] had to face here.” While Australia has over 70,000 illegal immigrants here he acknowledged that “border issues are vastly different to those confronted by Greece.”

Paris Aristotle AM, the Director of the Victoria Foundation for Survivors of Torture spoke of the need to stop using the term ‘illegal immigrants’ and criticises governments and politicians, including “Howard  in 2001 during Tampa, Le Pen in France in 2002” for using “refugees and immigrants for political purposes”.

Mr Aristotle emphasises that as long as conflicts are left to fester without solution “people will always be forced to leave their homeland.” He is sceptical of notions of ‘social cohesion’ and ‘social inclusion’ as masks a return to “assimilation by stealth.”

For an ethnocentric nation like Greece, the flood of immigrants over the last 20 years has been a culture shock to many nationals. Yet the economic, cultural and other benefits of migration are fast becoming apparent  and institutions like IMEPO are leading the way in policy areas that aim at making cultural diversity a positive new reality.

Australian and Greek Migration systems: a comparison, ended last Friday and presented a range of speakers including, MP John Pandazopoulos the conference chair, John Gibson the President of the Refugee Council of Australia, Steve Georganas Federal MP, Mr Mike Zaffiropoulos and others. The conference was hosted by the VMC, the Greek Community of Melbourne Victoria at the Immigration Museum.