A New day for greek migration policy?
the new government and prospects for reform
By Caitlin Katsiaficas
Project Associate at Bridging Europe
Project Associate at Bridging Europe
The Greek parliamentary elections in January resulted in a change in power and marked the first time a Greek government has been formed with a leftist party as the main party in power. Much attention has been paid to the new economic policies pledged by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and its partner the Independent Greeks (ANEL). However, the new government also has the potential to significantly alter the country’s immigration policies.
Having won 36.3% of the vote, earning 149 seats, SYRIZA came up two seats shy of being able to govern on its own. It thus formed a coalition with ANEL, which won 13 seats. Both parties are strongly against the bailout and its requirements, and have advocated for an end to austerity measures. While bound by their mutual disdain for the bailout program, both parties have vastly different platforms and ideologies regarding a range of issues, including immigration.
Although the elections focused on the economy, migration has proved to be another hot button issue in Greek society. The number of migrants arriving in the country has risen significantly in recent years, and Greece is now the major point of entry for irregular migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and Asia. In 2013, immigrants accounted for almost 9% of the population.The large influx of migrants over a relatively short period of time has created several challenges, including the need to process numerous asylum claims and provide protection and services where appropriate, the presence of large numbers of unauthorized migrants, insufficient facilities, and massive backlogs in the immigration system. In addition, Greece has seen increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. According to a recent Gallup poll, 84% of Greek adults would like to see reduced levels of immigration, the highest rate not only in Europe but the world.
SYRIZA, a party of the radical Left, has advocated for a major shift in government policy toward migrants. This includes expediting the asylum application process, decreasing the use of detention and closing detention centers, encouraging family reunification, replacing migrant reception centers, ending push backs of migrants at the borders, removing EU restrictions on the travel of migrants, taking down the fence built along the Greece-Turkey land border, and strengthening the protection of human rights. Furthermore, SYRIZA plans to pursue revisions to the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that countries of first arrival are responsible for processing asylum claims, as it wants a more equal distribution of refugees across EU Member States. According to Dimitrios Papadimoulis, a member of European Parliament and SYRIZA, the party will advocate for a “common European immigration policy with obligations and rights.” SYRIZA plans to seek more financial assistance form the EU to manage its borders. The party has appointed Tasia Christodoulopoulou, a human rights lawyer, to the post of alternate minister for immigration.
In contrast, ANEL is a right-wing, socially conservative party that was established in 2012 by defecting members of the center-right New Democracy party. ANEL has expressed its opposition to immigration and to multiculturalism, stressing the importance of Greek culture. The party wants to limit immigration to the country and see stricter border controls.
Greek officials have already announced several policy changes regarding migration. There are plans to end the controversial Operation Xenios Zeus, which conducts stop and search activities to identify irregular migrants and arrest them for possible return to their countries of origin. This operation has been heavily criticized for the use of arbitrary detention and racial profiling. It has declared plans to make children of migrants who were born and grew up in Greece eligible for citizenship. The new government has also stated its intention to end indefinite detentions of migrants. For the past year, the government has detained migrants longer than the 18-month limit stipulated in the EU Returns Directive if they were determined not to be complying with their order to return. Most recently, officials announced that detention will only be used in exceptional cases, and will not exceed six months. Asylum seekers, vulnerable groups, and those who have been detained for more than six months are to be released. Vulnerable groups are to be referred to other accommodations, and the use of alternatives to detention will be expanded. Furthermore, detention centers, beginning with those at Amygdaleza, will be closed or converted into open shelters, and conditions will be improved. These announcements correspond with Minister Christodoulopoulou’s and SYRIZA’s stated intention to uphold international standards and respect the human rights of migrants in Greece, which the country has been accused of failing to do in the past.
Government officials have publicly committed to several changes in recent weeks regarding immigration enforcement, detention, and citizenship. SYRIZA’s recent announcements and platform, if realized, will constitute significant changes in Greek migration policy. However, there are fundamental differences between the stance of SYRIZA and its coalition partner ANEL. It thus remains to be seen whether these statements will turn into legislative action, or if compromises will weaken SYRIZA’s plans for reform. ANEL has already stated that it would vote against SYRIZA’s plan to provide citizenship to children of immigrants. SYRIZA will likely need to get support from other parties for its immigration reform agenda. Immigration is a highly politicized issue, especially in the context of the prolonged recession, and obstacles remain to the implementation of such measures at both the national and EU level. This is particularly true regarding changes that the Greek government would like to see to EU policies, such as revisions to the Dublin Regulation. Despite the challenges, SYRIZA has the potential to significantly alter Greek migration policy, improving the plight of asylum seekers and other immigrants and addressing some of the key criticisms of the country’s immigration system.