Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Greek (official), Macedonian, Turkish, Vlach, Arvanitika, Romani
Main religions: Greek Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Though Greece does not collect official data on ethnicity, it does disaggregate foreign nationals by citizenship. According to the 2011 census, there were around 912,000 permanent foreign residents in Greece, including Albanians (480,851), Bulgarians (75,917), Romanians (46,524), Pakistanis (34,178), Georgians (27,407), Ukraine (17,008) as well as smaller groups from the UK, Cyprus, Poland, Russia, India, Bangladesh, Germany, Egypt, Moldova and the Philippines. However, these figures do not reflect the substantial proportion of undocumented workers in the country (estimated by one study at the time of the census to make up a third of the actual immigrant population) or naturalized individuals born outside Greece who have later Greek citizenship. Nor does it reflect the implications of Greece’s economic recession on migrant populations – tens of thousands of Albanians have reportedly returned to their home country in the wake of the recession – and the shifting demographic of asylum seekers and migrants from 2015. As of May 2018, Greece was hosting than 60,000 refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Though their exact size is uncertain, other minorities include Vlachs (200,000), Arvanites (95,000), ethnic Macedonians (100,000–200,000), Roma/Gypsies (265,000), Turks 90,000, Pomaks (35,000– 40,000) and Jews (5,000).
There has historically been a large Armenian community in Greece, peaking around the time of 1915, when many Armenians fled to Greece from Turkey as refugees.
The Jewish community present in Greece since antiquity grew substantially, particularly in Thessaloniki, from the 14th century onwards when Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal fled to Greece. Only a small proportion of the community survived the Holocaust and today it is estimated that around 5,000 Jews live in Greece.
Greece continues to suffer the effects of the economic turmoil that began with the global financial crisis, resulting in widespread poverty, unemployment and the rollout of government austerity measures that have left a third of the population at risk of poverty, with marginalized communities such as Roma disproportionately affected. But the crisis has also had profound political implications, particularly for minorities, migrants and refugees in the country.
In particular, the economic crisis has helped fuel the rise of far-right movements such as Golden Dawn, a party with a strong anti-immigrant focus. In recent years, these organizations have exploited popular frustration and insecurity through xenophobic rhetoric, in the process winning a significant portion of votes. While at first focused on Roma and migrant workers, these movements increasingly directed their activities towards the growing refugee population. Indeed, the significant levels of support enjoyed by the group – securing, in the September 2015 elections, 7 per cent of votes and 18 seats – were strongest in the most affected by Europe’s refugee crisis, such as the islands of Kos and Lesbos, which both received a large influx of refugees.
Even before the recent crisis, hate crime and discrimination against migrants were regularly being reported. This was particularly true of undocumented migrants, who when seeking to make a living are especially vulnerable to exploitation. One high-profile example of this was the case of 42 Bangladeshi workers without work permits who, having been hired to pick strawberries beginning in October 2012, were working 12-hour days under supervision of armed guards while forced to live in shacks without toilet and water facilities. When they approached their employers to ask for their unpaid wages an armed guard opened fire, injuring 30 workers. Though the incident received widespread coverage, with the European Court of Human Rights subsequently awarding the victims €576,000 in March 2017, many other incidents of forced labour and exploitation are not identified. Though they make up a large share of Greece’s manual workforce – some estimates suggest that they make up to 90 per cent of the country’s agricultural labourers, for example – migrant workers are frequently refused pay or held against their will by exploitative employers.
There have also been instances where migrants have been victims of vicious racist attacks. In August 2016, for example, 12 prison guards were found guilty and sentenced to prison for torturing Ilia Karelli, an Albanian national found dead in his cell in Nigrita prison in March 2014. In October 2017, in Gorytsa near the city of Aspropyrgos, Pakistani nationals Asfak Mahmud and Vakas Hussein were badly beaten by five men believed to have connections with the far-right. Troublingly, the steady rise in the incidence of hate crime shows little sign of abating: according to Greek police, the number of reported hate crimes in 2017 motivated by ethnicity, national origin or skin colour was almost three times higher than the previous year. Muslims and migrants, including Pakistani labourers and Afghan refugees, have been particularly targeted. Victims have criticized police for their slow or ineffective response to many of these attacks.
These issues have only intensified, however, since January 2015 as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals passed through Greece, fleeing disasters, persecution and poverty in the hope of sanctuary and a dignified life in Europe. As other European countries have moved away from principles of solidarity to policies of containment, with the closing of the Balkan borders and the implementation of the controversial 2016 EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, a large portion of these refugees have been stranded in Greece. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there were more than 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece by May 2018, with around 14,000 on some of the country’s eastern islands. The large majority of these refugees originate from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The growing numbers of arrivals have amplified the pressures on the eastern islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Leros, in particular, where poor conditions at reception centres are further deteriorating and the already slow processing of asylum claims is further delayed. On the mainland, by contrast, conditions for refugees have overall improved, with more people housed in rented accommodation with better access to essential services such as education for school-age children. Yet the situation overall remains bleak, with thousands forced to flee violence in their homelands now subjected to renewed trauma, discrimination and humiliation. Poor living standards, lack of access to support services and overcrowding are all contributing to deteriorating mental health and wellbeing – in the process increasing the risks of self-harm, violence and sexual assault, with unaccompanied children, women and individuals with disabilities especially vulnerable.
There is also increasing concern that, due to pressures on staff capacity and the need to expedite the registration process of new arrivals, that a significant number of vulnerable individuals are not being identified. Reflecting the desperate situation, violent outbursts and riots are common in camps, with some tensions not only between asylum seekers and Greek nationals but also within refugee communities: repeated attacks on Yezidis, for example, has prompted authorities to create separate Yezidi camps to prevent further attacks. As the Greek government has begun to take over more refugee management responsibilities, concerns have been raised about its strategy, in particular the policy of ‘containing’ asylum seekers on its islands: an April 2018 ruling by the Council of State that the practice was illegal has been largely ignored by authorities.
As is the case in many European countries, the estimated 265,000 Roma in Greece regularly experience marginalization and stigmatization. Although the government’s National Strategy for Social Integration of Roma focuses on improving the integration and living conditions of Roma, the community still faces high levels of physical segregation, discrimination and negative stereotypes. In August 2016, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination voiced its concern about the issues faced by Roma, including significant barriers in accessing health care, education, housing and employment, persistent prejudice and exclusion including police harassment. Roma have suffered acute discrimination not only from racist and right-wing groups but also by officials, with the Greek Helsinki Monitor reporting the beating in October 2016 of three Roma men by police while in detention that left one of the victims in hospital with severe injuries.
Greece’s small Jewish minority, numbering around 5,000 members, is a frequent target of racist and far-right groups. For example, in October 2015, three Golden Dawn European Parliament members (MEPs) published a video online containing anti-Semitic and anti-migrant content, accusing the Merkel government in Germany of supporting a ‘Zionist conspiracy against Europe’. Anti-Semitic incidents, such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, occur frequently: in July 2018, the World Jewish Congress called on Greece to strengthen its response to anti-Semitism following the vandalization of a Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki, the third such incident in a period of two months.
Greece is located in south-eastern Europe bordering the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Greece shares borders to the east with Turkey and to the north with Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.
Christian Albanian migration to Greece between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries ensured that large communities of Arvanites inhabited the territory before the modern Greek state was formed.
When the Greek state was founded in 1830 it comprised one-third of the territory it rules today. As different nations received their independence from the decaying Ottoman Empire, they entered into long and bloody conflicts, justified by nationalism as well as cross-border ethnic, cultural and religious ties, over territory which had not yet attained statehood. Once areas of mixed populations became incorporated into a state, competing claims and allegiances led to attempts to enforce homogeneity through expulsions and assimilation.
When the Balkan Wars came to an end in 1913, the Treaty of Bucharest delimited frontiers, and many members of ethnic groups migrated, voluntarily or not, to nations more favourably disposed to their presence. However not all ethnic groups had states in which to seek refuge.
The majority of Greece’s Spanish-speaking Ladino Jewish and Greek-speaking Romaniote Jewish population were victims of the Holocaust in World War II, while the Muslim Albanian Cams in northern Greece were forced to flee to Albania immediately after the war. Distrust of minority groups was further compounded in Greece by the civil war of 1944–9. Towards the end of the civil war, due to the Communist promise of cultural autonomy, up to 40 per cent of the Communist forces comprised (Slavo-)Macedonians, and the Communists declared an Independent United Macedonia. The military dictatorship of 1967-74 saw a worsening of the situation for minority groups. While repression eased with the restoration of democracy, minority groups continued to face discrimination.
As Greece, primarily a country of emigration in the first half of the twentieth century, saw increasing flows of immigration from neighbouring Albania, Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as growing numbers from Asia. This would become an increasingly significant issues from the 1990s as Greece struggled to develop a coherent immigration strategy: while it periodically subjected Albanians in the country to mass deportations, this approach did not deter further immigration.
Greece joined the EU in 1981, but in the wake of the global financial crisis that began in 2007/8 its position became more precarious. Greece, reeling from the effects of recession, inflation and rising unemployment, subsequently accepted bailout funds from the EU in exchange for a range of austerity measures that deepened poverty for many Greek citizens. This, together with the onset of the migration crisis in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arrived in the country, left the country in a state of profound economic shock that contributed in turn to the rise of the far-right. Refugees, migrant workers and other minorities as a result have been increasingly subjected to violence, encouraged by the rhetoric of Golden Dawn, a political movement with a strongly racist and anti-immigrant platform, and other groups.
Greece continues to lack a comprehensive framework to promote diversity and minority cultures, nor are there any substantial subsidies granted to minority associations. Although direct religious discrimination is not easily tolerated by the majority of the Greek courts, most notably the Council of State, a number of laws exist which fail to take into account religious diversity. The enjoyment of several constitutional rights can vary depending on ethnic origin, religion and language. As of 2018, Greece has signed but not yet ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) or signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
A crucial issue for ethnic Turkish and other minority associations is that they have been unable to register formally. These cases strike at the heart of the right to self-identification for members of minorities in Greece, where ethnic Macedonians are not granted minority status, and the right to collective identity is denied to the Turkish minority, who are only counted as part of a larger Muslim minority. In fact, the Greek authorities have closed several associations which had the word ‘Turkish’ in their names. In July 2018, despite winning their case before the European Court of Human Rights, the Turkish Union of Xanthi had their application rejected yet again by a Greek appeals court. This was despite legislation recently adopted by the Greek parliament to allow associations to reapply for registration despite prior rejections.
Greek Council for Refugees
Minority Rights Group Greece/Greek Helsinki Monitor
Western Thrace Minority Graduates Association
Tel: +30 253 102 9705
Turks and Pomaks
Greek Helsinki Monitor
Refugees and asylum seekers