Boost for Albanian Migrants in Greece

Work permits enable over 600,000 Albanians to work legally across the border, keeping whole communities at home out of poverty.

Boost for Albanian Migrants in Greece

Work permits enable over 600,000 Albanians to work legally across the border, keeping whole communities at home out of poverty.

In an alley behind the Greek consulate in Korca, southeast Albania, a queue of rough-looking, tanned men spills out into the dusty square near the Orthodox church.

The young men, mostly from villages around Korca, are hoping their names have been posted on a list at the consulate, confirming approval of their visa applications to work in Greece.

The lucky ones will soon be on their way to Greek orchards and urban construction sites. Almost all have worked in Greece before, some so often that they have lost count.

"Ten, maybe 12 times," Enver, a farmer from the village of Voskopolje, said, when asked.

In 1992 and 1993, he adds, he worked without a permit in the fields around Kozani and then in Thessalonica, sending money back to his family until the Greek authorities expelled him.

The previous four summers he worked legally in Greece on three-month seasonal visas that his Greek employer in Veria regularly extended.

The movement of workers between Albania and Greece, its only immediate member in the European Union, has changed markedly since the 1990s.

During that decade, hundreds of thousands of Albanians fled across Greece's porous borders to escape the grinding poverty of crisis-ridden, post-communist Albania.

The exodus was uncontrolled, overwhelmingly illegal, often linked to the black market and landed many migrants at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. By 1997, it was estimated that 800,000 Albanians were in Greece without the correct papers.

Today, the flow is very different both in size and character. Greece has started to adjust to its new role as a country of inward migration, after generations of sending young Greeks to Western Europe in search of work.

In 1998 and again in 2001, Athens granted a total of half a million temporary residency and work permits to Albanian nationals, many of whom were ethnically Greek.

Official Greek sources say 634,000 Albanian citizens now reside legally in Greece. Migration experts say that is probably not the whole picture, as they believe another 150-200,000 Albanians may be in the country illegally.

Most labour migration in Greece's direction today, therefore, is seasonal and legal, a consequence of EU guidelines and of Greek laws adopted in 2001 that instituted the temporary working visa scheme, tightened border security and coordinated border management with neighbouring countries.

The seasonal migrants complain that the new visa procedures are time-consuming and expensive but admit they are preferable to the risk and uncertainty of illegal migration.

"In the past, you might spend 1,000 euro on a fake visa or a trafficker and get caught and sent back," said Gazmend, another worker waiting near the Greek consulate in Korca, told IWPR.

The working visa scheme means that men like Gazmend are now less vulnerable to exploitation and abuse then they were. They are, for example, more likely to receive at least the Greek minimum wage of 22 euro per day.

Nevertheless, seasonal workers are only paid for the precise number of days they work. There is no allowance made for bad weather or holidays, and they receive no benefits.

"The issues around migration are much more complicated today both for Albania and for Greece," Fehmi Xhemo, a Korca district official, told IWPR. "But they bring us together. We're getting to know one another as we are."

Xhemo meets regularly with Greek counterparts to discuss concerns such as family reunions, remittance transfers and pension payments. For all Xhemo's optimistic gloss on the state of cross-border relations, sources in the Korca administration say these negotiations are often tense.

But the money is vital to Albania. Annual remittances from Greece exceed 55 million euro and constitute a crucial source of income in the Korca region, which sends an especially high number of workers to Greece. The workers keep much of its population out of the poverty trap.

"Just about everyone in our village has a son, a husband or another relative working abroad," said Saimir Dervishi, an English teacher from the village of Cangonj, east of Korca.

Unlike in the past, more remittances now flow through banks and other official channels rather than through connections and dodgy middlemen. More of the money is also invested in small businesses than before.

Recent studies show many longer-term Albanian residents in Greece have integrated into Greek society, climbing the socio-economic ladder. Although residency permits for non-ethnic Greeks from Albania last for a maximum of two years, many have brought families to Greece and had children in their new domicile. These children speak Greek and go to Greek schools.

Mariela Steffanllari, director of Korca's Institute for Research and Regional Development, says the legal processes for family reunions last for at least a year and bribes are often necessary to expedite them. "Some families just give up and go on their own [illegally]," she said.

Older relatives who do not want to cross into Greece illegally find the restrictions on movement between the two countries a trial. Many say they cannot obtain visas to visit their adult children and their families in Greece. "It's very difficult for us," Luan Dervishi, a Korca pensioner with a son, daughter and two grandchildren in Athens, told IWPR.

He and his wife have visited their family in Greece only once in seven years. To get a visa they say they need a letter of invitation and financial guarantees from a Greek citizen. "We'd like to go more often but it's not easy," said Dervishi, referring to the letter and guarantees.

Julie Vullnetari, of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, believes the obstacles placed in the way of elderly people visiting Greece are unnecessary. "These older relatives have no desire to stay in Greece. Their home is their village," she said.

Vullnetari, an Albanian from the Korca region, would like to see a new border regime, which would enable Albanians over 55 to pick up one-month visas on the Greek border without red tape.

Another problem area concerns Albanian prisoners in Greece. It is almost impossible for their relatives to get permission to visit them. Athens also refuses to transfer Albanian prisoners to Albania, where they could serve their jail terms near their relatives.

While the recent reforms have improved the lot of Albanians in Greece, they have not done much to mitigate the strong prejudices of most Greeks against all foreign workers.

A survey earlier this year by a Vienna-based group studying racism, the European Centre for Monitoring Racism and Xenophobia, said 84.7 per cent of Greeks considered migrants a threat.

Another 31.5 per cent called for the repatriation of all migrants, while 32.5 per cent said Greece should not give even legal ones any political rights whatever.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist who has been covering the Balkans since 1990

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