Dreading the impending sea-sickness, I turned away from my friends who were chomping on sweets towards a couple who look to be in their mid-40s. They were local Greeks, and they often took the ferry to Santorini to watch the sunset.
They initially seemed alarmed that I struck up a conversation, and were hesitant to introduce themselves. Gradually, as I explained that I was a student at an American university and that I was in Greece to study abroad for a semester, their faces suddenly relaxed and they warmed up considerably.
The woman asked me what I thought of Greece, if I enjoyed the food, and what I was studying. Then, she leaned forward, touched my arm, and asked me, “Why are people from your country coming to mine and ruining it?”
My brown skin had given me away again. I was no longer an American student in Europe. I was only Indian. I looked similar to the 81,000 (at least) migrants from the Indian subcontinent (mainly Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) in Greece.
The current refugee crisis, though largely connected to the Syrian civil war in Greece, has displaced over 20 million civilians to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and Europe (along with asylum seekers from other turbulent nations like Libya, Afghanistan, etc.). However, economic immigration of South Asians to Greece has had a longer history, beginning at least as early as 1970.
The story that has come to practised South Asian migrants in Greece parallels the xenophobia and racism that is rampant across the EU. Public hostility towards foreigners is often magnified by politicians, leading to instances such as the November 2012 hearing in the Greek parliament when an MP from the then-ruling New Democracy party labelled foreigners in Greece as “cockroaches”.
Against a backdrop of the financial crisis and refugee crises, Golden Dawn has rapidly gained traction with all sections of Greek society, becoming the country’s third-largest party in the 2015 elections.
Described as Neo-Nazi and Fascist, Golden Dawn gained much of its momentum in response to the growing outcry at rising immigration. At a rally in 2015, “elderly men gave the Roman salute used by the Nazis, while young girls waved flags, as chants of ‘out with the foreigners!’ and ‘Greece belongs to the Greeks!’ rang out from a crowd of more than 500 supporters”.
The South Asian migrant story in Greece is one of exploitation. Locals fear them and show contempt for South Asians. Racist sentiments are particularly strong because Greek society was far more homogeneous than other EU member states until the 1990s, with respect to race, nationality, and religion. Therefore, Greeks view foreigners – especially those who are ‘visibly’ different – as “invasive elements into their established social, economic, and cultural environment”.
Why, then, do economic migrants travel from South Asia to a place that doesn’t want them?
Push factors include economic inequality and a lack of jobs and opportunities at home. These Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Afghani men are usually between 20 and 40 years old; they are single or married and leave their families behind. Pull factors include the promise of jobs and wages to send as remittances, the relative economic stability in the West, and the position of Greece as “a gateway to [greater] Europe”.
Equally important, there are strong network effects that make it more attractive for a migrant to choose a region that already has an established network from their place of origin. Greece checks all of these boxes.
But, when they arrive, the xenophobia that greets them is far from what they expected. The migrants become marginalised in their new surroundings, and this is reinforced by social institutions which separate Greeks and South Asians along cultural and economic lines.
First, there is the issue of religion. The first thing I learned as a foreign student in Greece was that “being Greek” was nearly synonymous with “being Greek Orthodox”. This sense of ethnic national identity is “intertwined” with a Greek’s sense of self and national identity. The social institution of religion is a personal and national identifier.
The main religions that South Asian migrants bring with them include Islam and Sikhism. Religion is a strong ethnic marker. In Greece, the growth of Islam has aggravated negative feelings towards migrants. The first mosque in Athens to ever be constructed was planned in 2017, after nearly a century of inertia.
Second, it is difficult to imagine a Greek person who does not speak the Greek language. Throughout history, language as a social construct was a powerful instrument to “Hellenize” or aggregate all the Grecian land that was “wrenched” from the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The integration of “non-Greeks” occurred by linguistic assimilation to Greek and religious adoption to Orthodox Christianity.
Undocumented South Asian migrants have difficulties learning Greek. It is much easier to stick to the diaspora where they can speak Urdu or Punjabi or Bangladeshi with each other and support each other instead of looking to learn a completely new language. Their “otherness” from the locals intensifies.
Third, the majority of South Asian immigrants to Greece are “low-paid and unskilled workers, employed mostly in agriculture, construction, small industries, commerce, and services; they work in the ‘secondary work market”. They are uninsured and are often not paid wages and are at the mercy of foreman or middlemen managers. They live in dismal housing conditions, fall sick often, aren’t able to send remittances back home, and they are trapped in debt-ridden bonds with those who oversee them.
Moreover, South Asians are estimated to have the lowest educational level of all immigrants in Greece. These issues compound the host of institutional and social obstacles that highlight the “otherness” of South Asian migrants in Greece and prevent their integration into Greek society.
The integration of such immigrants becomes even more salient when you consider the differences within different migrant groups from South Asia (Indians vs. Pakistanis vs. Bangladeshis). Even among South Asians, the plurality of languages spoken and religions practiced lends to further social diversity.
For example, most of the Indians speak Punjabi, while Pakistanis speak Urdu and Bangladeshis speak Bangla. Therefore, while each subgroup has its own social norms, as a group, they present a “South Asian” front. Ultimately, the question of integration of all South Asians is a substantial social challenge.
There have been small efforts to change this story, advocated by (1) South Asian migrants themselves (2) the Greek government and EU member states, (3) local Greeks and NGOs. However, there remains a need for a concerted and intentional shift in the story of the South Asian migrant.
Immigrant energies have been focused on collective organising. With unfavourable political and social constraints to integrating, the “highest levels of protection [and support] are provided to South Asian migrants by their own communities”. These are formed along linguistic or religious lines, with overlaps between the two. The associations typically are titled with reference to national origin: “Community of Pakistanis, Community of Indians, Community of Bangladeshis.”
The functions they serve are manifold: reinforcing friendships between their members and Greek society, protecting workers rights, facilitating dispute resolution for labourers, providing culture and childcare centres and religious community, means to communicate with family back home, remittance transfer services, and a place where immigrants can speak their mother tongue. They are “centre of reproduction of ethnic identity and communal solidarity…and function as places for adapting into the Greek context”.
However, efforts by immigrants can only be successful if there is local buy-in. Although there are scattered attempts by non-immigrants to change the dialogue, there has been no major shift in the story. There is a lack of consistent and targeted policy to bring about change. A change in Greek perspective is not possible unless concerns about language, religion, and national identity are addressed.
For example, NGOs organise local Greek language classes for migrants, and the Greek government has proposed specialised police units to tackle racist violence. However, the initiatives are scant, vague, and often not implemented, or appropriately scaled. South Asian migrants need more. However, the situation is slowly changing, and the lack of widespread momentum doesn’t mean there isn’t passion or hope.
During my last week in Greece, I was writing my final exams. I procrastinated by joining a silent demonstration that was organised by the European Grassroots Anti-Racism Movement (EGAM). Joined by migrants and citizens from around the EU, we walked from Parliament Square to the Acropolis to stand in solidarity against neo-Nazism in Greece.
I marched with Bangladeshis and Indians, shared snacks with Pakistanis, and embraced my brownness. We made posters in Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, and Hebrew. Students from around Athens joined us, along with a few members of parliament. These migrants were on a journey to challenged the misleading stereotypes that have been defining them for too long.
Instead of living the entrenched story of distrustful and unwelcoming locals, South Asian immigrants are fighting back against it. Efforts to change the narrative by finding ways to normalise their presence have been slow to succeed; nevertheless, they persist. People from “my country” were not in Greece to “ruin it” but to integrate into a new home.
Photograph courtesy of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Published under a Creative Commons license.