Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Silent Greek Crisis: Nationalism, Racism and Immigration

–Christina M. Akrivopoulou, Adjunct Lecturer, Democritus University of Thrace, Greece

Ever since the early nineties Greece has become a major destination state for immigrants, mainly due to the fall of the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe. For a number of years immigrants from neighbor countries of the Balkans have resided in Greece as undocumented immigrants working in a secondary, black labor market. The Greek political authorities, after a long delay, tried to solve the problem via the legitimization and documentation of illegal immigrants (Presidential Decrees 358/1997 and 359/1997 and Laws 2910/ 2001, 3386, 2005, 3386/2007). But this solution was largely unsuccessful due to the failures of the state bureaucracy. After these laws were passed approximately 400,000 illegal immigrants applied for documentation, thus helping to finally integrate them into Greek society.

Over this same period of time another form of immigrant flow has developed in Greece, of transitory illegal immigrants who are using the national borders as a gateway to the European Union. In its recent jurisprudence (C-411/10 and C-493/10), the European Court of Justice estimated that 90% of the total number of illegal immigrants entering the EU borders pass through Greece. Dublin Regulation II (2003/343/CE), which requires the return of illegal immigrants to the country where they first entered the European Union, has increased Greek fears that the country will become the main depot of illegal immigration in the EU.

This development, especially since the financial crisis hit, has caused a silent humanitarian crisis regarding the situation of immigrants in Greece. First, the large numbers of illegal immigrants transiting through Greece are facing extremely difficult conditions regarding their human rights protection, a situation that recently led to the condemnation of Greece by the European Court of Human Rights (MSS versus Belgium and Greece, 2011, No 30696/09). Second, Greek public opinion does not recognize the distinction between legal immigrants that have become through the years a vital, necessary and integrated part of the Greek society and the pressing flows of illegal immigrants transiting to the EU via Greek borders. Third, immigrants as a whole, both legal and illegal, have to face the rise of a new nationalism and racism that is reflected mainly in the creation of Golden Dawn – a far right, anti-immigrant political party, which blames immigrants as partly responsible for the high unemployment in the Greek labor market.

Law 3838/2010, which revised Greek citizenship legislation, was a major step in drawing distinctions between these two categories of immigrants and in promoting the substantial integration of the first category into Greek society. Up until Law 3838/2010, there were three basic ways to acquire Greek citizenship: a) birth from a Greek mother or father (ius sanguinis), b) birth on Greek soil (ius soli) in the case that no other citizenship existed or was acquired by birth and c) naturalization after ten years of residence in the country. Law 3838/2010 expanded these regulations by providing that all children born on Greek soil when both parents were legal immigrants had the right to acquire Greek citizenship. The same right was given to all children who had attended six years of primary school, and the general waiting time for naturalization procedures was reduced from ten to seven years. Along the same lines of promoting integration, the Law regulated the right of legal immigrants to vote in local elections for the country’s municipalities as well as to be elected as members of local councils. By promoting political participation by legal immigrants in their local communities, the legislature aimed to promote their further social integration.

A few months ago the Greek Council of State struck down the law in Decision 350/2011, deeming that it violated the constitutional provisions which refer to the term nation (Art. 1) instead of people. Although the Greek Constitution of 1975 refers to the people as the sovereign subject of the Greek democracy, it also makes reference to the term nation, which up until now was considered by Greek constitutional theory as having a purely historical and symbolic meaning. The Court held that the constitutional references to the term nation bound the legislature to take account of all the cultural and ideological aspects of nation in its historic perspective when regulating the acquisition of Greek citizenship. This required that an immigrant have a genuine bond to Greek traditions and culture in order to acquire Greek citizenship. The Court held that Law 3838 of 2010 conveyed citizenship on immigrants without ensuring that they possessed such a bond.

The repercussions of this decision are substantial, since in the meantime many have acquired Greek citizenship or been elected members of the local councils. Rights that have already been acknowledged could be taken back following the Court’s judgment, which is actually deepening even further the divisions created by the economic crisis regarding the migration issue. Moreover, the nationalistic tone used by the Greek Council of State in its judgment is a setback in the liberalization of immigrants’ rights in Greece. This decision is rooted in currents of public opinion that oppose the integration of legal immigrants and the protection of undocumented immigrants on the grounds that they are responsible for the current unemployment crisis in Greece. The full impact of the current financial crisis on immigration rights remains to be seen.

Suggested citation: Christina M. Akrivopoulou, The Silent Greek Crisis: Nationalism, Racism, and Immigration, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, October 2, 2013, available at:


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