Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP / Getty Images

‘There is hope’: Syriza poised to improve situation of Greece’s immigrants

What the leftist party’s win means in Greece, which has a poor record with foreigners, migrants and refugees

ATHENS — Aref Rachman readily admits that he was rooting for the far-left Syriza party when Greece went to the polls on Jan. 25. For three days and three nights, he says, he was glued to his television set, “praying very hard” that the leftists would win.

“For all the time they were in opposition, they were on our side, promising to make our lives better if they ever came in,” he said in perfect Greek. “Every foreigner, I can honestly say, wanted them to win.”

At 49, the Bangladeshi has spent more than half of his life in Greece, arriving at Athens International Airport 26 years ago on a tourist visa acquired in the Indian city that is now called Mumbai. “Back then, even the immigration officials didn’t know where my country was,” he recalled.

Rachman says he chose Greece because it was widely perceived as an easy entry point into Europe. He never expected to stay. But over a quarter-century later, he is still in the country, and by most standards, has done exceptionally well. He has a son, is happily married, runs a jewelery shop in the heart of ancient Athens and, as a successful businessman, has for several years been chairman of the local Bangladesh-Greece chamber of commerce.

Although Rachman loves his adopted homeland, he is the first to say he has never been fully accepted. “This is not America,” he sighs. “You may feel Greek and speak perfect Greek, pay your taxes and pay into an insurance fund, but that is not enough to integrate as a member of this society. After 26 years, I still don’t have the right to vote, and on paper I am still not Greek. Despite all my efforts, they won’t grant me citizenship.”

Now with the political sea change that has taken place in Athens, he is very much hoping that will change. And if Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has his way, it will soon. For the first time since 1974, when democracy was restored after the collapse of military rule, a migration minister was appointed within days of a new government’s assuming power.

‘For all the time they were in opposition, they were on our side, promising to make our lives better if they ever came in. Every foreigner, I can honestly say, wanted them to win.’

Aref Rachman

Bangladeshi immigrant in Greece

The elevation to the migration post of Tasia Christodoulopoulou, a veteran human rights attorney, long versed in the minutiae of immigration law, has rammed home the point that the new government is aiming for root-and-branch change in an area that has frequently landed Greece in trouble. She does not mince her words. She is adamant that Athens has to move quickly to improve the poor reputation it has acquired handling those fleeing poverty and war. Xenophobia and racist violence — byproducts of the country’s worst economic crisis in modern times — have soared in recent years.

“We will respect international treaties and Greek laws, which previous governments never did,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview. “We will close detention camps where, right now, around 4,500 people are held in inhumane conditions and for which Greece has been condemned. We will stop rounding up people indiscriminately and deporting them to countries with which we have no diplomatic relations. We will work hard to set up reception centers, which currently do not exist.”

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, center, and members of his government after the first meeting of the new Cabinet in Athens, Jan. 28, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

But first, she says, she will do something else. She will draw up legislation that will grant citizenship to immigrants’ children who were born and raised in Greece. Christodoulopoulou acknowledges passage of such a bill won’t be easy. Already the right-wing Independent Greeks party, the junior partner in the coalition Tsipras was forced to form after narrowly falling short of an outright majority, has vowed to vote it down. But she is confident that other parties, including the once mighty social-democratic Pasok, will help push it through.

“We are the only country in Europe that has not implemented such legislation, and as a result, we have a serious social problem. There are around 100,000 souls who, though totally absorbed in Greek society, do not have an identity. Rectifying that will be one of my first acts,” she said.

Rachman’s son, Shad, is among them. At 19, the college student has known no other life but Greece. Last year, though, when he visited Bangladesh for the first time, he had to to travel on his mother’s Philippine passport. “I am praying that if I can’t get Greek [citizenship], at least my son will,” his father says. “He has only ever lived here and attended Greek schools. The justice system and the bureaucracy are the biggest problems in this country, and if Syriza can fix it, I think it will be seen as some sort of God.”

Javed Aslam, 47, a leader in Greece’s Pakistani community, is quick to agree. He arrived in Athens on an education visa in 1996, but in recent years, in line with the plight of most Greeks, he says living standards for migrants have plummeted precipitously. “Our community used to be 90,000 in number. Now with the crisis, it is about 35,000,” he lamented. “A lot of people just couldn’t make ends meet and went back to Pakistan.”

But Aslam, who is married and has a daughter, says the anti-immigrant violence Greece has experienced with the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party played a role. Regular attacks on dark-skinned migrants and impunity for perpetrators eventually got the better of many of his compatriots, who decided to vote with their feet.

“In the three years that the previous [conservative-led] government was in power, migrants were regularly beaten up. And if it wasn’t Golden Dawn, it was Golden Dawn sympathizers in the police,” he said. “And yet in all that time, not one case was brought to justice. How can that be in a democratic, Western society?”

For years, activists, lawyers, human rights groups and international officials have voiced concern over the heavy-handed tactics employed by Greek authorities.  Refugees and migrants arriving by sea — journeys of great risk that have increased exponentially since Greece built a 6-mile fence along its land border with Turkey — have been the focus of illegal pushbacks by coast guard officials.

Police treatment of both migrants and refugees has also been slammed as deplorable. But with the leftists in power for the first time, there are many, like Aslam, who are quite sure conditions will improve. “It’s early days, but already police are showing a different attitude,” he enthused. “For the first time in a long time, there is hope.”

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