Capital Athens
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 30
Mobile Codes 690,693,694,695,697,698,699
ccTLD .gr
Currency Euro
Land Area 131,990 sq km
Population 11.3 million
Language Greek
Major Religion Orthodox Christianity

Special Security Report: Illegal Immigration in Greece and Domestic Security

By Ioannis Michaletos in Athens

The following special report is the second in a series on new threats to Greek internal security system, following the previous report on organized crime in the country.


Organized crime, including narcotics and weapons smuggling and human trafficking, have expanded considerably over the past decade and have now become a central focus for the Greek security and intelligence services. The present report draws on data and information gained from informed sources in Greece, including police officials, intelligence service officers, coast guard command, and open sources such as Greek and foreign media accounts.

“A New Beirut”?

Recently the mayor of Athens provided an interview for the Los Angeles Times, claiming that “Athens is becoming a new Beirut,” meaning it is starting to face the same ethnic-based conflicts due to the multiplication of different nationalities characterized by conflict and internal strife.

However, the reality is different. All data provide the picture that Athens is becoming a 19th century European metropolis characterized by divisions of labor and social stratums between the super-rich, residing in exclusive zones in the city and “ultra poor,” living in desperate conditions in other locales, a typical stratification of London for instance during the mid-19th century and the disparities of income and standard of living between the West and East side.

One major indicator for this expanding sociological phenomenon in Athens is the mass immigration of unskilled illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa. These individuals, chiefly working-age males, are entering a city with no available vacancies to offer, and a situation that will deteriorate even further due to the ongoing “Greek debt crisis.”

Organized Labor

According to reliable data from Athens municipal authorities, there are approximately 150 large and deteriorating buildings between Patission Avenue and Metaxourgeio Sreet, right in the center of Athens and close to Omonoia Square and Larisa Station, where 100,000 illegal immigrants are being literally stashed away.

They are paying organized crime leaders from 2-5 euros per day for “rent.” Authorities say that the leaders of these syndicates have actually bought the buildings and can thus shelter in them those who they have trafficked into the country, thus raising considerable income that it is not declared to the tax service. Of course, such conditions are inhumane as well and in case of a fire or earthquake would lead to a tragic loss of life on a large scale.

A simple calculation shows that the human trafficking networks, mostly run by Greeks but also by Albanians, Syrians, Egyptians and Nigerians, make from 200,000 to 500,000 euros per day as ‘slum lords.’

This is in addition to other sources of profit deriving from selling narcotics substances to the immigrants, or using them to sell products as illegal street vendors, prostitution or finding them manual labor- while taking from them a hefty daily commission.

The results for Greek domestic security and the rising levels of criminality in the urban environment is, as can be understood, becoming a heavy burden for the state system. A Hellenic Police officer dealing with the issue for many years told that “at least 75% of the night shifts in the Athenian Police Departments deals with crimes committed by illegal immigrants and the workload is heavy and quite expensive, costing tens of millions of euros per year for the arrests made, bureaucracy, damages done to police vehicles and state property and other expenditures.”

Zones of Influence

The scope of the issue becomes even more compelling when one calculates that in 2010 alone, some 150,000 illegal immigrants entered Greece, almost exclusively from the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Once employed in Greece, each individual is estimated as generating a minimum annual income of 10,000 euros for the organized crime networks (while being allowed to keep precious little for himself). In short, this makes 1.5 billion euros just from the newcomers (let alone those who have been in Athens for years).

It has become sort of common knowledge that organized crime kingpins in Greece have acquired hefty profits, along with political clout in order to continue their businesses. The Greek National Intelligence Service (NIS) produced a report in early 2011 that was leaked to the daily paper Ethnos, in which it stated that crime syndicates have been able to create pro-immigrant NGO’s, buy real estate and create “zone of influence” within Athens, so as to construct their ghettos and evade possible police surveillance. In addition, the intelligence report noted that organized crime groups have made the necessary “investments” by buying influence in certain sectors of public opinion, so as to neutralize opposition in many cases.

Troubling Numbers

A mid-2008 report on street crime from the Central Security Directorate of the Athens Police estimated that foreigners are responsible for 42% of homicides in the Greek capital, 43% of sex attacks, 30% of financial crimes, 33% of vehicle theft, 51% of armed robberies, 45% of sexual trafficking cases, 44% of burglaries and 30% of illegal possession of arms and explosives.

Since then, it is widely assumed that the analogy has risen to at least 30% of foreigners committing crimes in the city, in parallel with the influx of a new wave of illegal immigrants from 2008 up to early 2011.

Moreover, since criminal behavior within the immigrant community – including crimes occurring between the immigrant populations themselves – is seldom reported, the full extent of it has not been fully calculated in police reports. This means that in statistical terms, it can be safely assumed that foreigners are involved in almost 80% of street crimes in the city of Athens, and similar figures can be assessed for the rest of the country, especially in other major urban centers.

Key Factors behind the Explosion in Immigration: New Legislation, Border Policies and a European Currency

Back in 1998, the Greek Ministry of Labor estimated that there were 800,000 illegal immigrants in the country and 200,000 legal ones. Since then, a series of laws has been passed by Parliament, with the purpose of issuing green cards for those working and residing in Greece for years. This noble-minded decision has had two far-reaching results.

First, long-resident immigrants from the Balkans and Eastern Europe started to assimilate further into Greek society, to an extent (though this has certainly not prevented some from still partaking in illicit activities).

On the other hand, however, these new and less restrictive laws were understood as a “green light” for the mass immigration of people from as far away as Bangladesh and Afghanistan into Greece.

Another three factors played a crucial role in exacerbating illegal immigration in Greece over the past decade. First, the introduction of the Schengen Treaty in 2000, which was hailed as a model for free border transit making life easier for Europeans, also changed perceptions among human traffickers. Greece was the weakest link, being the closest Schengen country in geographical terms to the Middle East, thus providing a great incentive for human traffickers to divert immigrants to Greece en route to Northern Europe, largely across the enormous land and sea border with Turkey.

Secondly, the introduction of the euro in Greece in 2002 meant that a ‘hard’ currency had arrived (compared to the old drachma). This presented yet another strong incentive for unskilled labor to immigrate en masse, and thus gain access to a hard currency to send back to relatives in their home countries. In parallel, this allowed for the crime networks to establish strong bases in Greece and exploit business opportunities in a “Eurozone country.”

The third major factor behind the rapid growth in illegal immigration to Greece was the urgent need to prepare for the Olympic Games of 2004. With huge infrastructure investments in excess of 16 billion euros required, Greece needed the temporary importation of thousands of construction workers. The image of Greece as a mid-sized Mediterranean country capable of organizing such a big event also enticed foreign businessmen – hardly all of them ‘legitimate’ – to  seek a piece of the action in apparently booming construction, tourism and commerce sectors which, as we have seen with the current economic collapse, were not fated to last long.

Profiles and the Knock-on Effect to Professions

Nowadays the actual number of immigrants with valid documentation is estimated at 600,000 and the illegal population at being from 350,000 to one million people. By contrast, in 1991 less than 100,000 foreigners in total lived in Greece. The country holds the pan-European record for the increase of incoming immigration by percentage over this period.

Data streaming from the municipal authorities in the country indicate that 60-65% of the total immigrant populations are men, mostly aged between 20 and 50 years old. For the legal residents, just 8% have secondary education while 45% have primary level or no education at all. For the known illegal population, the vast majority have primary or no educational level at all.

The mass immigration movement has exacerbated the widening of the wealth gap between rich and poor, something that had already started to happen as mainstream Greek society grew more stratified and urbanized. The owners of shops, factories, farms or other services that employed immigrants managed to greatly reduce expenses and increase profits, as they avoided paying health insurance and other taxes, while unemployment for Greek manual workers and unskilled ones who could not ‘compete’ increased rapidly.

Although the immigrant population at the start of the boom was employed primarily in doing tasks that locals would not undertake themselves, that model has expanded. A sizeable number of immigrants have now either entered more specialized professions or, as in the case of illegal immigrants, sell untaxed and unregulated items in the streets or in makeshift shops, thus decreasing significantly the turnover of established commercial businesses, which results in unemployment for Greek employees in the country.

In 2009, the then-minister of health revealed a report that stated illegal immigrants in Greece are costing more than one billion euros annually to the country’s public hospitals, not counting emergency services. Similar figures can be counted in other social services as well, since according to Greek law, the health and school system do not require any kind of payment from the immigrant population, which largely does not pay any taxes or social security contributions anyway.

Money & Drugs

The center of Athens alone hosts more than 100 money transfer services. Some 30% of these are believed to be owned by Muslim immigrants who have entered the country over the past 15 years. The overall volume of money transfers from Greece to other states due to immigrant remittances is estimated by Greek banks as amounting to over 5 billion euros per annum. This is even without counting amounts generated by use of the popular Hawala system and other informal means of transfer, such as transferring money through long-distance coaches, raising cash and traveling with it to the source country, or simply exchanges in kind that transfer the value to another tradable commodity.

The narcotics contraband trade in Greece has also been linked to the immigration movement into the country, though that concerns drugs proliferation, and cannot account for the larger issue of narcotics consumption as a historical and sociological phenomenon.

Narcotics and Foreign Networks in Greece: Some Context

In the early 1970’s police statistics recorded that the whole of Athens had fewer than 3,000 narcotics addicts, along with dealers and a very few wholesale distributors. The vast majority of those were consuming or trading hashish imported from Turkey or grown illegally in certain regions of the country such as Crete, Messinia and Larissa.

During the next decade, however, a dramatic increase occurred that was interrelated to certain global events. The civil war in Lebanon from 1975 onwards, the Iran-Iraq War beginning in 1980, the Kurdish guerrilla warfare in Turkey from 1984 and lastly the collapse of the Iron Curtain between 1989-1991 transformed the balance of power in the shadowy world of narcotics contraband, and forced many networks to establish links within Greece as a “safe haven” and a country that had just entered the EU market (in 1981).

This was facilitated as well by the traditionally good relationship between the Arab world and Greece – where a certain pro-Palestinian sympathy has often been witnessed – and with tacit Greek support for the Kurdish PKK as a counterbalance to Turkish power. But this generally open relationship allowed many terrorist or “freedom fighter” networks that funded their armed campaigns through the narcotics trade to infiltrate and exploit Greece.

The situation deteriorated further in the 1990’s with the influx of a variety of post-Communist immigrants and criminal groups from Albania and the ex-Soviet states. Between 1995 and 2000, drugs felony convictions increased by 138% (according to an article published in the daily newspaper Eleftherotypia), and between 2001 and 2006 by another 27%.

Regarding drug usage, a look at more background context is again compelling. Heroin-related deaths in Greece were 71 in 1991 and 239 in 1998. Since then they have increased by just around 10-15%, partly due to state intervention that has allowed methadone programs for addicts. Of course, indirect causes of death due to heroin such as chronic diseases, suicides and other causes cannot be precisely numbered.

The prevalence of narcotic pills and the increase in cocaine use, has resulted in Greece having 7% of all sudden deaths for men aged between 18-40 due to some variety of narcotic overuse. The EU average stands at around 4%.

Further, in Greece today the number of those addicted to heroin and amphetamines is around 80,000 persons. They spent approximately 40-50 euros per day for their doses, thus resulting in a massive turnover for this illicit market. Moreover, cannabis use increased by 25% from 1999 to 2004, and thereafter has stabilized. The number of cannabis consumers in the country is believed to be between 150,00 and 250,000 individuals, with daily purchases amounting to some 10 euros each.

Methamphetamines, cocaine and synthetic drugs are on the rise, as well as the creation of labs in Greece that deal with these substances. The police have already uncovered “mini-factories” in several locations, although the bulk of those are being imported from the Balkans and via cargo ships.

The Real Concern

The real concern of the police and intelligence services in Greece today is that organized crime networks will start moving more of their production bases into the country, so as to take advantage of the higher quality of public infrastructure in Greece, in comparison with the neighbouring region.

Also, the demonstrated high number of unemployment and desperate illegal immigrants comprise an ideal work force for aspiring producers in-country. The Greek security system has introduced over the past few years new methods and techniques for drugs trafficking surveillance, along with the establishment of intelligence analysis centers that monitor the existing drug routes and those suspected of being established in the near future; the money flow involved and the human network that is occupied with this trade ranges from corrupted officials to lawyers, street vendors, night club owners and indeed all kinds of otherwise ordinary Greek professionals.

All in all, the issue of illegal immigration and several dimensions of it such as the spread of criminal activities have alarmed both the authorities and the Greek public. The authorities are trying to establish a new mentality in the police and security bureaucracy in order to deal with these new threats that, in relation to the past, have spread their roots throughout the entire society, and are not exclusively related to specific social types and regions. This makes the problem much more complex and more difficult to tackle, as thousands of otherwise unremarkable Greeks are involved either directly or indirectly in sustaining the conditions that foster criminality among immigrant communities.

Monitoring the Backlash

Greek intelligence officials are not only concerned with the immigration syndicates themselves, however: they also have to protect innocent people from possible attacks by far-right groups that seize upon high-profile crimes related to immigrants to fuel their anti-immigrant rhetoric, With a deep economic crisis, some of their message is resonating more than it would otherwise do with different portions of the Greek population.

However, these groups are being monitored by the state security directorate of the police (as they have for some 20 years now). Nevertheless, they have gained in strength over the past couple of years as immigration has become a national talking point. Despite this, however, the level of attacks against foreigners in Greece by such groups still lags behind those of Western Europe. Yet it is still estimated by reliable sources in the Greek security sector that a “Paris 2005” scenario is in fact a possibility in Athens.

In such a case, the security forces have provisions for the intervention of the Armed Forces (military police). There are ongoing training exercises for such scenarios undertaken by the Greek military in the Kilkis peacekeeping military training camp, located north of Thessaloniki.

By Land and By Sea: Confronting Illegal Immigration

In the northeastern prefecture of Evros bordering Turkey – long a prime point of entry for human traffickers into Greece – there has been an approximate 80% decrease in incoming immigrants since January 2011, due to increased patrols by the European Union body, FRONTEX.

Until the arrival of these 300 European officers, illegal immigration in the Orestiada area had increased by 100% in 2010, but has now dropped to the pre-2009 levels. This has had the effect of prompting traffickers to again take to the much more dangerous sea crossing practice. While the Greek authorities have been successful in many cases, there is still room for improvement, those involved believe.

Speaking for, a Hellenic Coast Guard Special Forces officer stated that “Greece should expand its border control capabilities by high-end technological means such as mini-UAV’s and more sophisticated sensors, and in parallel boost its personnel presence both in material terms (more patrols) but most importantly in quality terms, meaning having specialized border guards that will be specifically trained for that purpose without having to do other duties.”

The officer, who has years of experience in the field of anti-trafficking operations, also noted that the Greek Coast Guard “should upgrade its capacity to that of a real coast guard service in that respect and get rid of the bureaucratic assignments it has, especially in the Aegean, and stick to its real purpose of guarding the coasts. The incumbent government has tried to do something like this, albeit at a very slow pace.”

Months to Watch: Late Autumn 2011

For the illegal immigration issue, the three months between October 2011 and January 2012 are going to be crucial.

In the upcoming Greek elections, which most probably are going to be held in late October 2011, the security issues in the country will be second in importance only to the financial and economic issues surrounding the debt crisis. In that sense the involvement of other European security authorities is assured, due to the importance of Greece as the main Southeast European, EU and Eurozone state right beside the main axis from Asia to Europe where heroin, human and weapons trafficking is being directed towards the metropolises of Europe and in some instances as far as North America.

A tipping point in the illegal immigration debate should thus be expected from October onwards up to the Christmas period, when the height of the financial crisis is expected to be felt, along with the parallel high rise in unemployment and colder weather which will force migrant populations into the shelter of concentrated urban areas. Tensions, and the possibility for violence, with potential political and stability ramifications, are likely to be highest during that period.

After it, however, tensions are likely to slowly decrease because the recession will cause deflation, and land and businesses will be cheaper to buy, rent and operate, therefore capital will start to be invested and a slow path to growth will be expected. However, this will hardly mean an end to either the ongoing social stratification between rich and poor in Greece, or an end to the criminal syndicates that have exploited immigrants to increase their profits in the country.

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