Balkanalysis.com

Greece

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

The Illegal Immigration Industry in Greece in 2015: a Strategic Overview

Balkanalysis.com Editor’s note: readers should also see our earlier studies of this phenomenon, including an update from 2010, an interview with Frontex operations chief Klaus Roesler (from 2011), as well as our Special Security Report: Illegal Immigration in Greece and Domestic Security (2011). For a wide range of Greece security-sector coverage, buy our Studies in Greek Security 2006-2011 on Amazon Kindle.

By Ioannis Michaletos and Chris Deliso

The much-discussed illegal immigration phenomenon in Greece presents a security challenge to the country and to Europe in general, and this is the aspect of the issue most discussed in the national and global media.

However, human trafficking is also a major financial industry in its own right, estimated in the billions of euros. The revenues and services that characterize this industry are both legal and illegal, and astonishingly enough are generated from activities performed all the way from Brussels to Bangladesh.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Could any of these fishing boats at Gümüşlük harbor on Turkey’s Aegean Coast double as a migrant boat? Traffickers have been known to use all size of craft in these busy waters. (photo: Chris Deliso)

Indeed, it is the broad convergence of organized crime, the gray economy, politics and white-collar activities that truly characterizes the Greek human trafficking industry, making it an indispensable part of overlapping licit and illicit economies for many countries- making it a key global industry today.

The following structural analysis of the issue does not consider the security aspect, which is also fundamentally involved with the wealth transfer system that characterizes it. Rather, as we have presented assessments of the security aspect in previous years, we can now concentrate on the structure of organized crime and distinguish its actors and locations, and differentiate its activities, reaching some financial value estimates in the process. Further, we will consider the other beneficiaries of the phenomenon, which include law-abiding Greek citizens employed across the whole run of the public and private sectors.

Finally, we will note the financial benefit of immigration on political parties and local and foreign officials, activists and administrators. The vital financial contribution that the illegal immigration sector makes to these groups is almost never considered, precisely because the ‘legitimate’ actors tend to frame the entire public discourse on the issue.

Since they also control the effective administration of, and reactions to the industry, these entities do not like to draw attention to the fact that they are, in a very tangible and existential way, dependent on the continuation of the criminal industry.

Illegal Immigration in Greece: Structure and Major Transit Routes

Illegal immigration in Greece is mainly characterized by its transitory nature. Greece is the central axis in the “Anatolian geopolitical corridor,” collecting and distributing Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigrant masses into the EU, through primarily Italy but also the Balkans.

The process, which has been developing over the past 25 years and in particular over the last decade, is also marked by a distinct and heavy presence of transnational smuggling networks which are more or less interwoven with the criminal structures that deal in narcotics, arms and counterfeit products between East and West.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This unassuming building, in the center of a northern Crete village housed up to 30 African and Asian migrants in squalid conditions- a tangible reminder of how the industry and mainstream Greek society co-exist literally side-by-side. (Photo: Chris Deliso)

Immigrants travel from their home countries via established land routes. Thus Afghans and Pakistanis tend to follow the route via Iran to Turkey, whereas Syrians and Iraqis cross over from their northern neighboring country.

In other land-entry cases, immigrants from further away (including North Africa and Nigeria) often travel to Turkey via air, a phenomenon aided by the visa relaxation process of the Erdogan government, which seems to have ambitions to make Turkey the center of an eventual ‘Islamic Schengen Zone.’ Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese immigrants also travel by air routes, mostly to Istanbul. (Of course, as has been seen in the last years, a majority of North African migrants travel by ship on the hazardous journey to Italy and occasionally Greece).

Networks and Transport

The first step in the process, and thus the first player in the overall industry, is the external syndicate structure that transports migrants from other countries towards the Greek borders. The major center of these crime groups is Turkey, though not only Turkish nationals participate.

In the major cities of Turkey and in particular in Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Edirne and Mersin, as well as all the ones close to the tri-border corridor with Iran, Iraq and Syria, well-formed smuggling networks quickly assemble prospective “clients” and arrange transfers. Depending on the economic situation of each immigrant, his time schedule and the number of groups assembled, a long march via trucks, vehicles and trains takes form onwards to the Aegean shores. An alternative route to the Thracian land border along the River Evros has been greatly reduced due to fences constructed by Greek and Bulgaria authorities. Nevertheless, this land route is still active to some degree.

Thus given the recent land transport restrictions, immigrants are mostly transferred via the use of small boats from the Aegean coast and, in the cases of the Marmara Sea and the Turkish Mediterranean coasts, by old vessels carrying up to 1,000 people. In any case a smooth flow of around 250 people on a daily basis is ensured, which equals more than 90,000 incoming migrants per year in Greece alone. Depending on weather conditions, the authories’ counteractions and the iron law of supply and demand, numbers fluctuate from less than 30 to over 600 migrants per day.

Immigrant Arrival in Greece and Internal Redistribution

Once immigrants are in Greece, most of them are intercepted by the Coast Guard or Police border guards. The present law requires all of them to be identified, and then to be given a 30-day temporary permit before they are obliged to leave the country.

Almost none of them abide by this clause, however, having already been well informed about how to get to the major urban centers and especially Athens. In many instances smuggling networks have already placed their own correspondents in the Greek islands or near the borders, who take them in the ‘right direction.’

Social Categorizations of Migrants

While casual observers tend to view all immigrants as the same, they are actually divided into stratified social classes within the greater immigrant population in Greece, depending on various factors. Thus a sort of ‘caste system’ exists, one with its own rules and obligations.

Once arriving in the urban metropolis of Athens, immigrants are classified according to their economic and social status. Those with little money quickly become “soldiers” of essentially ethnic mafia groups, forced to sell counterfeit products, small doses of drugs, work in makeshift garment production facilities, cleaning, tourism support and so forth. The rest are usually people who have relatives or friends already established in Greece or in other EU countries, and arrange for them to find a shelter or send them money via Western Union and similar cash transaction platforms. Odd jobs, and in many instances, small-time street criminality are also combined.

The vast majority of both the above categories have the goal of getting into the general European Schengen Zone, and just use Greece as the first basic stop on the journey. Anecdotal and empirical research point out that all are aware of the low employment opportunities in Greece, and thus that their original aim is specific countries of Northern Europe such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.

The Next Network in the Process: External Traffickers and Domestic Logistical Support Structures

At this stage another type of smuggling network comes into places: the one transporting people from Athens, a peripheral illegal immigration hub of European importance, further into Europe.

This sector of crime utilizes a thriving forged papers market (for EU-country identity cards and passports). The interlude period during which the immigrants are in “limbo” provides further secondary roles for migrants, and income for housing slum lords, providers of sexual services, narcotics and cheap tobacco suppliers for a large number of predominantly young Asian and African males. The cheap prostitution of migrant women also necessarily involves the participation of Greek male ‘consumers.’

Organized crime in Greece has literally boomed over the past 10 years, in large part due to the opportunities involved in getting access to the in-transit and outgoing smuggling networks. In Athens, these tend to be dominated by Greeks, Albanians, Pakistanis and Kurds of different nationalities.

Further, the Syrian crisis has created a new Syrian smuggling base as well. Egyptians and Bulgarians are also getting into this illicit sector in larger numbers, usually having secondary illegal sector involvement at the same time.

Also involved are ‘Pontian’ Georgians, who ironically were among the first to ‘come home’ to Greece after the end of the USSR, legally nationalized in the 1990s by the Greek state, at the same time that Turkey was making its own strategic opening with its ‘long-lost kin’ in Central Asia. The Georgians’ native connections in the Caucasus and Black Sea areas also presented ideal conditions for a small number of them to expand the reach of Greek organized crime.

Wider Greek Societal Involvement in the Immigration Business- and the Industry’s Financial Scale

It is by no means only foreigners or adopted minorities who are involved in this crime sector, however. Greeks have an essential, if often subtle or indirect, role to play to make the whole process run smoothly. It has to be noted that seemingly legal professionals such as attorneys, municipal state officers, policemen, taxi and truck drivers and small shop owners are also involved by assisting or supporting the phenomena, due to the need for their services by the smuggling networks at different stages of the process.

A rough estimation is that each of the 90,000 average annual migrants, in the past year alone, generated some 20,000 euros worth of gross labor product into the shadow economy, in both illegal and legal sectors. That’s 1.8 billion euros in all, and not even counting the vast amounts of cash (paid or to-be paid) in transfers outside the country at the entry stage or remittances.

It is estimated that at least half of the 90,000 annual immigrants manage to “escape” each generating an additional 5,000 euros per head for services to exit-route smugglers and the other auxiliary sectors mentioned. That is an additional 450 million euros, bringing the grand total of the human trafficking sector in Greece to approximately 2.2 billion euros annually. And even this estimate is a very conservative one, considering that the revenue breakdown concerns just the annual ‘new crop’ of migrants, without accounting for the pre-existing and “trapped” ones. Although the numbers fluctuate, there are roughly one million illegal immigrants living in Greece at any given time.

It is thus very difficult to quantify the true reach of illegal immigration smuggling in the county, due to the impossibility of identifying the total scope of interactions and interlinkage between the licit and illicit sectors that make the whole process run smoothly. But certainly the money involved is substantial.

Logistical Transport Support for Traffickers: Vessels and Vehicles

The sophistication and influence of the smugglers can be shown by the fact that they tend to be always equipped with the necessary means of transportation and have ample human resources. Yachts from Turkey have been noticed traveling the entire Aegean and Ionian seas to reach groups of immigrants massed at specific points, and then take them across to Italy. The same can be said for speedboats, including luxurious, ‘unsuspicious’ ones.

Of course, it is very difficult for the Greek or Turkish coast guards to identify such craft, considering that the vast majority of yachts in the Eastern Mediterranean are legal- tour boats, privately-owned sailboat, competitive sailing craft and other recreational vessels.

Further, many wealthy foreign tourists (who often require privacy and discretion) visit the region on their private yachts; many such craft fly foreign flags and have foreign registration from countries all over the world. In the warmer months, the density of such craft in the Aegean and Mediterranean – where national and international waters cross in complex ways – makes the surveillance and identification process very difficult.

Back on land, an unknown number of warehouses in both Turkey and Greece are rented for the purposes of hiding people, while thousands of vehicles are used for transport. Hefty commissions are paid to drivers willing to take the risk. The include commercial truckers, taxi drivers, and even regular private citizens.

The Travel Documents Industry: A Global Phenomenon

In Greece, forged papers are steadily progressing in quality, and are available in all corners of the country. In these cases, quality is set to match price. Also, specifications for accuracy can affect price (for example, while a forged or stolen British passport not really matching the buyer’s features might cost 250 euros, a more accurate one might cost 2000 euros). It is up to the economic capabilities of the migrant in question and the degree of perceived risk they are willing to take on at border checkpoints.

New developments in recent years involve an increased participation from the Southeast Asian production market. In some cases, industrial printing facilities in Thailand, China and Bangladesh are able to manufacture superb fake copies that are then sent to Greece for distribution. In the recent period, these have included excellent Bulgarian passports that law enforcement services in countries from Turkey to Mexico have detected- in the possession of both economic migrants and terrorists alike.

Also, the Islamic Hawala system of banking is increasingly proliferating in Greece and Europe in general, and is another indication that the “Athenian illegal immigration” hub is now the link between the already established Hawala operators in northern Italy, southern Germany and the Low Countries, uniting them with the Middle East, AfPak region and Southeast Asia.

Exact Locations of Immigrant Criminal Activities in Athens

An investigative study in preparation has revealed that particular areas of the Athenian urban metropolis have a significant density of immigrant-controlled or operated businesses. In the perimeter of the Omonoia Square and the Kypseli area, around 70% of the small shops owned by illegal aliens are, in fact, fronts for organized crime or at least partially involved in providing all sorts of supplementary assistance for the purposes of illegal immigration and money laundering.

Further, specific newly-established ‘immigrants’ rights’ NGO’s were identified in a 2011 Greek National Intelligence Service (NIS) report as being basic facilitators of illegal immigration. There further exists a class of individuals (both Greeks and foreigners) who provide necessary services: they may rent apartments, sell merchandise to immigrants or provide protection services to vulnerable ethnic groups- sometimes enforcing the turf of one criminal group against another, or against political forces that are ironically enough also engaged in such criminality.

Therefore, the phenomenon of migrant trafficking creates the conditions for a wider infiltration within the urban fabric of society, and gradually absorbs a wide range of people in semi-legal activities. That, along with the ongoing economic depression in Greece, further empowers the organized criminal groups, who will gain a tighter grip in specific neighborhoods of urban Athens, Piraeus and Patras in particular, but in other places as well.

An Unconsidered Major Participant in the Greek Illegal Immigration Industry: the International Super-Structure (Public and Private Institutions, Corporations and NGOs)

The most ironic aspect of the illegal immigration industry in Greece is that it provides substantial income for not only organized crime bosses and complicit local actors, but for significant numbers of white-collar domestic and international actors. Considering that these actors shape the official response mechanism to the problem of immigration, and thus the public discourse about it, it is no surprise that they do not tend to discuss the inherent profitability of their enterprise.

This pernicious reality involves two basic truths: the natural tendency for public institutions to expand if left unchecked; and the natural desire of the private sector towards maximal profit. When united in any common purpose – in this case, a joint approach to dealing with illegal immigration in Greece – this involves a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary citizens, largely (but not only) in the developed world, to the institutions and companies involved. This involves both taxpayer money, and donations from philanthropic institutions that are tax-deductible.

While we have seen it is possible to make basic estimates of the amount of money generated by the human-trafficking gangs themselves, it is ironic to note that it is impossible to do the same regarding the total revenues generated for the completely legal and approved side of the industry, generated in response to the criminal one.

This is because of the sheer amount of entities involved, the complexity of their interactions, and the informal nature of much of the sub-industry. A complex EU or UN program designed to deal with some aspect of human trafficking might include the need for procurement of resources or materiel, for example. And this is a process that necessarily involves private-sector suppliers, and is enhanced by the additional factor of lobbyists needing to be paid.

Even harder to quantify are the revenues funneled to actors not expected to produce any tangible results, such as expert consultants, and other ‘ideas’ people and groups. More opaque still is the notoriously corrupt NGO and academic sectors, which invariably have political, ideological or business ties far and wide, providing a money laundering opportunity for both criminal elements and the ‘legitimate’ actors.

In the general industry of organized human trafficking in Greece, there is thus a perverse sort of symbiosis between not only the exploiters and the exploited, but fundamentally with the outside actors attempting to deal with the problem. And this is without even considering the financial gains made by political parties based on immigration stances. A perpetuation of the status quo thus remains in many people’s financial or ideological interest.

Conclusion: A Projected Increase in Illegal Immigration and Organized Crime in Greece- with Ideological or Financial Benefits for All

Our projection for the coming period observes, first of all, the ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, and especially the ongoing Syrian and Iraqi wars with ISIS. This is being worsened by the terror group’s expansion to Libya, as assessed by Balkanalysis.com in this special report. The chaotic situation in Libya, which is already spilling over into Tunisia, affects the entire Maghreb and the Sahel territories. Boko Haram’s continuing rampage in northern Nigeria has also spilled into the bordering countries, which will increase trends toward economic and political stability that feed the immigrant exoduses of Africans long witnessed in Greece.

Therefore the most likely trend, with the quantitative increase in migrant numbers, will be the further consolidation of the mafias involved and their further grip on such a ‘growth market.’ In line with this, it is expected that the ‘legitimate actors’ who provide services to the criminal networks will increasingly depend on these connections. If a similar condition arises with politicians linked to the industry, it could end up affecting the traditional balance of power in the country.

We must also note that this is occurring at a time in which narcotic prices in the EU have dropped due to oversupply, while other sectors do not tend to have such a dynamic trend ahead.

Politically, the issue which has been at the top of the public agenda and discourse in Greece for several years, will regain momentum and it will cause serious complications to the newly elected Greek coalition government of the SYRIZA-ANEL parties that essentially have diametrically opposite ideological positions regarding the management of the immigration phenomena.

While the recently-established coalition is in agreement over defiance of the foreign-imposed anti-austerity measures, their different orientations towards immigration are fundamental and deep. Therefore, any intensification of public discourse or political activity from other parties on this topic could create friction within the coalition, leading to further political instability- which, ironically, benefits the organized crime sector further, as it damages the conditions required for attracting foreign investment and job growth.

Outside of the parties themselves, the overwhelming percentage of the Greek population continues to show little tolerance for immigrants and the situation in general, especially at a time when the poor economy has dealt a serious blow to national pride and self-confidence, creating an ideal condition for hostile reactions to the ‘others’ already seen to be a menace to society. In general, the migration increases will cause further intergovernmental strains and a possible significant rift between public opinion and governmental structures. This will benefit the extreme-left and extreme-right parties the most.

If there are benefits for Greek and foreign mafias involved in the trade, and for politicians seeking to capitalize on exploiting it, it is ironic to note – as discussed above – that the major financial beneficiary will be the dominant superstructure which heavily influences the country. This includes public-sector institutions (such as the EU and UN bureaucracies), their private-sector contractors (which tend to be multi-national corporations and foreign contractors), and both privately- and publicly-funded NGOs and academic bodies covering the issue.

As noted, this will increase their activities, policies and publications in proportion to the perceived threat to Europe. While it is not possible to begin to estimate the totals in this continuing transfer of taxpayer (and tax-exempt foundational) wealth, the international superstructure’s participation in the ‘immigration economy’ does seem to perfectly illustrate a wise old saying: ‘the house always wins.’