Albanian Migration into Greece: The Economic, Sociological and Political Implications


Despite its rough exterior, the legal provisions restricting immigration are not consistently enforced. Owing to increase unemployment among the young, who nevertheless refused to accept low paying and prestige lacking jobs, the state is under pressure from various social groups, including the powerful Orthodox Church, to restrict and/or expel migrant laborers. At the same time, state authorities succumb to pressure from employers who have come to depend on cheap Albanian labor.

According to archaeological research, human movement has been a diachronic and consistent phenomenon, harking back to the corroborated transmigratory patterns of nomadic and gregarious Cro-Magnon clans. As thousands of years transpired, people slowly dispersed throughout the world. At first, migratory patterns involved Africa, Europe, the Middle Eastern and Asia, eventually leading to migratory passages through the Bering Strait and into the Americas. Multiple groups settled in various locations and established distinctive and discrete cultures and societies that began to interact and rival with one another.

Human movement never ceased to continue as political, social, and cultural identities evolved and opposing races fought for further domination over land and people. Various societies began engaging in trade and with it the exchange of ideas, information, and technology. Entrenched and robust civilizations continued to innovate and improve weaponry, agricultural techniques, and transportation methods, including the development of the sail. This crucial discovery eventually gave rise to an embryonic form of globalization, the principle that discrete societies share and exchange information, wealth, labor, and capital throughout the world. The emergence of the Exploration Age, along with the growing curiosity of Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch entrepreneurs, gave further impetus to globalization.

The discovery of the New World opened the gates of migration and settlement to persecuted, destitute, and ambitious European individuals and groups. As colonization became prominent and the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries, humanity witnessed a further spread of ideological ferment and advances in technology, communication, and transportation. Along with global exchanges of information, an increasing amount of individuals from Europe, Africa, and Asia continued to migrate to the Americas, as well as other newly acquired colonies and independent states. From the middle to late 19thand 20th centuries, migratory flows skyrocketed as the global free market of capitalism pervaded the world. During the latter years of the 20th century, and especially in the post-World War II era, migration affected hitherto culturally and racially homogeneous societies. The triumph of capitalism, along with the advancement of technology, especially the surfacing of the computer industry, led to the emergence of a global village. Labor needs in affluent countries and poverty among the poor in the developing world generated a new wave of migration, leading to unprecedented demographic change in many parts of the developed world. The influx of Muslim immigrants, for example, has changed the religious landscape of Christian Europe to the point that “Islam has emerged as Europe’s second largest religion” (Hunter and Sarfaty, 2002: xiii).

The evolution to modern globalization has altered the worldly perception of migration from an act of economic survival on a micro level to a globally commodified phenomenon. The former pertains to be a significant factor in migratory decisions while the latter explains a global perception of migration flows from the periphery to the core, allowing industrialized nations to profit from cheap migrants who work manual, unskilled labor. As a result, migrants, and not merely information, technology, capital, and goods, have become a vital component of exchange that will continue to serve as a commodity within the world of globalized capitalism.

Beginning in the 1990s, Albania and Greece became two active participants within the global capitalistic paradigm of free trade: the former as sender and the latter as recipient. Taking advantage of the newly found freedom of movement following the collapse of the xenophobic communist regime in the early 1990s, over 600,000 destitute Albanians crossed the porous Greek-Albanian frontier in to Greece in search for employment and a better life. With per capita income of about $1200, Albania remains Europe’s poorest country and a continuous source of illegal immigrants into Greece and other European countries. This massive “entry and unregulated stay of foreign immigrants [constitute] a new phenomenon for modern Greek society,” accustomed to be a sender and not a recipient of foreign laborers (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:190).

Despite negative sentiment among the Greek population, Albanians serve as mainly cheap, unskilled labor that has helped fuel a boom in Greek’s economy: they are an exploited, lucrative commodity. In the paper, I will describe, assess, and analyze Albanian migratory flows into Greece from economic, sociological, and political viewpoints. Through my research and arguments, I will attempt to portray Albanian migration into Greece as a clear manifestation of globalization within a capitalistic free market. In addition to various secondary sources, my data includes observation from an on-site visit to Greece several years ago and articles from Greek language newspapers and other mass media reports.

The Economic Factors

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Greece’s history with migration has traveled an interesting trajectory. For most of its history since achieving independence from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1820s, Greece has been a sender of migrant workers. It is only since the 1990s that the country became the recipient of immigration. This change from a country of emigration to a country of migration followed developments in its economy. The small, rocky and resource-poor country could barely feed its unskilled and uneducated population. Thousands of Greek men fled to Europe, Russia, and elsewhere in search of employment. Emigration to the United States came much later, with the first wave of destitute and immigrants reaching the shores of America in the 1890s (Moskos, 1980). My great grandfather Costa was included in this mass exodus of able-bodied men.

The Balkan wars (1912-13), which resulted in more than doubling of Greece’s territory, followed by the influx of better educated and cosmopolitan Greeks from Asia Minor in the 1920s lay the foundations of a gradual improvement in the country’s economic fortunes (Freris, 1986). But the advent of the WWII and the civil war (1946-49) that followed leveled whatever progress had been made. Thousands of people were forced to take the road to emigration, further swelling the ranks of Greek migrant workers abroad. Post-war Greece experienced three migratory movements that flowed into and out of the country. From 1945-1973, nearly a million Greeks moved to traditional immigration countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, West Germany and other European countries. Greek migration to Northern Europe was a microcosm of European Fordism, a demographic phenomenon where Southern Europeans migrated to the industrialized nations of Northern Europe due to economic, family, and political reasons; the Greek migrants “functioned in the same way as a ‘reserve army of labour’ for Northern Europe’s industries and labor needs in other low status employment sectors” (King, 2000:5). My own parents were part of this emigration wave.

After years of low economic growth the Greek economy began to experience substantial growth. Foreign aid and the remittances of sailors and Greeks living abroad contributed to this economic upturn. As a result, from the early 1970s on Greece experienced some repatriation to the metropole. During 1974-1985, for example, approximately half of the Greeks that had emigrated out of the country in the previous decade, returned in mass migratory flows. By the end of this period, “both emigration from and return migration to Greece reached insignificant levels and net migration marked close to zero” (Fakiolas, 2000:58).

Greek economic fortunes began to show considerable improvement following the country’s accession to what is now called the European Union (EU) in the early 1980s. Massive aid in the form of “infrastructure building packages” enabled the country’s economy to experience an economic boom from the late 1980s on. From the periphery of capitalism Greece a few yards closer to center. Although inflation was high, the per capita GNP nearly doubled in less than a decade, from about $6000 in the late 1980s to over 13,000 in 2002 (Koliopoulos and Veremis, 2002). Education levels went up and so did urbanization, upward mobility, and expectations. Educated and urban Greeks refused to accept agricultural or other low paying jobs, such as domestic servants or custodians. Worsening economic conditions and political instability in Africa and other parts of the developing world, coupled with the demise of communism in the late 1980s-early 1990s, signaled the beginning of change. For the first time in history, immigrants began to migrate into Greece “from African and Asian countries, and after 1989, from East European countries” (King, 2000:7) All of the sudden Greece changed from a country of emigration to a country of immigration. A number of the newly arrived immigrants were people of Greek background from the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. These were given Greek citizenship and to a large degree have been absorbed in to work force (Trandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:191).

But the overwhelming number of migrant workers that flooded Greece are legal and illegal Albanians. Need for cheap labor, geographic proximity, as well as sentimental reasons account for the large and growing presence of Albanians of Greek soil. Although reliable statistics are hard to come by, the Athens daily I Kathimerini puts the number close to 700,000. Another newspaper, Ta Nea, reports that by 2015, nearly 25 per cent of the inhabitants living in Greece would be foreigners, mainly Albanians. The same source calculates that one out of 10 students attending elementary and secondary education are foreigners, more than 80 per cent of them Albanians. To Ethnos (another Athens daily) estimates that perhaps as many as 300,000 of the Albanian immigrants are considered undocumented aliens by the Greek government. In a country of less than 11 million people such a number is excessively high, threatening to dilute the Greek identity and cultural homogeneity (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:195).

Despite labor shortages in agriculture and other low paying jobs, the Greek economy needed fewer than half of the immigrant workers. What then explains this Albanian avalanche? Even though the Albanians are considered one of the oldest national groups in the Balkan Peninsula, they were the last group in the area to acquire national independence. It came in 1913, but more than half of those that consider themselves Albanians continued to live in adjacent territories outside the jurisdiction of the Tirana government. The situation remains unchanged. In Elez Biberaj’s words, “more Albanians live outside than inside Albania” (1998:13). Poor and politically unstable, the country was occupied by the Italian and the German forces during World War II. Resistance to occupation paved the way for the communists under Enver Hoxha to take control of the country and establish a totalitarian dictatorship.

The regime, which survived the death of its founder in 1985, lasted until the early 1990s. Along with N. Korea, Albania was one of the closed, xenophobic regimes in the world. Travel was prohibited and so was the ownership of private cars. Religion was not merely suppressed, it was declared illegal. Striving for self-sufficiency, Hoxha and his colleagues discouraged commerce, made illegal for Albanians to possess foreign currency, and punished severely any would be opposition. Forced labor camps became common, earning the country the dubious distinction as the “Gulag of the Balkans.” Albania’s was the last of the communist regimes to fall, and only when it did the world realized the magnitude the morass it left behind. In 1992, a year or two after the end of communism, fewer than 5 per cent of Albanians owned telephones and the per capita income was a mere $650. The situation has improved a bit, but Albania, along with Moldova, remain Europe’s poorest countries.

Under the circumstances it is easy to understand why Albanians sought to emigrate in droves. Geographic proximity through the porous border separating the two countries made Greece an attractive choice. Though political and social push factors are major considerations towards migration, Albanians migrate into Greece primarily because of economic reasons. Furthermore, a significant wage disparity between the sending and receiving countries triggers additional migration. In general, “the wages earned in Greece are about 4-6 times higher than those that might be earned at home in Albania” (Fakiolas, 2000: 67). In order to obtain higher paying jobs and superior living conditions, it only seems logical that ambitious and destitute Albanian civilians risk the opportunity cost of residing and working in their own country. Despite the negative outcomes of subsisting within a foreign country, remaining in poverty, and facing negative sentiment from Greek society, an Albanian cost/benefit analysis would remain to favor migratory movement into Greece.

Most Albanian migrants also tend to be more educated and skilled compared to the average Albanian civilian. As a result, most Albanian immigrants into Greece suffer from relative deprivation, the concept that ambitious, educated individuals never receive opportunities to ameliorate their economic and social status due to an unyielding establishment of an entrenched upper class. Furthermore, educated Albanian groups “which were traditionally protected in Albania, such as students, now seem to live on the margins of Albanian society and fall victim to clandestine labour markets and even trafficking in their home country[;] as a consequence, they experience a loss of economic citizenship which is only compounded further if they migrate” (Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:173). Most Albanian immigrants and potential migrants are faced with limited choices and opportunities which perpetuate a labor migration into Greece that “can be conceptualized as a movement of people who are part of a global ideological chain that consumes and is actively involved in seeking the new life-stylethat the market economy has created” (Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:173). Thus, the majority of Albanian immigrants are categorized as favorably “self-selected” migrants who are inclined to be more ambitious, entrepreneurial, and aggressive than individuals choosing to remain in their home country (Chiswick, 2000: 61).

As Albanians migrate daily into Greece, the receiving country is inevitably provided with a high labor supply, especially in unskilled or low skilled labor. Nonetheless, Greek society matches the foreign labor supply with a soaring demand in unskilled labor. The high labor demand is due to a sundry of factors. Primarily, the supply of Greek unskilled labor “has decreased sharply because of rising educational achievements” (Fakiolas, 2000: 61). As a result, most Greeks desire an esteemed, high-skilled profession, rather than a low-skilled job paying minimum wages. Moreover, a large portion of the output in the Greek economy is “still produced in small family firms and households which apply labour-intensive production methods, use low- and middle-level technology, and utilize mostly indigenous resources” (Fakiolas, 2000:60).

In addition, capital owners and managers employed in high technology sectors also “generate a demand for hotel, catering, entertainment, domestic, and other services, largely based on unskilled and low-skill labor” (Fakiolas, 2000:60). Other factors fueling a high Greek labor demand include the increase of labor participation among women in high-skilled professions, an increasing amount of Greek citizens over the age of 70, limited participation of men in housework, and a rise of employment opportunities in agriculture, tourism, and construction. As described, Greek low-skilled labor is mainly characterized by temporal, seasonal, and low-paying work. Desperate for employment and economic opportunity, Albanian immigrants are more than “willing to be geographically mobile and to be flexible with regard to working practices and wages” (Fakiolas, 2000:61). Albanian migrants constitute a huge portion of the Greek labor force and major contributors to the growing Greek economy.

Despite stringent Greek immigration policies, Greek employers alleviate high labor demand for unskilled work by hiring most Albanians illegally. Thus, an extremely lucrative underground economy has developed in Greece. According to several estimates, the larger “underground economy accounts for over 30 per cent of total economic activity, while 16 and 20 per cent of the labor employed in the country is unregistered” (Fakiolas, 2000:61). Greek employers benefit immensely from hiring undocumented Albanian migrants. In doing so, employers enjoy avoid paying higher wages to native-Greek workers, as well as evading social security taxes. As a result, most unregistered Albanians find themselves working in low-skilled industries, such as construction and agriculture. For instance, by 1996, construction represented “just under 50 per cent of legal employment of aliens, with an additional estimated comparable number in clandestine employment” (Baldwin-Edwards, 1998: 7). Other professions in the Greek underground economy include domestic services, tourism and catering, garment making, custodial, and street hawking.

Though significantly higher than income accrued at home, wages paid to Albanians by exploitative Greek employers remain extremely low. As an abundant supply of labor further lowers wages, Albanian migrants are only able to muster a daily income that barely meets subsistence levels. In construction, the daily take-home pay is 7000-10,000 drachmas ($23-$33). The lowest daily income “quoted in immigrant interviews and in the reports to the Ministry of Labour was Dr. 4000-5000 plus Dr. 1000-2000 in kind (meals, shelter, etc.) for agricultural work” (Fakiolas, 2000: 66). Albanians receive the lowest wages among all foreign workers in Greece. In fact, Albanian domestic workers “sometimes get only half the wage received by a Filipina doing the same job” (Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:179). Furthermore, on occasion, Albanian workers receive no pay at all for their duties and “become victims of blackmail by employers who threaten to report them to the police” (Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:179). Though migrants do become more selective as they learn to speak the Greek language and locate favorable labor opportunities, Albanians continue to be marginalized within the Greek labor force.

Sociological Viewpoints

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Low wages paid to Albanian migrants force them to reside in ephemeral housing and squalid living conditions. Immigrants hired in the Greek rural sector wander nomadically across the country in search of available labor opportunities. These migrants are often partly paid in the form of accommodation and shelter that represents a “parallel relegation to the most marginal and rejected housing spaces in cities” (Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:180). Similarly, Albanian migrants hired in the urban sector are also subjected to instable housing security and reside in poor and dilapidated dwellings. Multiple city districts are home to Albanian immigrants who habitually change residencies because of capricious and arbitrary housing contracts, as well as police suspicion. In Athens, the capital of Greece, 60 per cent of Albanians have “experienced at least one change of address since their arrival in [city], and a third have lived at five or more addresses” (Iosifides and King, 1998: 217). Nonetheless, large urban centers remain popular destinations of settlement among Albanian migrants. Athens houses the highest concentration of Albanian immigrants.

Athens attracts many Albanian migrants because the capital presents a wide range of employment opportunities, as well as a big-city atmosphere that promotes anonymity of life, which in turn lowers the charges of arrest and deportation. Many town squares within the city limits, including the center of downtown, are used by immigrants as places of meeting and socializing where various information and opportunities of employment are shared among individuals. Yet, though the capital offers an array of activities for foreigners, the Athens conurbation only provides several derelict city districts that serve as available residencies for most Albanian migrants. The neighborhoods of the districts are characterized by squalor and corroded buildings. During the primary stages of Albanian immigration into Athens, most migrants sheltered in old hotels, “in certain squares, in underground and railway stations, and in abandoned or semi-derelict properties dotted around the city” (Iosifides and King, 1998: 215).

As immigrants accumulated into the old, dilapidated Athenian city districts, Greek citizens began avoiding the areas and marked the neighborhoods as being infested of crime and poverty. Presently, central Athens incorporates “several districts with a relatively high degree of concentration of [Albanian] immigrants; these areas are also increasingly characterized by prostitution, drug-trafficking, criminality, degraded accommodation and poor-quality infrastructure. There has been a significant drop in land and dwelling prices in recent years and a growing degree of abandonment and de-gentrification in these districts” (Iosifides and King, 1998:209). The majority of the Greeks blame the sharp increase in crime on the Albanians. These have contributed to a widespread negative Greek sentiment towards migrants in Athens as well as the rest of the country.

Due to a perceived cultural identity threat, Albanian immigrants suffer from stigmatization. In all forms and expressions, Greek citizens have developed a perception of the migrants that promotes a national identity that “is about ‘Us and Them’; it creates boundaries which distinguish the in-group, the national community, from those outside, the foreigners” (Triandafyllidou, 2000:188). Many Greek civilians believe that Albanian migrants impinge on the Greek social fabric and Hellenic identity. Since the Greek national community “is primarily ‘imagined,’ its reality lies in its members’ perceptions of the vitality of their culture and their common belonging. Immigrants who do not share the cultural and identity codes of the nation pose a threat to it” (Triandafyllidou, 2000:189). Albanian migrants are looked down upon and heavily scrutinized. Even an ethnic Greek-Albanian woman residing in Athens described Albanian immigrants as “‘uncivilized, barbarians[;] they steal, lie, and cheat” ( Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:179). Albanian migrants are not only socially excluded from Greek society, but are also confronted with national negative sentiment and even dislike.

Albanian immigrants interact with Greek civilians who tend to be suspicious of foreigners. During a past visit to Athens, I spotted the harsh treatment of Albanians while lodging at a suburban hotel. Several Albanian women worked in the hotel’s cleaning service. As I keenly observed the women work, I repeatedly noticed them enduring negative criticism and disrespect when encountering hotel customers. Yet, the Albanian workers would never respond to the harsh comments and treatment; they merely remained silent and followed orders. Even more significantly, I noticed that while the women were not logged on the time card, they had completely disappeared from the hotel’s premises and surrounding areas. My own eyewitness observations not only confirm Greek resentment toward Albanians, but also that the migrants experience social isolation from the Greek society.

In order to endure marginalization from Greek civilians, Albanian immigrants have formed social networks. The building and reinforcement of networks “are crucial for the individual’s survival, [especially] as an illegal immigrant” (Iosifides and King, 2000: 218). Stemming from chain migration, social bonding provides Albanian migrants with a sense of community, an increase of social capital, alleviation from economic and health problems, and easier access to employment. Furthermore, social networks serve as strong protection from the police. Despite residing in areas of high criminality, “residential groupings of immigrants offer security and respond more successfully in cases of emergency” (Iosidides and King, 2000:218). Social networks allow Albanians to escape the reality of negative Greek sentiment and mistreatment. To many Greeks these networks are nothing more than nests of crime.

Though social networking enables migrants to temporarily lessen the perils of racism and discrimination, it reinforces marginalization. Social exclusion is not only fostered by differences in Greek and Albanian residencies, but “also in the destruction of Albanians’ ability to establish and maintain networks of consumption and ethnic communication” (Lazaridis and Psimmenos, 2000:178). As a result, Albanian immigrants have failed to properly assimilate into Greek society. In addition to futile attempts of assimilation, the growing Greek perception of Albanians as ‘criminals’ has sparked police raids on the migrants’ places of residence and accommodation, especially in Athens. The Athenian police have recently started a campaign to criminalize Albanians’ rights to private-home ownership. Furthermore, deportations of illegal Albanian migrants have risen annually. The removal of Albanian immigrants “ can also be seen as part of a wider strategy to regenerate the center of Athens. The view of migrants as ‘polluters of the city’ reflects the new stratification politics of urban centers, in which the migrant is ‘swept under the carpet’ in an attempt to create a city without any visible signs of migrant presence (Iosifides and King, 2000:178).

State Response and Concluding Remarks

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Owing to its lack of experience with immigration, the Greek state was caught unprepared to deal with the phenomenon. The fact that citizenship in Greece is based on ethnic and not civic considerations, further complicate the state’s response. Eventually, the government passed laws aiming to restrict immigration and set working-permit conditions. The first law on immigration was passed in 1994, and “its main objective has been to prevent the entry of undocumented immigrants and to facilitate the expulsion of those already present by simplifying expulsion procedures” (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:196). In 1997, a new law was adopted outlining the conditions and requirements for the issuing of working permits. The 1997 law provides for two types of permits. The White Card, which is a 6-month, renewable working permit, and it is issued to those who can demonstrate that they have “a potential work contact with a specific employer” (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:196). The Green Card is a five-year renewable permit given to a foreign worker who can prove that “he/she has been in Greece for five years and has the necessary means to sustain himself/herself” (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:197). Although the law protects family members from expulsion, it does not recognize any political or other rights to foreign workers and makes no provisions for citizenship. After 15 years of residence (excluding years of study) and ten years of social insurance contributions, a permit of indefinite duration can be granted. By opting for a policy of “ethnic preferences,” the Greek state has put citizenship beyond the reach of Albanian and other migrant workers (Triandafyllidou and Veikou, 2002:203). These indicate that the state “is still unclear how it wishes to deal with immigration” (Baldwin Edwards and Fakiolas, 1998:200).

Despite its rough exterior, the legal provisions restricting immigration are not consistently enforced. Owing to increase unemployment among the young, who nevertheless refused to accept low paying and prestige lacking jobs, the state is under pressure from various social groups, including the powerful Orthodox Church, to restrict and/or expel migrant laborers. At the same time, state authorities succumb to pressure from employers who have come to depend on cheap Albanian labor. The porous Greek-Albanian frontier and lax enforcement of laws makes it possible for those expelled to be return in a few days, and new migrants to join them. Lazaridis and Psimmenos capture the essence of this bifurcated state behavior as follows: “The migrant is transformed into ‘an experimental agent’ who, unable to control his/her economic environment, becomes part of a globalized unification process ‘free’ of community union or skill constraints. In other words, migration is the political experience of both the shrinking social rights and of the modification of labor into a power container that functions according to world market necessities” (2000:173). The Albanian migrant workers in Greece exemplify the point that globalized capitalism has turned labor in to a globally commodified commodity.

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Chiswick, Barry R. (2000): “Are Immigrants Favorably Self Selected: An Economic Analysis,” in Caroline B. Brettell and James F. Hollifield (eds.): Migration Theory: Talking about Disciplines, New York: Routledge, pp. 61-77.

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Eldorado or Fortress? Migration in Southern Europe, New York: St. Martins Press, Inc., pp. 57-79.

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Triandafyllidou, Anna and Mariangela Veikou (2002): “The hierarchy of Greekness-Ethnic and national identity consideration in Greek immigration policy,” Ethnicities 2:2, pp. 189-208.