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The number of people arriving in Greece by boat on a desperate journey from war zones and poverty-stricken countries swelled to 850,000 in 2015, compared to 43,500 the previous year, according to the United Nations.
Despite the massive recent surge in numbers, however, this phenomenon of migration is actually hardly new to Greece. The country lies at a crossroads of continents and is the closest part of Europe for many arriving from the Middle East. Many come to Greece from Turkey, either crossing the the Aegean sea to the Greek islands, or by land from Turkey’s northern border. Greece effectively shut the land route in recent years when it constructed a fence along the border. For refugees, the country has traditionally served as a transit stop to other destinations with stronger economies, mainly in northern Europe, and this remains the case for the latest wave of arrivals.
Greece also lies in a region that has seen waves of upheaval in the late 20th century. The country became a popular destination for migrants from its Balkan neighbors after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Neighboring Albania, which was under communist dictatorship until 1991, was the source of most of the migrant population in Greece by the turn of the century.
The 2001 census documented over 750,000 foreigners living in Greece out of a population of almost 11 million. Some 500,000 of them were from eastern European countries that had socialist regimes before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But eastern Europe was not the only source of migration to Greece. People have been coming to Greece from all around the world for decades, seeking both refuge from violence and conflict, and economic opportunities.
Among them were an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 Syrians who came to Greece primarily to look for work in the 1990s, said Nader Halbouni, a member of the Syrian Expatriates Association in Greece. The 50-year-old dental technician came to Greece from Syria in the 1980s and became a Greek citizen through marriage.
In 1998, the Greek government for the first time gave undocumented migrants legal status to remain in the country, providing residence permits to those who had arrived in the past two decades. It was the first of a series of “regularization programs” that continued over the following decade.
“Until then, all these people were considered illegal, living without papers, without official documentation,” Halbouni said.
Between 2004 and 2009, there were 20,000 to 25,000 Syrians living in Greece, Halbouni said, based on estimates from the Syrian Embassy in Greece.
But after global economic turmoil plunged the Greek economy into crisis in 2010, around half of those Syrians left the country, he said.
Greece has been forced to try to improve its policies towards migrants and refugees since the recent influx, said Danai Angeli, researcher for the Midas Project -- a survey conducted by the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy.
But the country has still failed to address the larger picture of how to develop a coherent and long-term approach to all forms of migration, she said.
The Midas Project's study argues that Greek policies towards migration in recent years, which have focused on arresting and deporting undocumented migrants living in Greece, are not only harsh, but also not cost effective, due to the funds required to detain and deport people.
After the leftist party Syriza won elections last year, the government promised to shift its approach, and emphasize social integration of migrants and refugees. However, the unprecedented numbers of people arriving in Greece has made this task even harder.
Authorities are opening registration and relocation centers to expedite the process for new arrivals, while at the same time struggling to accommodate those stranded in Greece. Some migrants are living in temporary shelters, but many are leaving them without gaining status and are left in legal limbo without a means to support themselves.
Now, Greece is under pressure from other European governments to implement stricter controls on its borders. Other countries along the migrant route are tightening their borders, causing a bottleneck in Greece. Macedonia and Serbia have started turning away Afghans and thousands of people are stranded at the Greek border with Macedonia.
The Greek government has transferred many Afghans back to Athens and is scrambling to accommodate them. On Friday, Greece tried to stop refugees and migrants leaving the Greek islands for the mainland.
Angeli said getting Greece’s migration policy sorted out is essential not just to the current crisis -- but also for the future of the country.
By cutting red tape that holds up the process of migrants getting legal status, more people will be able to work, she argues, thereby supporting themselves and bolstering Greece's flagging economy.