Albanian Migration in Greece: Understanding Irregularity in a Time of Crisis

In: European Journal of Migration and Law
Author: Eda Gemi1
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  • 1 The European University of TiranaNjësia Bashkiake 7, 1023
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The third decade of Albanian migration to Greece signalled a historical change in the human geography of Greece’s largest migrant group. The impact of the economic recession and the visa-free regime for Albanians entering the European Union shaped a new fluid reality for Albanian irregular migration. This paper explores the impact of the socio-economic transformation processes on the migrants’ legal status vis-à-vis irregular status and integration dynamics. The emerging mobility strategies are conceptualized as a migrants’ agency that overcome socio-economic barriers or policy restrictions and navigate them. This paper goes beyond the legality-irregularity dichotomy, suggesting it is the multidimensional ‘in-between’ space of semi-irregular status where apparently ‘irregular’ Albanians interact with various forms of agency. Our aim is to explore how the irregular/legal nexus developed within the Balkan in the specific context of Greece. The empirical analysis draws on in-depth interviews with 94 Albanians and 13 stakeholders in Greece and Albania.


The third decade of Albanian migration to Greece signalled a historical change in the human geography of Greece’s largest migrant group. The impact of the economic recession and the visa-free regime for Albanians entering the European Union shaped a new fluid reality for Albanian irregular migration. This paper explores the impact of the socio-economic transformation processes on the migrants’ legal status vis-à-vis irregular status and integration dynamics. The emerging mobility strategies are conceptualized as a migrants’ agency that overcome socio-economic barriers or policy restrictions and navigate them. This paper goes beyond the legality-irregularity dichotomy, suggesting it is the multidimensional ‘in-between’ space of semi-irregular status where apparently ‘irregular’ Albanians interact with various forms of agency. Our aim is to explore how the irregular/legal nexus developed within the Balkan in the specific context of Greece. The empirical analysis draws on in-depth interviews with 94 Albanians and 13 stakeholders in Greece and Albania.

1 Introduction

Albanian migration represents the most spectacular case study of the western Balkans-eu migration system. Since the 1990s, Albania has witnessed the most dramatic migration flow in its history. The images of desperate Albanians ‘breaking the walls’ of Western embassies or piled into rusting ships to escape a country falling into chaos became a part of the iconology of migration on the European continent in the early 1990s (King and Mai, 2008). Indeed, it was a typical version of the ‘new migration’ (Castle and Miller, 2009) that came to mark the collapse of the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe and the demise of the ‘new communist man’ dogma.

The massive migration outflows occurred almost ‘overnight’ as the country moved from a 50-year totalitarian isolation to an unprecedented large-scale emigration. The ratio of Albanians emigrating abroad to the country’s population and the typology of this movement qualified Albania as a unique case (Vullnetari and King, 2011). Its ‘uniqueness’ is further linked to the fact that the migration flow was directed towards two neighbouring countries: Greece and Italy. Indeed, since the 1990s Albanians have been the largest migrant community in Greece. Migratory movements of Albanians to Greece throughout the 1990s were intended as temporary, predominantly irregular, and involved semi-skilled, low-skilled, or unskilled migrants. These migrants were generally employed on a seasonal or temporary basis in labour-intensive sectors noted for informal activity: agriculture, construction, tourism, small-scale manufacturing units, and cleaning or maintenance. It is estimated that by the late 1990s more than 550 000 irregular migrants were working in Greece and most were employed in seasonal work (Reyneri, 2001).

In the early 2000s, most of this irregular and temporary migration evolved into permanent settlement. This resulted primarily from legalization procedures first introduced in 1998 that made social insurance contributions a prerequisite for proving legal work and obtaining or renewing residence permits (Maroukis and Gemi, 2013). Despite this development, irregular migration of Albanians remained a major challenge through the 2000s. Since 2010, however, there has been a significant decrease in irregular migration, with detections of illegal border-crossings showing a considerable decline. This is most evident since the introduction of the visa-free regime for Albanians as of 21 December 2010. Nevertheless, there are still a number of irregular Albanian migrants in Greece, although there seem to be degrees of irregularity that involve various types of entry, stay, or informal employment (Triandafyllidou, 2016: 19). In one respect, irregular (circular) work now constitutes the main structural feature of this ‘new’ irregularity.

Indeed, Greece’s deep economic recession has altered the economic, social, and political conditions in the country, subduing both the integration dynamics and the overall migration patterns that have come to characterize Albanians in Greece. The new forms of irregularities relate to de-regularisation, return, informal circular movements between Greece and Albania, and multiple journeys either between the two countries or towards other destinations. These are now the most common types of Albanian migration to Greece prompted by the Greek economic crisis.

In addressing these issues, the paper explores the impact of both the recession and visa-free regime on the Albanians migrants’ legal and socioeconomic status as well as on emerging mobility strategies. It analyses the key findings of fieldwork among Albanians by focusing on the multidimensionality of the ‘in-between’ space created by the precariousness of semi-legal status where Albanian migrants interact with various forms of agency and negotiate their present and future orientation. The emerging mobility strategies are conceptualized here as the migrants’ agency that must overcome and navigate both socioeconomic barriers and policy restrictions. Albanian migrants are thus viewed as active actors shaping their own strategy in order to cope with difficult conditions in the Greek market for low-skilled labour and find practical responses to these circumstances.

The paper has three parts. The study’s broad context is outlined in Section 2, which delineates the methodological approach and the sample’s profile. Section 3 attempts to place irregular Albanian migration in a theoretical perspective and frame it in the Greek context. Section 4 elaborates on the main findings of the empirical research through interviews of Albanians and various stakeholders conducted in both Greece and Albania. Finally, the conclusion summarizes the research findings and addresses the question of how the migrants’ agency shapes new strategies in response to an increasingly insecure labour market and legal status.

2 Methodology and Sample

The methodology of this study is based on multifocal ethnographic fieldwork. We conducted 94 interviews with regular and irregular migrants, members of their families, representatives of migrant associations, and migrant smugglers in Greece and Albania. Thirteen additional interviews were conducted with stakeholders in Greece and Albania.

The sampling method is purposive and qualitative. Initially, the snowball technique was adopted, followed by the purposive sampling of the available sample. We visited public and private locations frequented by regular and irregular Albanian migrants, as well as the offices of the Confederation of Albanian Associations, the “Studenti” Student Association, the Migrant Integration Council of Rhodes Municipality, arsis and the Mother Teresa Association in Thessaloniki. Special permission was obtained from the Ministry of Public Order to visit the Attica Aliens and Migration Bureau on Petrou Ralli street and interview 13 detained irregular Albanian migrants. Despite the inherent difficulties encountered, interviews were conducted with migrant smugglers from both sides of the border. Employees and owners of bus services on the Athens-Tirana route were also interviewed; they provided important information on movement trends, means, causes, and profiles of Albanian migrants.

The 13 interviews with stakeholders were conducted between January and May 2013: nine with Albanian and Greek key informants and stakeholders in Greece and four with corresponding stakeholders in Albania. From August to December 2013, 60 qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted with regular and irregular Albanian migrants in Greece. Between December 2013 and March 2014, 34 interviews were conducted across Albania. The data was analysed using the MaxQDA processing software.

As for the baseline demographics, 56.4% of the total sample were men, mostly first-generation migrants living in Greece for over ten years. The majority of Albanians in the sample were men working in construction or tourism, with the second largest group comprised of women working mostly as domestic workers. The majority of the sample was in the 25–35 age cohort, immediately followed by those aged 36–45 years.

With respect to education level, the sample was largely comprised of primary and secondary school graduates, thus confirming the view that migrants involved in mobility schemes are of relatively low educational capital and work as unskilled or semi-skilled workers (Gemi, 2013: 27). It is worth noting that university and vocational education institute graduates belong to the group of the second or ‘one-and-a-half’ generations: some were students, while others completed their studies in Greece.

As for employment, 15% of the sample claimed to be unemployed. Most interviewees in this category were based in Albania and either work in Greece seasonally or are supported by family members who live in, or travel back and forth to, Greece. The majority of men in the sample worked in construction or agriculture on a semi-legal seasonal basis. With respect to family status, the most highly-represented category in the sample was married (32%), followed by unmarried persons (25%). The majority of informants in Greece have lost legal status (54%) as a result of unemployment, while the majority of interviewees in Albania were circular migrants (30%).

3 Understanding the Irregular/Legal Nexus of Albanians in Greece

The prevalent view on irregular migration implies a strategy of overcoming the institutionally-embedded restrictions to pursue socio-economic advancement (Bommes and Sciortino, 2011: 216). Based on this premise, economic migration flows tend to move from low-income to high-income countries (Jandl et al., 2009: 211), taking advantage of a so-called dual frame of reference (Waldinger and Lichter, 2003) whereby employment conditions abroad are evaluated against job opportunities in the home country (Berntsen, 2016: 4). It can thus be assumed that the income disparities between Greece and neighbouring Albania fuel the regular and irregular migration movements to the country. There is much empirical evidence confirming that the income inequalities combined with geographical proximity and established ethnic networks are sufficient preconditions for generating irregular migration. In fact, until 2009, the Greek-Albanian borders were the main point of entry for irregular migrants to the country.

Furthermore, various migration theories support that as far as demand for low-skilled, low-paying, and dangerous jobs cannot be satisfied by native workers, it is increasingly filled by irregular migrant workers (Jandl et al., 2009: 213). This is evident in Greece where irregular Albanians often work with low risk of detection in low-skill, physically demanding, and largely seasonal jobs in the service sector (caring, cleaning, and tourism) and in the primary sector (agriculture) where natives no longer want to work (Triandafyllidou, 2016: 8).

From a demographic perspective, being a male, having a low education level, originating from a rural area, and having positive short-term migration experiences are all factors that indicated a propensity for involvement in temporary cross-border mobility for employment (Vullnetari, 2009). This can be seen in the metoikos findings that seasonal migration involves young or middle-aged Albanian men from rural areas who leave every year for a few months to work in agriculture in northern Greece (Triandafyllidou, 2011: 13).

While migration to Greece in the 1990s was mostly irregular, gradual changes in migration laws and the introduction of integration policies in the early 2000s signalled a change in this stereotypical image of irregular Albanian migrants, with a significant number of Albanians being regularised even under a temporary regime and with an incomplete legal status. However, the ‘pool’ of individuals without papers continues to replenish itself with both informal circular migrants in search of job opportunities as well as with others who lose their legal status for reasons primarily tied to job insecurity, insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles, and restrictive integration and citizenship policies.

These developments are in contrast with the migration systems approach, which maintains that migrants’ socio-economic advancement becomes self-perpetuating after they have settled at a destination because this creates the social and economic structures to sustain the migration process (Castle and Miller, 2009, Bakewell et al., 2011: 6). Indeed, this static view fails to take into consideration the contextual and structural developments in both sending and receiving countries that might evidently change the initial conditions under which migration took place (de Haas, 2010). For instance, as the stability of remittance flows is dependent on the migrants’ legal status and position in the labour market, the economic recession in Greece along with the decrease in remittance flows qualifies as the main transmission channel of a domino effect vis-à-vis the Albanian economy (Gemi, 2014: 7).

The momentum created by the crisis coupled with the unsustainable migration policy in Greece has disrupted the migration life cycle of Albanians by blurring the system boundaries and their integration trajectory dynamism. The question, however, is how to explain the changes occurring in the existing migration system as well as the role of agency vis-à-vis structure in addressing such change (Bakewell et al., 2011). The available migration literature (Massey et al., 1993; Faist, 2000) suggests that it is the migration network theory that can explain the extent to which previous migration experience and the settlement of migrants in the destination country may facilitate both the arrival of new migrants and their status. However, the conceptualization of migration and integration dynamics from the perspective of the network theory appears too simplistic to explore the role of the migrants’ agency to navigate within those structures (Bakewell et al., 2011: 11). In this case, to be an agent implies being able to exercise a certain degree of control over the structural factors (i.e., immigration policy, labour market, economic conditions) that play a significant role in determining the likelihood of agency within the migration system (Bakewell et al., 2011: 12). Is this the case when it comes to irregular migrants?

Migrant worker agency is conceptualized primarily as workers’ ability to act within organized and collective forms of resistance such as trade unions (Penninx and Roosblad,, 2000). This approach, however, tends to focus only on settled regular migrants. Albanian migrant workers do not fall under this category as they are irregular and move between worksites as well as between Greece and Albania on a regular basis. From a collective agency point of view, these workers appear to be powerless actors who passively accept the unregulated employment conditions (Berntsen, 2016: 4). Yet these migrants also exercise their agency within a micro-scale context; while Albanian workers might not have a ‘say’ in the job market context because of their irregular status, they still exercise their agency to claim a position even within the existing undeclared employment relations.

On the other hand, the Greek economic crisis has activated the availability of resources and networks in both Greece and Albania. What began as economic recession for Greece in 2009, intensified economic, social, and legal insecurity for many immigrant workers — and in particular those of Albanian origin. The attrition from austerity and the economic downturn negatively impact labour sectors, both formal and informal, that once concentrated the majority of immigrant workers. Evidence refers to regular migrants’ loss of legal status due to the high unemployment rates which reached an estimated 36% in the third quarter of 2012 (lfs, 2012). According to the Labour Force Survey data of the Hellenic Statistical Authority (el.stat), for the first time in the last 20 years, the Albanian migrant population in Greece has decreased steadily since 2010. The drop in the number of registered Albanian immigrants in 2012 suggests that approximately 130 000 Albanian migrants have lost their stay permits, making approximately 29% of the Albanian immigrant population in Greece irregular.

Albanian irregular migration thus appears higher not because of new entries but because of former legal migrants’ inability to renew stay permits — a phenomenon usually termed as the de-regularization process (Triandafyllidou, 2013: 1). Under these circumstances, Albanians (migrant agency) are forced to reconsider their livelihoods and develop new strategies for responding to the new situations (Gemi, 2014: 13) that might make existing precarious employment relations more resilient.

As we have seen, there is a mosaic of migration realities and legal ambiguities involving various types of entry, stay, and mobility strategies that currently shape the multi-dimensional nature of Albanians’ irregularity in Greece. Thus, who is an Albanian irregular migrant? Is there any definition that may capture the multi-faceted aspects as well as its very specific nature? The irma concept paper places the causes of irregular migration in the context of the intersection between people’s search for a better life, market demand for cheap labour, and restrictive immigration control (Hatziprokopiou and Triandafyllidou, 2013). If this is the case, then the interconnectedness of migration policy with migrants’ strategies in the particular economic reality of Greece may explain the specific environment for generating irregular Albanian migration to Greece (Maroukis, 2008). However, in order to understand the mechanisms behind the ambiguous statuses of irregularity of Albanians in Greece, we need to explore the ways through which Albanian migrants become irregular. Empirical evidence suggests a variety of pathways into irregularity, among which irregular entry is just one and which accounts for the lowest percentage of irregular Albanian migrants since the visa-free regime introduced in 2010. How realistic is it, though, to argue that all types of Albanian irregular migratory routes identified by this study qualify theoretically as irregular?

In terms of domestic migration law, the ‘illegal’ migrant would be a person “who does not or no longer fulfils the conditions of entry . . . stay or residence” (L. 4251/2014: 1304). Under the visa-free regime, Albanians are allowed entry into the country, albeit with restrictions on access to employment. Are migrants who work despite visa restrictions indeed irregular migrants? From a legal point of view, they are considered legal residents but irregular workers.

On the other hand, a large number of Albanians cannot find work so they can purchase the social security contributions required for renewing their stay permits. As a result, many of them are lapsing into an irregular or semi-irregular status. Those who become unemployed and fail to successfully acquire a long-term stay permit are often left to their own devices despite living in the country for more than 15 years and having children who were born and raised in Greece. Thus, we are talking about another “irregular” group of Albanians, notably the “de-regularized” holders of a two-year stay permit for dependent work or independent economic activity, female holders of stay permits for family reunification whose husbands lose their jobs, and the second generation of Albanian migrants who lost the right to a stay permit as a dependent family member.

In the relevant literature, there is an effort to employ terms and definitions that allow for some degree of conceptualisation of the fluidity and flexibility of the irregular reality on grounds such as in-between migrants (Schuck 1998), liminal legality (Menjívar, 2006), semi-compliant (Ruhs and Anderson, 2010), legally illegal (Rigo, 2011), quasi-legal (Düvell, 2008), a-legal (Lindahl, 2010) or semi-legal (Kubal, 2012), to name just a few. Nevertheless, the legality-irregularity dichotomy has not been clearly addressed yet.

Given that in the context of Greece the legality/irregularity nexus is not a static condition but rather a flexible one with people shifting ‘overnight’ from one status to another, it is suggested that it is the multidimensional ‘in-between’ space of semi-irregularity where apparently ‘irregular’ migrant agency interacts with various forms of structures. Employing the concept of semi-irregularity would allow us to explore the complex and multifaceted situation of many Albanians trapped in a legal ambiguity (Kubal, 2012: 5). As the distinction between legal and irregular status of Albanians is hardly clear-cut, it is further argued that semi-irregularity would enable us to properly frame the empirical findings and illustrate the limbo many Albanians experience. Semi-irregularity is thereof used as an analytical concept to address the multi-dimensionality and blurred boundaries that the ‘irregularity’ of Albanians presents.

4 Irregularity of Albanian Migrants in Time of Crisis: an Empirical Perspective

Moving beyond the theoretical perspective of irregularity, this section turns to the empirical findings that revolve around the role of migrant agency in the issue of semi-irregularity of Albanians in Greece.

To accurately address the complexity of the phenomenon, we identify the Albanian irregular migrant as a person who falls into one or more of the following categories:

  1. has entered and stays in the country irregularly (i.e., an expulsion order has been issued);

  2. has entered the country legally, but violates the conditions and terms of entry or stay or both (i.e., visa overstayer or informal employment or both);

  3. holds a legal stay permit, but is working informally (i.e., the stay permit prevents them from accessing the labour market);

  4. has lost legal status and continues to stay in a semi-irregular status.

Based on the empirical research, this section elaborates on the main findings of the fieldwork conducted in Greece and Albania. It explores the multiple ways in which the on-going economic, social, and political crises in Greece intersect with new and old patterns of irregular Albanian migration and its related mobility. Multiple forms of mobility such as regular and irregular temporary movements, circular migration, returns and re-migration are believed to become important livelihood strategies for Albanian migrants in dealing with the current economic and political reality in Greece.

Following Düvell’s approach (2006: 178), we distinguished a range of mobility patterns that were traced in our sample:

  1. Some Albanians move very few times on an occasional basis.

  2. Some Albanians frequently go back and forth between the two countries on a circular basis.

  3. Another group returned to Albania but continued to commute between two countries for employment purposes.

  4. One group chose to move to other European destinations to find job opportunities. According to Düvell (2006: 178) they represent a globally-mobile category.

  5. Another group may cross the borders once by staying longer in Greece.

  6. Another group may come only once, but stay as long as possible.

  7. Others are long-term irregular migrants

4.1 Typology of Irregular Migration

This study identified a typology consisting of three types of irregularity according to irregular or semi-regular stay and/or employment in Greece, demographic features, skill level of occupation, and sector of employment (Table 1).

4.1.1 Type One: Legal Entry-Irregular Employment

The first type configured in typology (Table 1) refers to the employment of Albanians in Greece that goes beyond visa restriction. It constitutes a new form of semi-irregularity that derives from the introduction of a visa-free regime for Albanians in the Schengen area as of 21 December 2010. It also demonstrates how the political developments further blur the boundaries between legal and irregular status, thereby creating space for semi-irregularity to unfold (Kubal, 2012: 16).

Indeed, this policy development has significantly reversed the ratio of regular migration to irregular migration. At the same time, it has unintentionally set a framework of legal entry in which irregular seasonal employment occurs. Is it safe, though, to classify it as a type of irregular migration? The irma concept paper argues that “the irregular employment may suggest that there is a demand not for irregular migrants as such but for the type of (irregular) work they offer and the specific conditions and wages this provided” (Hatziprokopiou and Triandafyllidou, 2013: 14).

Most of the qualitative interviews indicated that the pull factors related to demand for cheap and flexible seasonal labour and the lack of legal channels to work regularly in Greece leaves migrants no other option but to use the visa-free regime to pursue irregular work. Obviously, these migrants do not live permanently in Greece but move back and forth in a circular way.

In this sense, the eu’s visa liberalization regime has served as a means to control legal entry into the Schengen area and not irregular employment. In practice, the visa liberalization regime gives space only for short-term stay (three months) and seasonal informal work, but does not provide any other employment rights. The fact that these irregular migrants have no work rights in Greece renders them a significant source of irregular labour.

There are two types of employment that present elements of irregularity. The first involves low-skilled Albanian men arriving regularly in Greece to work irregularly mainly in agriculture or other seasonal employment such as herding or tourism. As one key informant described it:

table 1
Typology of Albanian irregular migration to Greece
table 1

They are very poor people coming to Greece to work in the agriculture sector in northern Greece. They know well that urban areas are not for them. In the rural areas [it] is easier to find a temporary job.

vh, 43, Thessaloniki

These men usually stay for three months and then return to their families in Albania. It is widely acknowledged that irregular movement is facilitated by new, even more flexible and insecure modes of employment relations because of the pressure exerted by the economic crisis on the formal labour market. There are also Albanian workers who cross the border daily in order to work in agriculture in northern Greece. This type of circular seasonal employment in the informal economy is actually a significant form of reproducing the irregular mobility of Albanians to Greece.

Since the introduction of the visa-free regime, a significant drop has been noted in irregular border crossings. The empirical data demonstrate how the option of being under a semi-irregular (entering legally) status challenges the stereotypical image of the victimised Albanians exploited by bad employers. On the contrary, this study reveals a well-established rational interaction based on the mutual interest of Albanian migrants and Greek employers. Another approach that has gradually gained ground focuses on the de- or re-regulation argument (Jandl et al., 2009, p. 31) that the Greek state would tolerate the underground economy in order to allow small and medium-size firms to remain competitive in an increasingly unstable market hit hard by the economic crisis.

In any case, the majority of the respondents were aware of the limitations stemming from the visa-free regime.

I go to Greece twice a year. Once in April, for two or three months, and once in autumn . . . No, they don’t invite me. I know there’s work during that time . . . I cross the borders with my passport. I don’t overstay the three months. I do it five days in advance. Before 2010, I would cross over by foot, whereas after the ‘visa,’ I cross over with my passport.

dx, 42, Shkodër

The above account corroborates Düvell’s observation that specific micro-systems of (informal) information networks and chain migration exist within the macro-systems, particularly when it comes to irregular migration (Düvell, 2006: 172).

4.1.2 Type Two: Migrants Lapsing into Irregularity

The second type of irregularity involves the de-regularization process as a consequence of unemployment and the inability to fulfil the requirements in order to renew the temporary stay permit or, in the case of the second generation, reaching adulthood. The pathway from regularity to irregularity may be best exemplified by what has been termed “befallen illegality” to describe situations whereby migrants face difficulties in renewing their permits mainly due to an inability to prove formal employment (Hatziprokopiou and Triandafyllidou, 2013: 16). As noted by a stakeholder:

The legislation instead of putting pressure to employer to pay the ergosimo requires migrants to buy them with their own money in order to renew the stay permit.

mk, 39, Athens

This type of irregularity has been developed more systematically than any other form of irregularity in the case of Albanians. The loss of legal status in such instances is not a question of individual preference or strategies, but depends on employment-related developments and immigration policy (Hatziprokopiou and Triandafyllidou, 2013: 17).

In conditions of high unemployment and dramatic drops in wages, a significant segment of the Albanian population has been led to irregularity or, in the best of cases, to a semi-irregular status. Even when employed, the lack of valid documents along with the lack of prospects for a return to regularity may invigorate the vicious cycle of irregularity. This demonstrates that the incomplete implementation of migration and integration policies is one of the defining conditions of semi-irregularity (Kubal, 2012: 14). As one of the interviewees put it:

I lost my papers two years ago. I was without insurance for a while. In the summer I work for six to seven months . . . I’ve now found a job with work stamps in a construction company and they can’t hire me because I don’t have a permit. I went at ika to buy the work stamps but they didn’t accept.

mz, 36, Athens

Women are also subject to such circumstances, although the level of unemployment for men is notably higher. This is because the impact of the crisis on the construction sector is deeper; as a result, most men lost their jobs from the beginning of the recession and have thus been without work longer than women. On the other hand, women lose their legal status from the moment their husbands are unemployed and stop earning the required income to qualify for the residence permit’s renewal.

In other cases, the administration appears exceedingly strict, even where the migrant loses the right to stay because of an error on the part of the employer. The following case is typical:

I had papers until 2011 for family reunification with my husband and my children. In 2010, we left Thessaloniki as there was no more work with stamps and we went to Domokos. My husband dropped out of the ika system and found work stamps from oga, paid for by the employer. A year later we received a negative reply from oga, that it didn’t recognize the insurance because the employer had put him down as having worked more days . . . A paper arrived saying that we should leave the country within 30 days. How were we supposed to leave? Our children were born here and go to school here.

mb, 31, Thessaloniki

Even second-generation migrants face the danger of falling into irregularity when they reach adulthood. Until recently they had been required to have a stay permit for work, studies, or other reason as they were no longer considered dependants and thus ineligible for such a permit. Instead of being granted citizenship or at least access to long-term legal status, second-generation migrants reaching adulthood were treated like any other temporary migrant. As an interviewee said:

I have no papers. I was born in Greece. Until the age of 18, I was supported by my mother. I was a protected family member and now that I’m 19 I’ll have to do my papers independently. I applied but because I no longer had the required documents they wanted (work stamps, employer, or studies) it was not approved and now I am illegal here.

ad, 19, Athens

There are also cases where legal status is still precarious even though the migrant is enrolled in secondary or tertiary education.

I’m in Greece since I was eight. When I enrolled in the university I did all my papers as a student. I got a one-year residence permit and I renew it every year . . . I had no other choice. I know that when my studies are over, my stay in Greece will be an issue. That is, I will be a foreigner who came only to study and must now leave.

ds, 24, Athens

It should be noted that in the interim between the fieldwork and this writing, the Code of Immigration and Social Integration (Law 4251/2014) has come into force and hopefully may cause a shift in the current pattern of de-regularisation. More specifically with regards to adult children of migrants, the Code introduces a new permit category for the second generation, extending a five-year stay permit to adult children born in Greece to migrants or who have successfully completely a minimum of six years in a Greek school before the age of 21.

As for regular migration, Greece’s economic recession has led to a rise in unemployment and a displacement of a large number of Albanians, especially those working in the construction sector. The data provided in April 2015 by the Social Insurance Institute (ika) shows a gradual decline in the number of insured Albanians compared to previous years.

Data provided by the Ministry of Interior suggest that between 130 000 and 140 000 Albanian migrant workers lost their stay permits because they were unable to secure the required number of social insurance stamps to renew their documents (Gemi, 2013: 4). According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (2015), employment rates in Greece are actually the lowest in the eu (around 50%) with economic recession and austerity measures exacerbating the structural problems within Greece in implementing social and integration policies. As few immigrants had secured permanent legal status under Greece’s rigid and restrictive migration policies, many of them have lost their jobs and legal status, and therefore their basic social entitlements. As a consequence, by the end of 2014, Greece ranked 27th out of the 38 mipex countries, with the most problematic areas being legal status, access to citizenship, and anti-discrimination policies for long-settled migrant population.

According to more recent data for the residence permits issued by the Ministry of Interior (October 2015), 69% (380 503 out of a total of 548 515) of regular immigrants in Greece are of Albanian nationality. At this point it would be interesting to note that the number of regular Albanian migrants in 2015 increased by 79 664 compared to 2012 (300 839). This may be due to the implementation of the transitional provisions in the Migration and Integration Code (Law 4251/2014) which provided the opportunity for a return to legality for certain categories of unemployed migrants and instituted the residence permit for the second generation. With respect to the stay permit’s categories, there is a significant decrease in the number of stay permits issued for ‘Employment’ (12%), whereas an increase is seen in the ‘Family Reunification’ (44%) and ‘Other’ (44%) categories. Moreover, an increase is also noted in the number of naturalisations, with 56 274 Albanian nationals — or 85% of the total number of naturalized immigrants — having obtained Greek citizenship in the 2010–2014 period.

4.1.3 Type Three: Irregular Stay and Employment

The third type of Albanian irregular migration involves different forms of irregular entry and stay. Some of these are related to legal entry on a visa-free regime and overstaying after expiration, entry and stay using fraudulent documents, or other illegal activities related to trafficking of human beings. Contributing to the continuity of this type of irregular migration is the fact that some persons are registered on the list of unwanted persons (Law 2910/2001, Article 49), usually for illegal entry and stay in the country.

Data provided by the Greek police (2014b) show that arrests of Albanians for irregular entry and stay for the 11-month period in 2014 account for 21.53% (15 635) of the total number of foreigners’ arrests (72 632). Conversely, frontex (2014) shows an increase (60%) in the number of irregular Albanians detected on the Greek-Albanian borders in 2013 compared to the two previous years (an estimated 5000 individuals for the years 2011 and 2012) (frontex, 2014: 30). This development may be associated with cases of violation of the terms of residence (90 days) in Greece, as stipulated by the liberalisation of the entry visa.

Despite the changes in legal status and the new possibilities for crossing the border legally, certain categories of young men follow the ‘traditional’ routes that made up the model of irregular migration in the 1990s. This group usually opts for irregular migration, either because there is some pending issue between themselves and the Greek state or because in the past they had violated the terms of entry and stay in Greece. Most of them are low-skilled or unskilled single males or females working mainly in agriculture, tourism, the domestic sector, sex services, begging and other mostly illicit activities, such as drug trafficking.

One category that does not fall under the typical cases of irregular migration is women who come to stay in Greece for family reunification, but without legal papers. An interesting element that distinguishes this category from the previous ones is that these women are under the protection of their families; their children are born in Greece and the women often work as domestic workers. Their husbands and children usually hold valid stay documents.

My wife is without papers since 2002 when she first came to Greece. There was no way to bring my wife with papers here. I paid and they brought her to Megara in a taxi.

xa, 29, Alepochori

5 Concluding Remarks

This paper has attempted to explore the ‘new’ irregularity of Albanians in Greece and the role of migrant agency in order to see how the socio-economic transformation (strongly accelerated by Greece’s economic recession) impacts on migrants’ legal vis-à-vis irregular status. It is further suggested that the multidimensional ‘in-between’ space of semi-irregular status is where irregular migrant agency interacts with various forms of structures. The employed concept of semi-irregularity allowed us to explore in depth the complex and multifaceted situation where Albanians find themselves trapped in a legal ambiguity. It, indeed, proved to be a useful concept tool that enabled us to cast light on blurred boundaries that the ‘irregularity’ of Albanians presents and address their relationship with the structure and system in place.

Given that migrants are not passive recipients of the opportunity structures imposed by the host country, they are proved to exercise a certain degree of control over the structural and legal factors that play a significant role in determining their likelihood. In this context, it is interesting to see how Albanians (migrant agency) shape their strategies in response to the policies that condition their migration towards Greece.

As shown in this article, the expanding possibility of legal entry into Greece has had the immediate consequence of limiting irregular border transit. But the issue of circular mobility for seasonal work persists. This is because a significant number of Albanians make use of the possibility of legal entry into Greece to enter the country with the aim of finding work, thus violating the terms imposed by the relevant regime of the liberalisation of the entry visa. On the other hand, the increased circularity, as a product of legal border crossing, facilitates the mobility of the Albanian labour force and its adaptation to new, even more flexible, forms of labour relations because of the pressure exercised by the economic crisis on the labour market, both in Greece and Albania.

In an effort to understand which institutions are more involved and how these act upon decision-making by Albanians, it becomes clear that the dynamic of attraction is exerted by the demand for seasonal work in sectors such as tourism and agriculture. At the migrant agency level, the existence of family networks plays an equally important role in the involvement of Albanians in mobility schemes for work, compared to inter-group or transnational networks. Moreover, access to the labour market usually takes place with the mediation of migration networks of co-ethnics and Greek employers.

This study’s findings show that the emerging phenomenon of semi-irregularity does not include new migrants from Albania, but involves migrants with even rudimentary information about the Greek environment and contacts with the migration networks in Greece. Moreover, the consequences of Greece’s economic recession, combined with the visa-free regime and the development of ethnic networks outside Greece, have differentiated migratory destinations, with Albanians moving towards other industrial countries to seek work opportunities.

The overall findings would allow us to draw the profile of an Albanian migrant (agency) who is relatively well-informed on the condition of irregular entry and stay in Greece. Their basic goal is to benefit from the work opportunities and the relatively good pay in Greece (compared to Albania) and the lowest possible cost in choosing the destination and means of getting there. They appear to adequately acknowledge the distinction between regular and irregular border crossing, as well as the rules that determine cross-border journey and employment in Greece. Moreover, these migrants play an active role in shaping the trajectory and the cost-effectiveness diptych with respect to the means used to reach their destination.

To achieve their goal, migrants draw from informal information that serves the goal in the short term, but which is nevertheless cross-referenced, making use of informal (ethnic) networks and middlemen who are mostly based in Greece. A crucial part in this process is undoubtedly Greek language proficiency, coupled with long-term contact with Greek society. Contacts, as well as the level of interaction with formal state and civil society institutions, are far more restricted and marked by intense suspicion on both sides. On the other hand, the role of institutional and other factors such as the police, the consular authorities and the network of smugglers, facilitate the realisation of the irregular migration plan, but do not shape its dynamic.

The stance of the Greek state over the past 25 years may be broadly summarized as one where the state officially rejected migration through restrictions and closed-border policies while unofficially acknowledging the market’s demand for cheap labour. And, while this arrangement gradually began to give way to a more rational evaluation of the phenomenon, it was interrupted in 2009 by Greece’s slide into economic recession. If anything, the recession made it clear that it was the market and not the state that allowed for some form of integration given that it was the collapse of market mechanisms that reversed integration trends through the de-regularisation of a substantial number of immigrants. Under these circumstances, Albanians’ capacity for socio-economic participation has been compromised, generating severance and reconnection between migrants and their networks in both receiving and sending country as well as other ‘Western’ destinations. In other words, migrants are struggling to redirect the scarce available resources in order to rework and create more viable socio-economic terrains while offering realistic and viable responses to the new challenges.

Negotiation of identity is closely tied to negotiations of belonging. Since Albanians are withdrawing from participation in Greece, they evaluate the importance of location by their levels of association and attachment. Their belonging and future have been called into question, leading Albanians to attempt to navigate a complex web of defining factors to confront and reorient the two.


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