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Who is Greek? January 16, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Yunanistan.

Local and international attention to Greece has been fixated lately on the country’s debt crisis. But with all eyes on the new Socialist government’s attempt to put state finances in order, legislation that could change the very concept of what it means to be Greek is on its way to becoming law.

Unlike in America, in Greece, the right to citizenship is based not on where you were born, but to whom you were born. According to Greek law, a person is Greek by blood and ancestry. Thus someone born in Sydney or New York with a Greek grandparent can claim Greek citizenship more easily than an ethnically African or Asian child born under the shadow of the Acropolis and taught in Greek schools.

But soon that may change.

A new draft law introduced at the end of last year would grant citizenship to an estimated 250,000 children who were born or raised in Greece, but whose parents are not Greek.

Second-generation immigrants, as they’re often called here, have been fighting for this right for years. In 2008, Ia young woman named Athina Bontigao who was born in Athens to Filipino parents. She had spent her entire life in Greece, but lived with the uncertainty of not knowing whether she would be allowed to stay in the only country she had ever known.

Many second-generation immigrants even face arrest and deportation. Until very recently, Greece not only did not give young people like Athina citizenship, it gave them no special status or even the right to long-term residence. At the age of 18, when they no longer qualified for residency through their parents, many became illegal.

In one story that made news last year, a young man named Dimitris Kiniatzoui, who was born in Greece to a Kenyan mother and Nigerian father, was arrested and threatened with deportation. He was considered an illegal immigrant in Greece — but also didn’t qualify for citizenship in any other country. He was stateless.

The previous government changed the law to give second-generation immigrants the right to apply for a 10-year long-term residence permit when they turned 18, and at the end of that period, the  ability to apply for citizenship. So, at the age of 28, after spending their entire lives here, they might qualify for citizenship, although each step of that process — getting a long-term residence permit, applying for citizenship — involves grappling with Greece’s arcane bureaucracy, not to mention huge fees.

Immigrant groups are cheering the new law, which has been a high priority for the new government. But many Greeks feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone with black skin or a Slavic name could call himself Greek. Some Greek political parties on the right say the draft law is too generous, and undermines the Greek national identity.

Immigration is still very new to Greece — or, at least in its modern, multicultural form. For most of the 20th century, Greeks themselves left in search of a better life in places like America, Australia or other parts of Europe. They say Melbourne is the third largest Greek city in the world.

But the world is changing and its no longer just nations built on immigration like America or former colonial powers like England and France, that are dealing with mass immigration. Greece has been slow to adapt to this new reality, but whether Greeks like it or not, immigration here is a fact. Non-citizens now comprise nearly 10 percent of the population, most of them from Albania and other Balkan countries.

The debate over the proposed law is likely to be fierce, but it’s a conversation the country needs to have.



1. wecantlivealtogetherinpeace - January 17, 2010

Im glad I know what younanistan means – but why cant you bring yourself to use the word ‘Greece’ in your tags instead??

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