Musicians in Athens. Photo: Ozan Hatipoglu

A constant state of precariousness

Having the correct documents or not – that is what African migrants in Greece are most concerned about. Their future depends on it. Without the paper work in order, they can never get a formal job and a steady income, or go back and forth between Greece and their home country.

NAI researcher Knut Graw recently undertook fieldwork in Greece to research the situation of African migrants living there. Last year he was in Spain on a similar mission. Both countries have recently experienced huge economic crises, although in Spain there is light at the end of the tunnel. Greece is still heading downward. Economic recession is naturally devastating for the inhabitants, and perhaps even more so for migrants. In some cases, Graw discovered, relatives in African countries have sent money to migrants in Europe, whereas the whole point of migrating is quite the reverse.

Knut Graw

“The fact that there is an economic crisis in Europe has not taken root in Africa yet. Expectations are still high that a life in Europe can improve the situation of both the migrant and the family back home. One migrant said he had told his parents he wanted to come home, but they convinced him to stay and wait for better times,” Graw remarks.

History of emigration
Even though economic hardship in Greece is taking a toll on citizens, people don’t blame the migrants for aggravating the situation, as appears to be the case in several other European countries. Many Greek families have members who left to work abroad during 1960s and 1970s when times were hard, which means that the necessity of migration is still a fresh collective memory in Greece.

“Another factor is that the Greeks know that migrants don’t come to stay there. For the majority, it’s just a transit point on their way to Germany, Sweden or the UK. Meanwhile in Greece, the migrant’s situation is one of constant precariousness,” Graw adds.

Conversations about documents
Many have left Greece already, Graw was told during his fieldwork. Those who remain are stuck because they don’t have their paperwork in order, or only have permission to be in Greece. This has increased the black market for forged IDs, travel and residential permits. And it’s almost always the migrants who find themselves at the wrong end of the transaction ‒ either they have to pay big sums of money or run the risk of being scammed.
“Today, this is what conversations among migrants are about – having already got, or trying to get the correct papers. Also when they talk about their future aspirations, a job and a steady income, it all depends on whether they have papers or not,” Graw notes.

The whole issue of undocumented migrants is fairly new in Europe. Graw has talked to African migrants who arrived 20 years ago. Back then it was easier to travel, and often without visas. More importantly, they could go back home when they had earned enough – and still have a chance to return later. Now it is difficult to get into Europe, and migrants know they will probably have only one chance of doing so and therefore need to persist until they succeed.

Result of bureaucracy
Migrants’ current troubles with documents have largely been created by European administrations, according to Graw. During previous fieldwork in the Canary Islands, he discovered that African migrants arriving in boats were first placed in refugee camps for a few days. Later, they were flown to the Spanish mainland to undergo proper asylum processing. If their refugee status wasn’t approved, they simply got a note saying ‘please leave the country.’ There was no repatriation and thus those staying illegally did so as a result of the actions of the Spanish bureaucracy.  

“In general, we know very little about migration, apart from people's routes. What happens thereafter is not much reported. We need time to undertake the research. As a researcher, it is crucial to build trust with the migrants. Otherwise, the researcher will only hear the stories the migrants are willing to tell and have an interest in telling, or stories they believe the researcher wants to hear. If you do not spend enough time with your interlocutors, and do not stay long enough where things are happening, our understanding will always remain superficial,” Graw concludes.

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