General information

Throughout the 20th century, Greece was a country of emigration, counting only around 40,000 immigrants from Pakistan, the Philippines, Egypt and Morocco. From the middle of the 1980s, and particularly following the fall of communist regimes in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in 1989, Greece became a country of immigration (according to the Καθημερινή of 6/1/1991 the number of foreigners is 500,000). Since 1990, a large number of mainly Albanian migrants (who make up around 57% of the immigrant population), but also Bulgarian, Georgian, Romanian and Russian migrants have arrived in Greece.
Due to its particularly complex geographical location, Greece is situated on the route of 1) a large number of refugees fleeing wars and armed conflicts (Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, etc.) and 2) of migrants coming mainly from East Africa but also from Nigeria, the Philippines and from the Maghreb who, in an attempt to bypass the obstacles put in place by the European Union on traditional migration routes, reach Turkey and then Greece.

Legislation on immigration

The first Greek laws on immigration date from 1991 with several amendments at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. Today, the status of foreigners in Greece is regulated mainly by Law 3386/2005 on the entry, stay and social integration of third country nationals in Greece [1]

According to the last census in Greece, the population was 10,964,020 people, of which 762,191 were not of Greek nationality (7% of the population) and of which 690,000 were third country nationals. Albanians constituted the majority of regular migrants (56%), followed by Bulgarians (5%), Georgians (3%) and Romanians (3%) [2]. However, these statistics no longer reflect the reality due to two successive regularisations in 2001 and 2006 in Greece (which were only partial and only accorded temporary status to immigrants).

Greece has signed the main conventions for the protection of human rights [3]. It should be noted that Greece has not signed Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids collective deportations. The Public Order Minister and the Greek police are responsible for assessing asylum claims and granting refugee status or humanitarian protection. The national police are responsible for the detention of irregular migrants and asylum seekers when necessary.

The Interior Minister is responsible for regular immigration, and the Health Minister is in charge of social rights and of reception centres for asylum seekers.


Asylum is regulated by Law 1975/1991 and by Presidential Decrees 61/1999 and 189/1999. A recent series of Presidential Decrees has transposed European directives into Greek law (220/2007 “reception directive”, 96/2008 “minimum standards directive”, 90/2008 “procedural directive” [4]). The latter three texts are a hasty and far from comprehensive attempt to make up for Greece’s great delay in transposing directives on asylum policy.

Asylum claims from Iraqis constituted 87.02% in 1997 and 73.35% in 1998 of all claims made in Greece. This percentage began to decrease considerably from 1999 (59.29% in 1999) to reach only 10.73% in 2005.

Asylum claims from Afghans rose dramatically from 1997 (0.77%) with a peak in 2000 (14.47%) and 2001 (26.53%) to later descend below 10% of all claims made in Greece.

Asylum claims made by Pakistanis have also increased from 0.11% in 1997 to 4% in 2000 and 2001, to reach 12.75% by 2005.

Turkish claims also represented a considerable percentage in 1998 (10.43%), 1999 (12.76%), 2000 (19.17%) and 2001 (14.55%).

Following this, asylum claims from Turks reduced considerably and constituted around 2% in following years.

From 2002, asylum seekers of other nationalities began to appear in Greece: Somalis (with a peak of 5.21% in 2005), Sudanese (between 1.5% and 2%), Congolese (DRC), Nigeriens (7.27% in 2004), Georgians (20.96% in 2005 against 7.23% in 2004 and 6.95% in 2006), Bangladeshis from 2003. Other nationalities include Iranians, Sierra Leoneans and Palestinians.

The percentage of claims granted refugee status in Greece is one of the lowest in Europe, especially since 2002 [5].


There are three types of location in which immigrants may be detained: detention centres for irregular migrants (official, “specific locations” according to Law 3386/2005), “waiting zones” (a single zone at Athens airport) and unofficial detention centres, police stations, etc. Foreigners are detained because they have tried to enter Greek territory without the necessary documents (they are placed in the waiting zone) or because they have been served an expulsion notice (they are held in detention centres or the waiting zone).

There is no permanent medical service in immigration detention centres. According to the centres, migrants are either transferred to public hospitals for tests and necessary treatment, or a doctor regularly visits the centre with the possibility of prescribing hospitalisation where necessary. NGOs do not have access to detention centres. Exceptionally, in certain centres (particularly those of the islands: Samos, Chios and Mytilene), the authorities tolerate intervention by associations. This intervention may take the form of material and humanitarian assistance, and in rare cases, associations may provide legal counsel. The NGO Médecins Sans Frontières carried out visits to immigration detention centres in Chios, Lesbos, Samos and in the region of Evros in February 2008. Since June 2008, they make regular visits to the detention centre in Mytilene.

According to the law, detainees should be informed of the conditions of their detention, and of their rights and obligations in a language they understand. Article 76 § 3 of Law 3386/2005 states explicitly that the migrant must be informed of the reasons for his detention and of the possibility of contacting a lawyer. The law does not set out the other rights of detainees (access to medical treatment, legal assistance, visiting rights, telephone calls, etc.). In practice, migrants receive no legal assistance, and are not permitted to contact their relatives (all the worse since detention centres are located in frontier areas far from towns) and do not have access to a telephone.

Vulnerable persons

The categories of persons benefiting from protection against expulsion and, in theory, against detention with a view to expulsion (article 79 L3386/2005), are:
parents of a minor with regular legal status,
parents of a Greek child (possessing parental authority or responsibility for maintenance),
people over 80 years old,
refugees and asylum seekers,
pregnant women and those who gave birth less than six months previously.

However, in practice this protection against expulsion does not signify a stay of detention and such persons may still be detained.
Asylum seekers may be detained in detention centres for irregular migrants for a maximum period of 3 months. By making an asylum claim (prior to or following their detention), the execution of the expulsion order is suspended until the asylum seeker card has been obtained or following 3 months of detention. On the Greek islands, pregnant women are detained upon their arrival before being freed or transported to hospital. Minors may also be detained; accompanied by their parents or upon their arrival on Greek territory. The detention of vulnerable persons protected from expulsion bears witness to the glaring absence of reception and assistance mechanisms aimed at those migrants who have recently arrived in Greece.

The police must, in theory, refer minors to the “children’s prosecutor” who takes the role of guardian and represents the minor in all proceedings. However, in practice, these “children’s prosecutors” are not summoned. Thus, unaccompanied minors may be subject to expulsion orders and detention. There is no age determination procedure and the wrist bone test is not used. In theory, asylum-seeking minors must have access to “reception centres”. But in practice, there are insufficient places and transport to the centres is not provided.

Article 46 of Law 3386/2005 integrated the directive for the protection of trafficking victims into Greek legislation, but no measures have been put in place for the identification and support of such people.

Readmission agreements

Greece has signed readmission agreements with the following countries: Croatia (1995), Slovenia (1995), Romania (1995), Poland (1996), Latvia (2000), Italy (2000), Lithuania (2001), France (2001), Bulgaria (1996, in force since 1998), Hungary (2006), Turkey (5th July 2002 agreement on the enforcement of article 8 providing for cooperation on “crime, terrorism, organised crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration”).

Externalisation and border control  [6]

The main control body is the border police, supported according to the region by the national police or coastguard. When land controls are carried out, the army may also participate in the interception of migrants. Along the land border of the Evros region, the Greek government has put in place a system of control in which the three forces of order (national police, border police, army) work together. At the four ‘official’ control points managed by the border police, mobile immigration control teams are used as reinforcements.

Maritime interception operations around the islands of the Aegean Sea are carried out by Greek coastguards, with support from navy boats in busy periods. The boundary of the area in which Greece is responsible for sea rescue is theoretically fixed midway between Greece and Turkey. However, this line is often moved according to the current interests. Moreover, the Aegean region is one of the target areas of the maritime interception project put in place by FRONTEX. The operations organised between Greece and Malta, and those carried out in the regions of the Aegean Sea, Patras and Evros over a period of 8 months in 2008 were named the Poseidon operations. The mission of these European cooperation operations was to identify vessels detected within the zone of Greek responsibility with the help mainly of aerial patrols, and controls on ferries leaving Italy.

Two studies carried out by Pro Asyl and Human Rights Watch in 2006 and 2008 had already brought to light the practice of refoulement by coastguards in the Aegean. The statements collated in these reports illustrate that in order to avoid having to receive migrants on their territory, Greek coastguards frequently chose to push boats back into Turkish waters.

Current actions

We may highlight, amongst others:
15 migrants at Hania in Crete began a hunger strike on November 11th 2008. After several weeks of hunger striking and mobilisation throughout Greece, these fifteen people were regularised. This is the most recent hunger strike, following several years in which this practice had been abandoned.

Organisation of No Borders camps in Lesbos in August 2009 [7] and in Patras in August 2008 [8].

Since 2006, a movement “against racism from the cradle” has been growing [9].

Anti-racist festivals are organised by anti-racist collectives and immigrant communities every year, over the period June-September in different Greek towns (Thessaloniki, Athens, Patras, Crete etc.).

Translated by Eleanor Staniforth - 2011