MENA • Assessing the integration of Syrian refugees in Greece: A human perspective

Immigration is imprinted in the Greek national DNA. Greeks massively left their impoverished country in the 1900s and 1960s, fled pogroms in Asia Minor in the 1920s and were self-exiled to escape an illiberal regime. In national consciousness and family histories, experiences of migration, hardships of integration and hopes for a better future are ubiquitous. Yet, it was not until very recently that Greece was transformed from a country of migration to one of massive immigration. Although immigrants and refugees mainly from Eastern Europe, Albania, Pakistan and Afghanistan crossed the border, legally or illegally, since the 1990s, the 2015 refugee crisis has been characterized by an unprecedented population influx which has caught the state off-guard. Since January 2015, 1.03 million asylum seekers have entered Greece. An estimated 62,000 have remained according to government agencies. More than 434 are reported dead or missing. The majority arrive on the Greek islands near the Turkish border from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of international organizations and a myriad of volunteers, the Greek state faces shortages in staff and resources. It is difficult for it to respond to the humanitarian crisis: rescuing refugee ships in distress, welcoming and accommodating their passengers, securing borders and screening asylum applications are only some of the urging tasks that are incumbent upon the overwhelmed Greek authorities. While the E.U. has committed 12.3 billion euros for the refugee crisis, funding is not enough. Help with the on-location management of the situation is necessary to relieve southern European states. The merits and shortcomings of policies immediately after refugees reach the gate to Europe have been widely mediatized. Images of overcrowded plastic boats have filled newspapers and TV news. But what is often sidelined is what happens after. Which is also all the more crucial. Successful integration is vital not only for the well-being of refugees but also to avoid economic, social and political risks in the country of entry. In assessing the quality of integration, it is important to go beyond a state-centric analysis and focus on the experiences of the people who are asked to start a new life, learn a new language and enter a competitive job market in an unfamiliar society. In an effort to get closer to the refugee perspective on integration, we interviewed Samir Tohmé, a psychologist providing counselling to refugees and migrants at the Babel Day Center in Athens. Based on his experience with his patients, Mr. Thomé describes the problems of integration as refugees encounter them.

Seeking psychological help: “Physical wounds are treated as soon as refugees reach Greece, but psychological suffering remains and is often overlooked”

Mr. Thomé recounts the process of seeking mental help. He states that it is often the international or volunteer organizations welcoming refugees that urge them to visit Babel. Once the refugee decides to pursue professional help, a meeting is held with a social worker. He or she explains the background of the patient. Based on that, they assign him to a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Meetings are held in Arabic, English or French. Often, a translator is required but this adds additional challenges: it is hard to find translators for rare African or Middle-Eastern dialects.  Most of the patients are adults from Syria. Some are children, 3 or 4 years old. Most come from the middle class with the exception of a few doctors and academics. Most suffer from PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares and express psychosomatic symptoms such as month-long migraines. Our interviewee could not stress enough the vitality of mental support. He cited the example of a Syrian male who attempted suicide 16 times. 15 with pills, the 16th by cutting himself. And this is not a unique cases, he adds. On top of that, while he states that Greeks have been largely tolerant and eager to help, racism is still very present, heightening psychological suffering. A Muslim woman says they spat on her face because she was wearing a hijab. Another young man swears he would never bring his fiancée with him. “I would prefer her to die in Syria than to live here humiliated”.

“It’s a matter of will, political and personal”

“Integration is a complex process of interaction between the polity and the individual”, Mr. Tohmé reminds us. Most of the refugees who reach Greece do not want to remain. They wish to continue their long journey to the more prosperous northern European countries where employment opportunities are not as bleak. The motivation to integrate in Greece is thus not always strong since Greece is seen only as a transitory destination. On the other hand, the state also needs to realize that- especially given the unequal distribution of refugees across the E.U. – most refugees are here to stay and that to reap the demographic, economic and socio-cultural advantages of immigration a stronger integrational program is required.

Learning the language: the first step towards socio-professional integration

Language is the vehicle of communication. “It is essential that refugees learn Greek. Adults need to be able to find employment with accommodated hours that allow them to follow Greek classes, while children need to enroll in obligatory schooling”. Mr. Tohmé emphasized the need to teach younger generations their native languages, at home and at school. “You can’t just erase one’s native language. It’s a part of your personal identity. Culture, religion, know-how… All these are transmitted and visible through language. For my patients, it is an important factor of integration, just like learning Greek, because your culture is accepted.”

Entering a depressed job market: exploitation and opportunity

Mr. Tohmé lists the obstacles to finding employment: a high unemployment rate, the language barrier, lack of certifications and racism are the main ones. The majority of refugees remain unemployed, even those who hold higher education diplomas and speak foreign languages. The few that do work in agriculture, restaurants or as domestic help. He highlights the exploitation on the job market as many, in a situation of distress, accept jobs with very high health risk, very long hours and little pay. Some turn to work agencies which ask a 200 euro fee to find them jobs with considerably lower returns. He cites the example of a Syrian woman working as a cleaning lady in a hospital. She is paid 5 euros for a 10 hour shift. Another male, typical of many more, confides how he needs to cover rent and food expenses with 200 euros a month. With no income, many are undernourished with grave health repercussions.

Housing: avoiding ghettoization

Unemployment or low wages means homelessness or precarious housing. Typically, his patients live in basements with no windows, no electricity, non-functioning bathrooms, lots of humidity all for an average rent of 150 euros, a high price for a country with generally low rents. Sometimes, landlords threaten eviction if renters do not pay for the damages themselves. But housing is crucial for integration. It is necessary to find affordable housing options in various locations to avoid the risk of ghettoization and discrimination based on geographic location.

What can be done?

What we can conclude from these cases is the importance of integration through language, education, employment and housing. Mandatory Greek-language classes and schooling, adequate training for teachers and the inclusion of Arabic as a foreign language are some of the reforms needed in education. For a more successful integration in the labor market, the state needs to recognize formal and informal qualifications of refugees so that their jobs correspond to their skills, which will also benefit the economy as a whole. It is also crucial to end exploitation through tougher controls and non-discrimination. Decent housing should be made more affordable to prevent homelessness and segregation. Of course, we should not forget that the Greek economy has been depressed for the last 10 years. Additional funding from the E.U. is therefore imperative in order to guarantee the protection of the refugee’s basic rights and a life of dignity.

Article written by  Vassiliki MALOUCHOU 



[1] Howden, Daniel. “Between Deterrence and Integration”. Refugees Deeply Quarterly. May 2017. Web. Accessed July 19th 2017.

[2] Amnesty International. ‘Annual Report: Greece 2016/2017’. 2017. Web. Accessed July 20th 2017.


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