The aging memory is a strange thing, and often triggered unexpectedly. Recent developments in Greece have, for example, made me recall the Geoffrey Blainey controversy of 1984.
On 17 March, while addressing a Rotary conference in Warrnambool, Victoria, Blainey criticised the Hawke government for bringing so many new immigrants into an area of high unemployment. At that time, Asian immigration amounted to 40 per cent of the intake, and Australian unemployment was hovering around 10 per cent. Blainey asserted that this sort of imbalance would lead to social tensions; the result of his contention was a bitter, polarising and protracted dispute that has left its scars.
Greece has no comprehensive immigration policy, and for years has been almost overwhelmed by the numbers of people crossing its borders, which are particularly porous — 1228 kilometres long and shared with four countries. They offer ample opportunity for crime, and it is along the borders, for example, that rogue merchants receive loads of scrap metal, stolen by desperate Greeks.
Before 2010 there were so few arrests of metal thieves that statistics were not kept. Now there is an average of four arrests a day. The exploitation of young and vulnerable immigrant girls, also very common, is a worse problem.
Many immigrants claim to have walked in groups for thousands of miles: they then slip over the borders two by two. These days most come from Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are thought to be 80,000 Pakistanis in Greece, and it is estimated that 50,000 Afghans enter each year, many as a result of doomed people smuggling endeavours.
Most of the latter group are either deported or jailed, while Pakistanis who avoid this fate scrape a living as casual labourers or street vendors. All these people live very precarious lives, often in shocking conditions in shanty towns on the edge of the big cities, and go in fear of detention or violence or worse.
It is not hard to understand Blainey’s fears almost 30 years ago, given the realities of today’s Greece. At present, unemployment is running at nearly 27 per cent, with youth unemployment, second only to the Spanish rate, at 53 per cent. Horror stories involving stabbings and beatings are common; Amnesty International has criticised the Greek authorities for their failure to take action sufficient to stop racial violence.
Very recently two Pakistanis were stabbed, ironically at an anti-racist demonstration, and were hospitalised. They were luckier than their 27-year-old compatriot, who was stabbed to death as he attempted to ride his bicycle to work one morning. Two Greeks are being held as a result. An abundance of neo-Nazi literature was found in the house of one.
I live in the countryside, where things for the locals are somewhat easier. Even if people are unemployed, there are still vegetable gardens, orchards, olive groves and chickens, while villagers still tend to look after needy neighbours. In the provinces the immigrants follow the harvests, cleaning car windscreens at traffic lights, or doing other odd jobs.
Often their plight is unimaginable. Last winter two young Afghan men were living in a makeshift store-room arrangement next door to my house. I asked my middle son to give them a piece of unwanted carpet. He trotted off obediently, but came back shaking his head. "I asked them how they were, and do you know what they said? We’re fine: this place’s got a roof." Often such people live in derelict roofless huts. If they are lucky there might be a cold water tap outside.
Even so, these struggling people are probably better off in the countryside, where the locals do not feel as threatened. There may be some teasing of the vendors who ply their wares at bus stops, but I have yet to see any acts of aggression: here there are no neo-Nazi men in black ruling the streets as they do in some parts of Athens.
Farming friends of mine were deeply touched last Easter, when two Pakistani workers they had employed and sheltered for some time knocked at their door and presented them with an elaborate cake. My friends protested; their employees insisted. "You are our mother and our father now," they said.
Later my friends pointed out that they had employed various ethnic groups over the years — Poles, Albanians, Bulgarians — but no worker had ever before made such a gesture.
Last week I was in a bus that meanders through various villages before arriving in the provincial capital that is Kalamata. I could tell the Pakistani worker sitting opposite was nervous, wondering where he was, and where he should alight. He addressed the bus conductor timidly but politely in his minimal Greek. I was relieved that the conductor listened attentively, and gave him instructions: it was clear that the man had to walk to another village not on the direct route. But it was by no means clear that the worker had understood.
However, the conductor made sure the bus stopped at the relevant turn-off; he then pointed in the direction the man had to take, and I knew then that he couldn’t get lost — it is a straight road to the next village. The door of the bus opened, the man prepared to leave. At that moment the bus conductor clapped him on the back and wished him well.
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