A recently published survey (March 2019) by the well-known Pew Institute shows that Greeks are among the first three places in almost every category of those who hold negative views about immigrants. 74 per cent think that immigrants are more of a burden than a strong element of the society (1st); 63 per cent say that immigrants are not willing to integrate (3rd); 59 per cent say immigrants are to be blamed for criminality (2nd); 65 per cent say that immigrants are increasing the risk for terrorism (2nd); and 86 per cent say that all immigrants living in Greece illegally should be deported (1st). There have been other studies as well showing that large parts of the Greek population hold xenophobic, Islamophobic and, of course, anti-Semitic views. However, being in the field for a research on Muslims in Greece I have been repeatedly and almost unanimously told by Muslims themselves that Greeks are not racist and xenophobic despite the existence of some exceptions found among politicians and Church officials. My respondents have agreed on the fact that some parts of the population hold stereotypical xenophobic views about foreigners but this does not refer to the vast majority of the society. Further to that they have argued that Greek people are not Islamophobic, although they acknowledge their lack of knowledge on Islam. So, where the truth lies?
From the evidence available it comes out that large numbers of Greeks indeed hold negative, to put it mildly, views about immigrants and refugees. On the other hand my informants since they do not constitute a representative sample could be of those not experienced such discriminatory attitudes in their everyday lives. Nevertheless the question is still valid: Are Greeks racist and xenophobic? The waves of immigrants and refugees that arrived in Greece in the summer of 2015 showed the humanitarian face of Greek society as everyone accepted. But this phenomenon was considered to be short and as we sociologists know a phenomenon might be treated differently by those experiencing it based on its duration. That means that since many people believed that the incoming refugees were not willing to stay in Greece and wished to move to other destinations the response could not but have been positive and humanitarian. When the road to Europe closed and many refugees were blocked in Greece together with further arrivals and the currently existing immigrants from the 1990s and the 2000s this changed the context and the circumstances. Apart from that one should not forget the xenophobic reactions against the Albanians and other immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1990s including some violent attacks against them, a situation also observed nowadays against immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
So, where do we move from here? Does that make us answer the initial question affirmatively? I would dare to argue that putting a label to whole societies and peoples does not make us wiser. Racists and xenophobes or anti-Semites and Islamophobes are found in all countries and in every human society. Our work is to understand the reasons behind such views and practices and try to explain (not justify) them so that we may be able to make some suggestions in order to minimize such behavior. On the other hand, when this kind of data comes to light we need to hear the bell ringing. How come Greeks became so xenophobic scoring such high rates in these polls? How Greeks who populated so many countries as immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century have become so negative against the ‘other’? From Australia to Germany and from Belgium to the United States Greek families have at least one relative or friend having experienced immigration and this makes it hard to believe that now they are afraid of ‘the different’. Moreover, because as recent historical and archival studies show, Greeks have also experienced xenophobia and racism during their stay in their host countries at least in the first years.
Going back to the beginning it could be said that Greeks are not racist and xenophobic. There are indeed Greeks -probably many- who hold racist and xenophobic views and there are also Greeks whose behavior and attitudes are racist and in many cases dangerous for the society overall. Generalizations are dangerous and counter-productive, but on the other hand putting our heads in the sand when such data becomes public does not solve the problem and does not change the fact that more attention needs to be paid especially with regard to younger generations.
(Alexandros Sakellariou teaches sociology at the Hellenic Open University (Special Issues of European Civilisation) and he is also a post-doctoral researcher at Panteion University of Athens studying the Forms of atheism in contemporary Greek society and an Associate Professor of Sociology)