Updated: October 2011
Greece is located in south-eastern Europe bordering the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Greece shares borders to the east with Turkey and to the north with Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania.
Main languages: Greek (official), Macedonian, Turkish, Vlach, Arvanitika, Romani
Main religions: Greek Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Minority groups include Albanians 443,550 (4.05%), Vlachs 200,000 (1.82%), Arvanites 95,000 (0.87%), ethnic Macedonians 100,000–200,000 (0.91–1.82%), Roma/Gypsies 160,000–250,000 (1.5–2.28%), Turks 90,000 (0.82%) and Pomaks 35,000 (0.32%).
Christian Albanian migration to Greece between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries ensured that large communities of Arvanites inhabited the territory before the modern Greek state was formed.
When the Greek state was founded in 1830 it comprised one-third of the territory it rules today. As different ‘nations’ received their independence from the decaying Ottoman Empire, they entered into long and bloody conflicts, justified by historical revisionism and alleged ethnic ties, over territory which had not yet attained ‘statehood’. Once areas of mixed populations became incorporated into a state, competing claims and allegiances led to attempts to enforce homogeneity through expulsions and assimilation.
When the Balkan Wars came to an end in 1913, the Treaty of Bucharest delimited frontiers, and many members of ethnic groups migrated, voluntarily or not, to nations more favourably disposed to their presence. However not all ethnic groups had states in which to seek refuge.
The majority of Greece’s Spanish-speaking Ladino Jewish and Greek-speaking Romaniote Jewish population were victims of the Holocaust in the Second World War, while the Muslim Albanian Cams in northern Greece were forced to flee to Albania immediately after the war. Distrust of minority groups was further compounded in Greece by the civil war of 1944–9. Towards the end of the civil war, due to the Communist promise of cultural autonomy, up to 40 per cent of the Communist forces comprised ethnic.
The ethnic Turks and the Pomaks (Slav-speaking Muslims) are descendants of the Muslim population of Western Thrace who were allowed to remain in Greece after the forced population exchanges with Turkey following the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. The Pomaks living in the Rhodope region, especially north of Xanthi, tend to associate with the ethnic Turks and many identify themselves as Turks.
Since the Second World War the Greek government has denied the existence of any non-Greek minority within its borders apart from the Muslim Greeks recognized by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. In its 2001 population census the state did not collect information on ethnicity. All those who use Greek in everyday language are considered Greek, even if Greek is not their mother tongue. This non-recognition of minorities is bolstered by a rigid notion of Greek national identity, closely identified with membership of the Greek Orthodox Church.
According to Greek Helsinki Monitor, Greece continues to lack policy to promote diversity and minority cultures; nor are there any substantial subsidies granted to minority associations. Although direct religious discrimination is not easily tolerated by the majority of the Greek courts, most notably the Council of State, a number of laws exist which fail to take into account religious diversity. The enjoyment of several constitutional rights can vary depending on ethnic origin, religion and language. As of 2011, Greece has not yet ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) or signed the European Charter for Minority Languages.
Roma continued to face widespread governmental and social discrimination. Attention to the violation of the rights of Roma minorities in Greece intensified in 2005, after reports of systematic violations of the right to adequate housing, and racist and discriminatory treatment of Roma in several towns in Greece. NGOs, human rights monitoring bodies and civil society activists have denounced forced evictions and demolitions of Roma homes since 2001, as well as cases of racist speech in public statements about the Roma. However, it would appear that complaints brought to the courts and to the Ombudsperson over such cases have not been adequately investigated, even though an increase in anti-Roma campaigns by local residents’ associations has been documented.
In August 2006 the European Committee of Social Rights held that government policies regarding housing and accommodation of Roma infringed upon the European Social Charter, due to an insufficient number of dwellings to meet the needs of settled Roma, an insufficient number of stopping places for Roma who follow an itinerant lifestyle, and the systemic eviction of Roma from sites or dwellings. The International Helsinki Federation found in June 2005 that approximately half of the Roma population lived segregated from non-Roma in substandard housing conditions. A UN special rapporteur noted in March 2006 that families in a Roma settlement in Athens lived in unacceptable conditions, lacking access to running water and sanitation and other basic services, while children were denied entry to schools.
In May 2006 Amnesty International published a report criticizing the government for its treatment of Roma, stating that Roma families continued to be targeted for eviction and home demolition and that Roma faced discrimination and racist attacks by both representatives of local administration and society.
The Arvanites consider themselves not Albanians but Greeks – serious attacks have taken place on Albanian migrants in Arvanite areas of central and southern Greece in the 1990s – and some have argued that they are descended from early inhabitants of Greece. Their language, related to Albanian, is in decline because of non-recognition by Greece, economic reasons and the prevalent belief that it is ‘backward’.
In July and in August 2006, Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights reported that the Municipality of Patras demolished the homes of 18 Greek and Albanian Roma families in two settlements near the city while the owners were away for seasonal work. The municipality also served the two settlements’ remaining families with notices of emergency police eviction and proceeded to conduct forced evictions. In June 2006 all Roma families of the Riganocambos, Patras district were served notice to appear in a criminal court for illegal squatting on state land and were told to leave. For some of the homeless Roma, this was the fourth actual or threatened eviction since August 2004. In June municipal crews assisted by police, demolished the homes of 14 Roma families in Kladissos, Chania.
In 2004 Albanian immigrants (who number some 1 million) across the country came under attack after celebrating the Albanian football team’s victory over Greece in a World Cup qualifying match. One man was stabbed to death and many others were injured in what human rights organizations called the first incident of mass racism in Greece's modern history.
A political party claiming rights of the ethnic Macedonian minority in Greece – the Rainbow – was founded in September 1998; it received 2,955 votes in the region of Macedonia in the latest elections (2004). However, the recognition of the right to freedom of association and expression of persons belonging to the ethnic Macedonian community (who live in the administrative region of Macedonia), and of members of the Turkish community (who, along with Pomaks and Roma, comprise a Muslim minority in Western Thrace) has been a long-standing concern that remains unresolved.
Regarding ethnic Macedonians, the 1998 European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment of Sidiropoulos and Others v. Greece found Greece in violation of Article 11 on its refusal to allow the registration of the organization ‘Home of the Macedonian Culture’. The Greek courts refused the application on the basis that the use of the term ‘Macedonian’ questioned the Greek identity of Macedonia and undermined territorial integrity. Implementation of the 1998 judgment is still pending, and the organization has not yet been registered. In 2007 and 2008, the ECtHR rendered three judgements against Greece for violating Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) regarding members of the Turkish community (in the cases Bekir-Ousta and Others; Emin and Others; Tourkiki Enosi Xanthis and Others).
In a letter to the Greek government, Commissioner Hammarberg raised concerns that ethnic Turkish and other minority associations that have recently tried to secure registration have been unable to do so. These cases strike at the heart of the right to self-identification for members of minorities in Greece, where ethnic Macedonians are not granted minority status, and the right to collective minority identity is denied to the Turkish minority, who are only counted as part of a larger Muslim minority. During his visit, the Commissioner recommended ratification of the FCNM, which Greece signed in 1999, and the implementation of the ECtHR judgments. He stressed that the Greek authorities need ‘to show greater receptiveness to diversity in their society and to take further measures that would allow minority groups to express their identity on the basis of self identification.’
A new law in line with EU directives came into effect in August 2006 which allowed thousands of migrants who have been living in Greece for five or more years to be able to claim the same rights as Greeks in a number of areas.
The treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in Greece became a particular focus of international attention during 2010. In March Amnesty International published a report highlighting the failure of the Greek asylum system to provide a fair asylum determination procedure and the right to an effective appeal. Amnesty urged state parties to the EU Dublin Regulation to stop transferring asylum seekers to Greece, where they face multiple violations of human rights, including the risk of being forcibly returned to a country where they are in danger of persecution. The Dublin regulation is an EU law that determines which member state is responsible for examining an asylum application lodged within the EU, and usually requires that asylum seekers be returned to the first country they entered upon arriving in the territory of the EU.
In September, in his first-ever oral intervention as a third party in an ECtHR case concerning the return of an Afghan asylum seeker from Belgium to Greece, Commissioner Hammarberg expressed his particular concern regarding Greek asylum law and practice. Issues include the risk of refoulement, non-compliance with human rights safeguards, and asylum seekers’ reception and detention conditions. He also added that ‘under the “Dublin Regulation” certain countries face the challenge of dealing with numbers of asylum applications beyond their capacities’ and called for a halt to transfers.
The UNHCR echoed these concerns and recommended that EU member states not send asylum seekers back to Greece, where the ‘continued absence of a functioning asylum system’ was described as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, with many asylum seekers, including women and children, receiving no basic assistance and living on the streets. The increasing numbers of immigrants in the country also heightens tensions between the host population and migrants.
The influx of immigrants also stirred up heated emotions within the borders of the economically distressed country. Violent incidents occurred as tensions grew over undocumented immigration at the busiest transit point for human trafficking in the EU. On 16 November, during the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha, local residents and members of the far-right Chrysi Avgi, a group widely linked to a growing number of violent attacks against migrants, clashed with police at a prayer site. Chrysi Avgi also won its first ever seat on the Athens City Council in local elections in 2010.
In May 2011, anti-immigrant violence broke out again in Athens. Hundreds of ultra-nationalists assaulted migrants in Patission, a working-class district of the city. The violence erupted after the murder of a 44 year-old man was blamed on a foreigner. Riot police were called in as far-right youths rampaged through immigrant neighbourhoods, beating victims and smashing foreign-owned shops.
1. 2001 Census.
2. Ethnologue.com (n.d.).
3. Federal Union of Nationalities (1991).
4. Greek Helsinki Monitor (2001).
5. ROM.O Network and Hellenic Republic National Commission for Human Rights (2001)
6. Eurominority.org (1994).
7. Coordinating Office of Minority Schools (1994).