Seasonal worker visas to give Bangladeshi migrants 'dignity'
Athens, Aug 29: It has been around six months since Bangladesh and Greece signed an agreement to grant temporary work visas for Greece to 4,000 Bangladeshi nationals each year. Under the same scheme, as many as 15,000 undocumented Bangladeshis already working in Greece will have their status legalized.
In an exclusive interview with InfoMigrants in Athens, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the scheme, which will begin this fall, will provide legal pathways for people to come to Greece without relying on people smugglers.
'Strict but fair' migration policy
As many as 30,000 Bangladeshis currently live in Greece, according to the Bangladesh embassy in Athens. About half of them are believed to be without legal status.
The deal is aimed at preventing Bangladeshi migrants from making risky sea journeys to the Greek islands, or trying to cross the land border with Turkey in the northeastern Evros region.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey over migration have escalated in recent weeks, with Athens claiming that Turkish security forces are pushing migrants into Greek territory, and blaming Turkey for using them as a political weapon.
Greece has argued that it has the right to decide who is allowed to come to the country, and the seasonal worker visa scheme, which is confined to the agricultural sector for now, is said to be in line with the policy Athens describes as "strict but fair."
"Greece does not accept illegal migration," Mitarachi told InfoMigrants. "We protect our borders. We do not allow smugglers to select who comes to Europe."
'Visa offers dignity'
The minister said the scheme will allow migrants from Bangladesh to come to Greece to work and earn money to support their families. Bangladeshi migrants currently send home about €100 million in remittances from Greece.
4,000 new seasonal permits will be issued on an annual basis, allowing the visa holder to work in Greece for five consecutive years, for up to nine months each year. This means the migrant has to leave the country for three months.
The conditions will be the same for undocumented Bangladeshi migrants who receive regular status. They will be allowed to stay in Greece for five years as seasonal workers, doing agricultural work for up to nine months.
Mitarachi says Greece is the first European country to provide a long-term seasonal visa, offering migrants security and "dignity".
"(The visa) allows both the employer to invest in training people, and also for the employee to have the certainty, that for a period of five years he has the same job with the same employer in the same country," Mitarachi said.
No permanent relocation
After five years, the migrants must leave Greece, and there are no plans to extend the time-limit. The minister said it was important that this "human capital" returns to their home country – he did not address the possibility that they might travel to third countries in the European Union.
"It's a program for people that want to leave legally from Bangladesh, come to the European Union, gain experience, make money, work in a different environment, but maintain their social family links to the country of origin and eventually return back to their country," Mitarachi said, adding: "This is not a permanent relocation program."
That has caused concern among some Bangladeshi migrants in Greece, who told InfoMigrants that the deal does not provide a secure future.
After 22 years in the country, Jamal Uddin still has no papers. Now living in Athens, he sees the agreement as a good initiative, ''but in the end, you are not getting any permanent residence permit. So, we are tense about our future."
Another Bangladeshi migrant, Azizur Rahman, has been working on an agricultural farm in Varda. "We have left the family for the future. If you must leave the country after five years according to the contract, then it will not bring any benefit to us. I have worked so hard to come here to establish my life," he said.
Under the terms of the agreement, in order to apply for a seasonal worker visa, the worker will have to secure an employment contract in Bangladesh. Undocumented migrants already in Greece will also need to provide proof that they have a job in order to secure a five-year visa.
Mitarachi said there would be an administrative fee of around €120 for the visa application, a figure he said was a fraction of what people pay to smugglers. But other seasonal worker programs in Europe have resulted in migrants paying thousands of euros to recruitment agents in their countries of origin, and then being exploited by gangmasters once they arrive.
Asked about safeguards against illegal practices, Mitarachi said the government was working with employers in Greece and trying to ensure that the costs for migrants in Bangladesh are kept to a minimum.
'Unrealistic and costly'
InfoMigrants has been told by some Bangladeshi migrants in Greece that the scheme is unrealistic: in particular, returning home for three months each year would be too expensive. Azizur said that returning to Bangladesh after nine months of work would exhaust all his savings.
While they are not obliged to go back to Bangladesh, working for three months of the year in another European country would require the migrants to have a visa from that country, which they are unlikely to receive.
Any overstayers will have their visas revoked, and if the problem becomes systemic, the whole agreement will be put at risk, "so hopefully everyone plays by the book," Mitarachi said.
The minister also confirmed that not all undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in Greece will benefit from the deal. People who are in administrative detention, awaiting deportation, will not be eligible for regularization.
Others have already decided that even if they could, they will not take up Greece"s offer. "It is better not to take this paper," Salam told InfoMigrants. "We came to Europe to settle here and for the safety of our life. I will not take the paper that is being offered for five years. Instead I'll move to Italy or France.''