European University Institute Study


By Nadina Christopoulou

A brief history, past and present
The waves of Asian migrants heading to Europe over the last three decades, have brought a substantial number of Indians to Greece. In the early 1970s, the first Filipinos arrived, and they were soon followed by Pakistanis entering through a bilateral agreement, and subsequently Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshis amounting to more than 130,000. The first Indian immigrants arrived in Greece individually, or in small family groups or groups with family ties, and not as parts of organized migration networks, in the early 1970s. They were predominantly male and of a relatively young age. They came searching for labour in order to support their families back home. Throughout this period, they settled in various locations within and outside the capital, and they established their communities there. As stated in the migrant communities register in the description of the origins of their main association, the Greek Indian Cultural and Welfare Association (GICWA), which was founded in 2005, they did not receive “any assistance from organized networks or communities at the time, and lived in severe circumstances experiencing difficulties and hardship”. Larger waves arrived in the years to follow, predominantly from Punjab. At first they found employment in the shipping industry as well as in fisheries, while they later infiltrated the agricultural sector, which currently remains their main source of employment.

As a predominantly emigration country with a vast diaspora worldwide, Greece had already established links with the Indian subcontinent from the eighteenth century. Iteven boasted a vibrant Greek community, which had mainly settled in Bengal. That was the first destination in the subcontinent that Greek merchants reached in the middle of the eighteenth century, staying there for at least two centuries. Yet, smaller communities lived and thrived in other parts of the Indian subcontinent, and also in what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to Dione Markou Dodi, a researcher and writer born and bred within that diaspora community, Greek merchants had followed the spice route and the colonial networks, thus extending their activities beyond the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The first Greeks migrating from the Ottoman Empire eastwards, reached the English-speaking cities of the Asian subcontinent. They set up their businesses in the important trading junctions and subsequently migrated there, and established small but dynamic communities, trading jute, salt, soap, tobacco as well as horses. They actively supported the Greek liberation cause, contributing through remittances and also offering work to larger numbers of Greeks heading eastwards after the events in Asia Minor and the population exchanges. Cities like Calcutta and Dhaka hosted small communities of thriving Greek family businesses up until the 1950s.

On the other side, the Indian Army during World War I contributed various divisions and independent brigades to the European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern theaters of war. 

One million Indian troops served overseas, of whom many died and others were wounded. The graves of those who died in Greece are located in the memorial grounds of the cemeteries of the Allied Forces in Athens and Salonica, and have recently attracted the interest of the Indian diaspora and the community living in Greece. The good relations between the two countries together with a common commitment to freedom and democracy and an admiration of Gandhi’s ideals feature in official discourses between the two countries. In Greece, India is widely associated with the conquests of Alexander. Part of India became the Indo-Greek kingdoms founded by his successors. As such it has a positive historical resonance and the links between the two cultures are often perceived as deep, strong and persistent. Diplomatic relations between the two countries date back to 1950, while a resident embassy opened in Athens in 1978. In the official discourse of the Indian Embassy in Athens “Interaction between India and Greece goes back to antiquity. In modern times, the two countries have developed a warm relationship based on a common commitment to democracy, peace and development in the world and to a social system imbued with principles of justice and equality. India and Greece also share common approaches to many international issues, such as UN reforms and Cyprus. Greece has been consistently supporting of India’s core foreign policy objectives.” In the course of these years, a number of high ranking officials, including prime-ministers from both sides (J. Nehru, I. Gandhi, K. Karamanlis, A. Papandreou and K. Simitis among others), have exchanged visits. The city of Thessaloniki was twinned with Calcutta in January 2005.

DECKED UP: An Indian wedding in Greece

A set of bilateral agreements regarding the economic relations between Greece and India have been signed over the years, while cultural relations with Greece are based on a bilateral Cultural Agreement which was signed in 1961 and revived in 1995. Several cultural organisations promote cultural contact between two countries. In India, there are two Greek centres, one in Calcutta and one in Varanasi, while in Athens there are several associations (i.e. Hellenic Indian Society) and so-called “Indophile” organisations (Yoga Institute, Bharatanatyam school, and the Brahmakumari Ashram). The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has also agreed with the Athens University of Economics & Business (AUEB) to establish a short term “Chair” in the field of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, while there are also strong links between the School of Foreign Languages, University of Athens the Banaras Hindu University. Indeed, every year a scholarship is offered to a Greek national under the (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) ICCR’s General Cultural Scholarship Scheme. Yet, despite the optimal diplomatic relations, Indians were not among the first to start establishing migrant communities in Greece. At first they were sparse, mainly unspecialized workers, as well as a limited number of people with particular ties to Greece (i.e. marital, professional), while the majority of migrants originating on the subcontinent headed towards Britain and the Commonwealth countries.

Demographic Characteristics of the Indian population
The majority of Indian migrants are from Punjab. They are Sikh in religion and speak Punjabi. There are also some smaller groups of Indian Muslims and Hindus who come from other regions, mostly West Bengal. At first, they were almost exclusively male, but the number of couples and families has been increasing with time, through family reunification schemes. The majority have established themselves in rural areas, in the vicinity of Athens or elsewhere. They remain strongly attached to their respective communities.

The current Indian population in Greece is estimated to be 12,000 – 15,000, most living outside Athens. According to unofficial estimates of the various Indian associations, the Indian population residing in Greece (including the undocumented migrants) reportedly exceeded 20,000 during the boom years of the Greek economy pre-2009. According to Maghar Gandhi, the president of the Greek-Indian Cultural Association, a sharp decline took place to seek employment in Northern Europe and the Arab Emirates or even returning back to India with its booming economy. 

Overall, the migrant population of Greece makes up approximately 10 per cent of the local population and 20 per cent of the economically active population of the country. The majority originate in Albania and the Balkans as well as the former USSR republics with an increasing number from Asia. The first to arrive in Greece were from Pakistan and the Philippines in the 1970s, to be followed by those from India, China, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. As of February 2013, documented third-country nationals stand at 537,237. According to statistics, Indians have been in the 8thposition in the list of immigrant nationalities over the last decade and second in the list of Asiatic immigrants. According to informal sources, their number is significantly higher, as the majority of them enter the country without appropriate documentation and permits.

VOICE OVER: Indians have their say during a protest march in Greece

The Indian population of Greece is primarily male, as it was men of relatively young age seeking employment who arrived at first. Women did not migrate independently but those who are here today came mainly through family reunification schemes. A few have also intermarried with other nationalities, usually from the Indian subcontinent or Greece.

According to the Greek-Indian Cultural and Welfare Association, about 5 per cent live in Athens by now (1,000 people), mainly in the districts of Tavros, Menidi, or near the port of Pireus. The majority live outside Athens, in the surrounding rural areas (i.e. Marathonas, Koropi, Dilesi) or in other districts of Greece (Korinthia, Voiotia, Evoia, Crete and the islands of the Argosaronic Gulf), where they are employed mostly in agriculture and manufacturing.

The predominant type of Indian families in Greece is nuclear. Often however, they are surrounded by members of extended family networks who have also migrated along, or have later joined them. Yet, as the majority of the Indian immigrants are male, young and unmarried, they enter patterns of co-habitation either independently, or through their work contracts, patterns which strongly resemble extended family networks.

Socio-Economic Profile
Most male Indian migrants in Greece are unskilled. Many arrived irregularly, through land and sea routes, joining family members who had already settled in Greece. A substantial cluster of these arrived irregularly and acquired documents during the various regularization schemes that were implemented. Predominantly employed in agricultural, they often enter group contracts in seasonal labour. They are also employed in construction, manufacturing, shipping and fisheries, as well as small businesses, mainly in trade and tourism. The women are either employed in family businesses or as domestic aids, while the majority remain within the household sphere taking care of their families. Very few among the overall community enjoy insurance coverage and social security benefits.

The levels of linguistic integration are relatively low. The use of English sometimes persists as it has become acceptable as a means of communication, especially in working transactions. The use of Punjabi, the native language, persists among compatriots within the ethnic and religious community. The difficulty of learning Greek, the sparse offer of language courses for migrants by the state, together with the difficulties faced by the migrants themselves especially upon arrival, make it a major challenge. There are classes available at the Language Centre of the University of Athens as well as through various NGOs and citizen’s initiatives, but attending them demands time, effort and flexible working conditions. This is not feasible for most migrants. On the other hand, the so-called 1.5 generation (those who migrated at a young age following their parents), or the second generation (those who were born here and are still in school), are fluent in both Greek and Punjabi: they also learn English and even French at school. Their language skills also facilitate the linguistic integration of their parents. Often, they act as translators and mediators, undertaking adult roles and responsibilities. They help their parents, and especially their mothers who mostly remain in the domestic sphere, not to mention newcomers. Those members of the community who engage in public activities mingling with the local population (work, school etc) often adopt or acquire a Greek name, usually one that acoustically resembles their own. This is not the case however, for the women who stay at home, and for whom a “local” name as a term of familiarity with the locals is not considered necessary.

The Indian community in Greece remains predominantly and disproportionately male. There are smaller numbers of women who joined their husbands through family reunification schemes, or in order to enter a prospective marriage. Although there are various professional women pursuing their careers in Greece, there are no records of women from India migrating independently and establishing themselves in Greece: save in cases where they have special links and strings attached to the host society or to already established networks within the Indian community in Greece. A migrant enters a migration trajectory in the most productive period of life, which coincides with the reproductive period. The degree of integration and subsequently the levels of intermarriage within the host society consequently remain very low. The predominantly young male population of the Indian community, seek to create families mostly back in India. Those who arrive unmarried, may start pursuing an acquaintance or forming a connection with a potential bride in India. Vast and complex networks are involved in this process, as the aim largely remains a return there.

Remittances and ties with India
Indians in Greece exhibit strong remittance behavior, sending most of their acquired income back to their homeland. This is especially the case for those who are employed in large, industrialized farms, living in the vicinity of their labour locations, with their basic needs covered by the employer (group accommodation and basic nutrition). They usually enter these agreements through the mediation of networks who also handle their movement from one place to another for seasonal labour and who may also be related to labour-trafficking networks. In those cases, the persons involved, do not engage much in the local life and save the majority of their income in order to send it back to their family in India. It is only in the case of those pursuing further migration, or those who have established families and small businesses, that remittances decrease. Yet, even in those cases, remittances are not omitted altogether, they merely decline in size. From personal communications and an informal survey conducted in small shops and businesses run by Indians in the centre of Athens, that also deal with remittances and arrange money transfers and other exchanges, most is channeled back to Punjab.

Beyond the material contribution however, further ties with India are maintained mainly through familial and regional bonds. The use of internet, free or inexpensive phone services and social media is very widespread among the young male population. Young males seek to maintain contact with the homeland and, at the same time, make new acquaintances and form new bonds. Marriages are frequently arranged through these channels of communication, in a peculiar combination of old and new practices. Many such marriages eventually take place in India and the new couple either settles in Greece or divide for a long-distance relationship.

Most Indians in Greece are Sikh. They often have religious affiliations through Sikh networks and sanctuaries or gurudwaras (sanctuaries, literally meaning God’s doors) around Greece. Although the dominant concerns are those related to life in the host society, links with India are sustained through this major socialization process. Returning to Punjab, even for a short while, and even managing to visit the Golden Temple, the holy place of the Sikhs, emerge frequently in informal talk. Indian party politics on the other hand does not feature very highly, as the demands of daily life in Greece absorbs most energy and concerns. After all, this is the chosen place of residence, permanent or temporary, and, over time, it also becomes the primary frame of reference. As such, the longing that binds the migrant to the homeland is surpassed or at least paired by the longing to adapt and integrate in the host society, with the pursuit of a better life. 

There is a small number of Indian students in Greece studying mainly computer science, business administration and information technology, in Athens, Patra and Ioannina. They often receive support from their associations and Gurudwaras, as well as from their own relatives. There are also cases, however, where the offspring of Indians living in Greece are encouraged to pursue further studies abroad. Furthermore, there is no direct air link between India and Greece, and transport takes place via Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Doha, Bahrain, Amman and several European cities. 

—This article was made available at a joint workshop of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the European Union. It has been prepared by CARIM India, the European University Institute and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, San Domenico di Fiesole, and is part of a report on the Indian community in Greece.


December 2013

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