It was very early morning, with a full moon still bright above the mountains. We were sitting drinking coffee with Yorgos* the shepherd. He was from a small Albanian village, and had been working illegally in Greece for nine years. Ten years ago, employers could apply for a work and residence permit for their migrant workers. At two thousand euros, it wasn’t cheap, and it only lasted ten years. However, it was a chance to apply for Greek citizenship. So the first wave of Albanian immigrants had got their papers and forged a new life for themselves throughout the EU. Then came the economic crisis, with much tighter controls on immigration. Yorgos had been too late and now had no prospect of working legally.
“It’s not a problem in the mountains,” he said. “But when I go down to the winter pastures with the sheep, there’s always the risk of an informer. I’ve been caught once. They put me in prison for ten days, then sent me back to Albania.”
He showed us photos of Albania on his mobile – the beauty spots, his family and friends. “I have a house in Albania, and it’s a beautiful country. The problem is the corrupt government. There I can only earn five euros a day. Here the going rate is twenty euros a day. I get five hundred euros a month, plus food and somewhere to live. I’m saving it all and one day I’ll return home and set up my own business.”
I thought of all the Greeks who had emigrated in the 50s and 60s, most of them like Yorgos with only a primary school education, and a strong drive to succeed. He already spoke fluent Greek and was now learning English.
We met many foreigners in the Greek mountains, both legal and illegal, working as shepherds and foresters. There were plenty of Albanians and a growing number of Romanians, who’d arrived more recently after Romania joined the EU. One came from as far away as Pakistan.
We’d also met a member of the military patrol along the Albanian border, who explained: “Oh yes, we regularly catch illegal immigrants. We rough them up a little then throw them back across the border. One was so stupid that we caught him several times trying to come across on the same route.” But his real problem was more serious illegal activity: drug smuggling, sex trafficking and cattle rustling.
Yet there is an unemployment crisis in Greece, with around half of all young people unable to find a job, and one in four people unemployed across the population as a whole. Soon after talking to Yorgos, we met yet another worried parent. His son, who’d graduated with an Environmental Science degree, was now back herding sheep, unable to find a job elsewhere. For him, it was a dead end of hard physical labour. For Yorgos it was a stepping stone to a better life.
* Not his real name, though he did use a Greek name rather than his Albanian one.