AIM: start

TUE, 03 APR 2001 20:15:04 GMT

Greece's Census: Down for the Count

AIM Athens, April 3, 2001

Greece's population has increased 6.6 percent since 1991, according to preliminary census results released on March 26. This is not due to a sudden turn around in the country's low birth rate, but to immigration.

A total of 10,939,771 people - about 5.4 million men and 5.5 million women - were counted. Some 680,000 more than during the 1991 population census and most of these people were foreigners.

The National Statistics Agency (ESYE), which conducted the census, actively sought to count migrants, both documented and undocumented. Information pamphlets were issued in different languages to encourage foreigners to open their doors to the 150,000 census-takers who took to the streets on March 18. However, a large number of illegal migrants, who fear deportation if caught by police, kept their doors shut. There were also unconfirmed reports that some enumerators went out of their way not to count migrants.

An estimated 500,000 migrants were counted on March 18. ESYE believes that this is only half of the real number. This data collected is of particular significant to the ruling socialist party Pasok, which will soon undertake a second legalisation of undocumented migrants who can prove they have been living in Greece for at least one year.

In related news, the preliminary results of the census confirmed what United Nations researchers stressed last year: migration can rejuvenate Greece's ageing population. And when Prime Minister Costas Simitis in March told a press conference that "we" need migrants just as much as they need "us", he was right. The census showed that migrants are the main reason why the country's population increased by 6.6 percent and why there is still a balance between working age and retiree segments of the population..

An expert on families for the EU and a social anthropology professor at Panteion University in Athens, Loukia Moussourou noted in a report published last year that Greece's birth rate is steadily declining. Her research showed that fewer and fewer couples are having more than two children, while a growing number of couples are opting not start families.

At the same time, National Economy Minister Yiannos Papantoniou announced the government's plans to offer incentives for couples to have more children. A series of measures, he said, will be introduced in the next three years. It is uncertain, however, if the government's proposals will succeed in reversing the zero natural increase (live births minus deaths) in the population.

At present, the government offers a monthly allowance of about 40,000 drachmas to married couples with a third child (until this child turns 6 years old). Mothers with four or more children receive 10,000 drachmas each month for every unmarried child under the age of 23. These women also receive 23,000 drachmas each month for the rest of their lives if the family's annual income is less than three million drachmas. But these benefits are not enough, according to heads of large households. They have repeatedly called on the government to provide more generous tax-breaks and to raise child benefits.

Meanwhile, some ultra right wing MPs have blasted Pasok for not doing enough to encourage more Greek couples to have large families. They have voiced their fears that as fewer Greek babies are born, Greeks will one day become a minority in their own country. These parliamentarians point to areas such as western Thrace, where there is a large Muslim minority population.

Metropolitan Bishop Anthimos of Alexandroupolis recently told reporters that "legal immigrants, Pontic Greeks [from the Black See] and North Epirotes [from Southern Albania] do not suffice to solve the problem, while illegal migrants, mostly Albanians, threaten to turn Greece into a country like Skopje What strong and self-sufficient Greece are we talking about, when Greeks will be a minority in their historic lands? The church does not have in view an economically successful Greece, but the creation of a large Greek family, which guarantees the future and survival of Hellenism," Anthimos said. "Greek Christians, have children because we are dwindling!"

Thousands went "home" to be counted

While ESYE had launched a 500-million-drachma nation-wide media campaign to encourage people to stay at home on March 18 until they had been visited by enumerators, some prefects and local government officials were desperately trying to get people to leave their homes.

Residents in remote villages and small towns across the country called on those who once lived there to return. And many did. It is believed that thousands of people left the capital and other large cities such as Thessaloniki to be counted in the village and town where they or their parents were born.

Why? Because the more people living in an area, the more money the government will spend to develop the area and improve education and health care services.

A brochure issued by ESYE ahead of the census stated: "In order for a school to be built, a minimum number of students is required. Are there enough students? Similarly, there must be a certain number of permanent residents in a locality before community hospital can be constructed. These answers, along with information on a thousand other issues, will be provided by the census."

This was understood all too well by many local government officials around the country. Much like during election time, they invited all those who moved out of their areas to return on March 18, to be counted. In exchange, many were treated to a feast of lambs on the spit, bottomless cups of wine and singing and dancing.

Mayors and local community councillors went to great lengths to convince people to return, while others set up road blocks to make sure that no one left their municipality before they were counted.

Thousands of people did go to the villages they once called home to be counted there on March 18. The preliminary results of the census showed that there was an unexpected increase - 31.8 percent - in the population of Evritania (from 24,307 in 1991 to 32,026 on March 18). There was also a 20 percent increase noted in Kefalonia (39,579 residents) and in Zakinthos (38,680 residents).

ESYE suspects that not everyone who was counted in these areas really lives there. And for this reason, they are faced with the toilsome task of cross-checking the information.

The capital experienced a 26.9 percent increase in population (from 450,485 people in 1991 to 571,742 on March 18). But this was expected.

Meanwhile, the lowest increase in population was found in Evrou (0.2 percent) and in Lesvos (0.1 percent). There was a reduction in the number of people who said they lived in Arkadia (-3.9 percent), Viotia (-2.2 percent) and Akarnaanias (-2.1 percent).

Easy questions

The questions asked by the enumerators concerned their employment, the number of hours they worked during the week, number of people living in the household and their level of education. People were not asked about their religion - a controversial issue in Greece following the government's decision to wipe it off the identity cards.

Foreigners were asked to state their nationality, but languages spoken at home - which could be useful information if the government decides to introduce multi-lingual education programmes in public schools, considering the large numbers of migrant students - were not included in the questionnaire.

Facts about the census

The census cost an estimated 18 billion drachmas. Some 150,000 enumerators, mainly university students and jobless, were involved. They visited all houses, apartment buildings, hotels, pre-fabricated homes in areas devastated by earthquakes, as well as Gypsy settlements. They also counted the homeless and patients in hospital. Enumerators also took to airports and ports around the country to count the tourists and citizens who had to travel on March 18.

Kathy Tzilivakis