Two graduate students research the migrant crisis and Muslim integration in the birthplace of democracy.
Greece has a rich and colourful history and its contributions to modern life are astounding: lighthouses and alarm clocks, live theatre and the Olympic Games, trial by jury and geometry, citizenship and democracy, souvlaki and baklava. Since gaining independence in the early nineteenth century, Greece has often found itself at the centre of global events. Most recently, its failing economy and the emergent migrant crisis have again put the nation under an international spotlight. This situation provides an opportunity for pivotal social, economic, and political research to better understand and help resolve the country’s contemporary challenges.
Enter Anastasia Leshchyshyn and Marie Macauley, two master’s students from the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Now best friends, the pair immersed themselves in European politics and history during their master’s studies. In the final semester of their degree, they took a course titled “Modern Greece in the Balkans and the European Union,” taught by Professor Robert Austin. The small class of five graduate and three undergraduate students soon became a close-knit group who were eager to share in their interests of Greece. The focus of the course was an independent research project for which the students prepared throughout the 2016 Spring semester. In May 2016, the class spent nine days in Athens, meeting with policymakers, lawyers, academics and entrepreneurs to understand firsthand the issues Greece is facing today.
Unaccompanied migrant children became the focus of Leshchyshyn’s research. Most unaccompanied minors in Greece are boys between the ages of 14 and 17, and are predominantly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Along with most other migrants from these countries, unaccompanied minors enter the European Union through Greece, before continuing to other European countries with seemingly more promising opportunities for work or permanent settlement. Often, unaccompanied minors avoid claiming asylum in Greece to prevent delays to their onward movement.
However, with the closure of the western Balkan migration route in March 2016, the formerly transient stay of unaccompanied minors in the country was extended—along with that of other adult migrants effectively trapped in the country—implicating both their onward movement and Greece’s already overburdened migrant reception capacity. The impact of these closures became the focus of Leshchyshyn’s research, as well as initiatives to enhance the protection and support of unaccompanied minors in the country.
Leshchyshyn spent her research trip interviewing NGO representatives and other groups involved in the migrant crisis, including individuals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece (UNHCR), the National Centre for Social Solidarity, the National Rapporteur for Human Trafficking and METAdrasi, the foremost local NGO involved in the protection of unaccompanied children. “Having the opportunity to interview these individuals in Greece allowed us to gain information and insights that were otherwise not widely discussed in the news,” said Leshchyshyn.
Among the conclusions Leshchyshyn drew from her research was that Greece is not sufficiently prepared to accommodate unaccompanied minors for an extended period, and that NGOs were carrying the brunt of the work to ensure their support and protection. “Government authorities continue to rely on international and local NGOs to supplement their efforts, and to identify and alleviate deficiencies in the child protection system,” stated Leshchyshyn, “which is an exhausting trend that is unlikely to remain sustainable.”
Macauley had a similarly interesting experience. She focused her attention on a difficult and often controversial issue, Muslim institutionalization in Greece, and more specifically in Athens.
While Greece, a non-secular state, remains a culturally homogenous nation, its Muslim population is ethnically and religiously diverse and represents the second-largest religious group in the country. Macauley explains that this religious minority can be divided into two separate categories, differentiated by ethnicity. The first group is represented by native Greek Muslims of Turkish, Pomak or Roma ethnicity, and are a result of the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece. The second group, which consists of Muslim immigrants, come for the most part from South-East Asia and to a lesser extent from Iraq, Afghanistan or Egypt.
With these differences in mind, Macauley undertook her research on past and present attempts of Muslim institutionalization in Athens, the only European capital with no state-recognized mosque. Macauley interviewed governmental figures at the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, expert individuals from the Greek Forum for Refugees and the Afghan Association, and organizations like the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). Through extensive research and these interviews, Macauley sought to make sense of past and present governmental policies targeted towards the minority groups, but also to focus on attempts made by the different communities to mobilize for the creation of an official state-recognized space to practice their faith, and more generally, attempts to mobilize for increased representation.
After meeting with several individuals through what Macauley described as a snowballing effect—landing one interview after another, through referrals—she was able to conclude that the Muslim community in Greece faces complex internal issues and disparities that impede meaningful dialogue and consensus, but also lacks the tools to pursue the necessary steps to even consider institutionalization, all of which are issues exacerbated by the refugee crisis.
Following their field research in Athens, Macauley and Leshchyshyn processed the findings of their interviews and wrote their reports at the International Writers and Translators Centre in Rhodes.
Back in Toronto with the experience of a lifetime, the pair hope their research and studies at CERES will open doors in the realm of research and public policy. Courses like the one taken by Anastasia Leshchyshyn and Marie Macauley will be generously supported by the endowment given to the University of Toronto by the Hellenic Heritage Foundation, which supported the launch of the Hellenic Studies Program at CERES. The program has opened the door for more students to gain new insights and to make an impact with their research. Referring to her trip, Macauley remarked, “An experience like this allows you to reflect on the importance of research and what working in the field really makes possible, which in turn is understanding issues hands-on, communicating with key stakeholders, and providing platforms for others to embark on further research.”
Story by Farah Mustafa
Anastasia Leshchyshyn and Marie Macauley on the research trip in Greece. Photo: Marie Macauley