As Greece has launched another major regularisation programme for undocumented immigrants, a comparison with France’s 1981 similar initiative provides us with insights. Drawing a parallel between the two programmes offers a crucial lens to raise questions about the effectiveness and unintended long-term consequences of such policies based on the lessons learned from the French experience. This piece delves into the similarities between the French precedent and Greece’s current approach, unpacking the complexities of simply regularising clandestine immigrants in a bid to manage perceived labour shortages and social issues.

After the election of socialist François Mitterrand as president of the French Republic in 1981, France initiated a regularisation programme for undocumented immigrants, motivated by similar intentions as Greece’s current policy. Like in Greece, this programme aimed to integrate immigrants into society and required them to demonstrate employment offers for regularisation. However, the outcomes were not as intended. Instead of curbing illegal immigration, it inadvertently encouraged it, leading to an increase in irregular migrants hoping for future regularisation. Crucially, this policy did little to undermine the parallel economy that provided jobs to irregular immigrants. The latter did not report the irregular activities they had been working in but came up with new offers, sometimes compliance offers or even fake employment contracts. The French experience serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the complexity of immigration policies and their unintended side effects.

Mirroring France’s 1981 approach, Greece has launched a new migrant regularisation programme to address perceived labour shortages, particularly in sectors like agriculture, construction, and tourism. Targeting undocumented immigrants or those with expired residence permits, the Greek government seeks to transition these individuals from informal to formal labour, address labour gaps, and boost public revenue through employment taxes and contributions. This move comes amidst a surge in illegal arrivals in the context of the war in the Middle East. However, the similarities to the French precedent raise concerns. The historical parallel prompts a critical examination of Greece’s strategy and its potential implications.

The Greek government’s initiative could inadvertently replicate challenges witnessed in similar historical contexts. One major concern is the potential for an increase in irregular immigration, fuelling the irregular economy. As observed in the aftermath of France’s 1981 programme, the prospect of future regularisation can act as a magnet, attracting more undocumented migrants in anticipation of policy leniency. This surge not only exacerbates the challenge of managing migration flows but also undermines sound economic activity.

Additionally, there is the risk of document falsification. Stringent verification processes are difficult, and the requirement for employment offers might lead to a proliferation of counterfeit documents and bogus job offers to then extract social benefits. The shadow economy that has provided jobs to irregular immigrants is thus unlikely to be affected, mirroring here also the French experience.

Moreover, family reunification policies aiming to reduce delinquency might inadvertently lead to increased social challenges in the current context. The influx of family members, with youths with limited regular employment opportunities in the current regulatory environment, could heighten social tensions and security concerns, complicating the integration process and straining social services – again echoing the French experience in the 1980s.

Considering these challenges, Greece could adopt a different approach. A more effective solution might entail liberalising the labour market. Most undocumented immigrants are working in the irregular sector. Making it easier for them to work in the regular economy would challenge the benefits of working irregularly. This solution implies simplifying employment processes and norms, with regular documentation being then provided to migrants with valid job offers. In this manner, the labour market would find a natural equilibrium. Immigration would regulate itself based on wage levels, reducing the need for strict border policies. The main benefit of this approach is that it would effectively erode the underground economy, which would in turn give authorities better ways to combat criminal activities. Such a policy would lead to improved regulation and smoother integration.

While regularising immigrants who work is well intended, the current regularisation programme may neither effectively balance the labour market nor weaken the shadow economy. Reflecting on France’s experience in 1981, we see that irregular employment and unemployment in the formal sector remained issues then, prompting the government to adopt a different approach by 1982. Only a labour policy that leans towards liberalisation can effectively disrupt the shadow economy and tackle criminal networks thriving within it.

In conclusion, a policy that does not aim to simplify and open up the labour market is unlikely to achieve its objectives.