GIG: You were appointed Minister of Migration and Asylum in January of this year, assuming the leadership of what was then a new Ministry. What are your key objectives at this Ministry? What steps you are you currently pushing forward with regards to Greece’s migration policy?
Mitarachi: We had to set up the Ministry extremely quickly amid a high volume of refugee arrivals on the Greek islands and Evros. From the very beginning, we had to deal with a number of crises: increased arrivals and violent incidents on the islands during efforts to construct new camps, aggression from our neighbouring country [Turkey] in March, and the coronavirus pandemic, which was a huge challenge.
We have two key objectives at the Ministry: one is substantially reducing the flow of migrants through our borders, and the second is mitigating the impact of this crisis on local societies. We implement a tough but fair migration policy. We are in full compliance with our obligations under international law. But at the same time, we have a strict repatriation law for those who enter illegally and do not qualify for asylum.
GIG: Greece’s migration policy has been particularly challenging over the past few months given Greece’s position as a frontline country coupled with the pandemic. What steps were taken during the lockdown to safeguard the migrant community?
Mitarachi: We enforced a better management of border protection, an accelerated asylum application issuance, and a return policy for those not entitled to asylum.
Although, I have to say we did receive a lot of negative press at the beginning of the period with people claiming that there would be a massive death toll, which was not the case. We isolated the camps from day one, and the limited new flows of migrants that were coming into the country were not taken to the legacy camps. Instead, they were taken to separate quarantine areas. We imposed restrictions of movement from and to the camps, we increased communication in an effort to explain to the migrant community basic steps that they had to take to protect their own personal hygiene in a language they could understand, and fourthly, we created medical units around the camps to test people that needed to be tested. In parallel, during the pandemic period the Ministry for Migration and Asylum took a number of initiatives in order to safeguard the legal residence of legal migrants by extending the validity of their residence permits and residence cards to early next year.
GIG: You’ve been quite outspoken lately about the need to integrate migrants and refugees that are accepted into Greece within the society. What steps are you taking?
Mitarachi: We’re implementing a programme called Helios and we’re running this programme together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that provides basic skills, language skills, support in finding housing, and some rental subsidies.
We are trying to help refugees enter the Greek society. But at the same time, we’re managing the level of benefits that we’re offering to avoid this becoming a pull factor that contributes to more illegal migration into the country. We are focusing on striking a balanced approach.
GIG: Moving onto legal migration, Greece’s Golden Visa programme has been a source of significant revenues since its inception in 2013 with 2019 being a record-breaking year. What is it that has made this investment migration programme so attractive?
Mitarachi: The Golden Visa programme was designed around investment in property. The property programme remains the simplest of our investment migration programmes, and we also feel that it has a better impact on the local economy because it supports the construction industry, which is a key sector for Greece, and this is very positive.
In fact, I established the Golden Visa programme as deputy minister of economy in 2013; it was my pet project. The reason I think it has been successful is firstly due to simplicity. The bureaucracy behind obtaining a Golden Visa is extremely simple, meaning it’s a “plain vanilla” product. You buy a qualifying property and you get a five-year residence permit, which grants you the right to travel freely to the Schengen area, as well as to reside in Greece;
there aren’t too many complexities around it. And that’s what has made it appealing to applicants. Secondly, Greece is in a unique position as an entry point from the East to the West, it’s an EU Member State, a member of Schengen, and has very good weather throughout the year. The combination of these factors mean that Greece can become a temporary, or a longer term home, for investors from around the world.
It should be noted that you can also obtain a residence permit, as a financially independent person, based on your income, if you have sufficient regular income coming in from another country. In parallel, a foreigner may get a residence permit based on an investment, either by a direct investment, or by investing in securities or in a bank deposit. But these are schemes that require more administration because we need to certify that you are in compliance with the different requirements of the specific investment programme.
GIG: Greece’s investment migration programme was recently the subject of reform. Can you tell about this? Will we see more changes?
Mitarachi: In 2020 we implemented the non-dom legislation alongside the Ministry of Finance, which is a supporting parallel mechanism for the Golden Visa programme. This is a special income scheme whereby pensioners from other EU Member States can qualify for lower taxation in Greece.
This is an attractive proposition that allows people with a pension to come to Greece and avoid the big pension bill at home, especially if they’re high pension earners. If you’re a European Union resident, you can automatically qualify. There is no legal paperwork required as there is free movement within the European Union. If you’re coming from outside the EU, the combination of the non-dom programme with either the Golden Visa or the stable income scheme will provide you the required residency.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we ran into a few issues and we’re working on making the programme even simpler.
This is why we recently passed a new law that allows the public notary to certify the purchase of a qualifying property. This will make it even easier to acquire properties as the public administration will no longer be required to verify this. We’re also looking into creating a fast-track office at the Ministry’s main building focused exclusively on the Golden Visa programme, which will definitely create a more pleasant experience for investors.
GIG: The coronavirus pandemic has stifled projections for Golden Visa applications this year, particularly bearing in mind Chinese nationals have been the greatest beneficiaries of the programme to date. What are your expectations for the programme this year?
Mitarachi: It’s difficult to have a quantitative target this year for the Golden Visa programme given the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, especially considering its impact on the international tourism industry. People are not travelling and this compromises the residency programme. Unless people are able to come and see properties, it’s very difficult for property investments to materialise, which has impacted the Golden Visa programme, as it has any other scheme that requires individuals to travel.
However, the good news is that in 2021 we will be placing more emphasis on what we call legal migration, which refers to Greece’s ability to attract human and financial capital. This is actually a priority and a challenge for the European Union at large.
In the council of the European Union, we all refer to the need for more managed and more growth enhancing legal immigration. Europe needs to become a base for smart people from around the world who want to come and work, as well as for people who want to come to Europe and invest their capital. And I think this is a battle that Europe needs to fight, especially given the demographic trends we are currently facing.
Legal migration is extremely complicated and challenging, and Greece needs to remain an attractive destination. This means that we need to implement growth enhancing policies in the economy to make it appealing for people to come here, while we also need to have the necessary legal instruments that allow us to attract the people we want to pull into the country. The challenge lies in having the appropriate packages and programmes for people that are qualified to be able to apply and come to Greece. We are all competing internationally for talent and the problem with illegal migration is that a lot of the people that come into the country do not match the profile or the skillset we are seeking.
This ministry has spent its first six months fighting what we call the refugee crisis. Now, in the second half, we are investing more time in thinking about what we can do to become even more attractive in drawing human capital into Greece.
GIG: The European Commission has been very critical of these so-called residency-by-investment programmes claiming they are a “doorway” for corruption and money laundering. What is your view in this regard and how is Greece working to minimise this risk?
Mitarachi: Greece fully implements all banking regulations, the know-your-client regulation, and all the anti-money laundering legislation stipulated within the European Union. So, we do not think that there is an issue with regard to the residency scheme. It should be noted that, at present, Greece does not offer any nationality programmes, unlike other European countries, that also offer such programmes.
GIG: A silver-lining of the pandemic in Greece has been the widespread digitisation of public services. Has this also permeated those services associated with Greece’s investment migration programmes?
Mitarachi: We are trying to move into a fully digital environment by 2021. We’re already offering a number of services online, which we were not offering a year ago, both with regard to the handling of the refugee crisis and with regard to legal migration. The permanent residency renewal process in Greece has become a fully digital process, and we are making efforts to put more of the administrative handling of permits into the digital space. We’ve already gone live with a number of procedures.
GIG: Greece’s management of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered the country international praise positioning it as one of the safest countries in Europe. What new opportunities do you see this creating with respect to Greece’s investment migration policy?
Mitarachi: Our government’s management of the pandemic is making people feel more confident about the ability of the Greek administration to run the country. Government credibility is an important element for human and financial capital seeking where to invest and reside. People are increasingly feeling that Greece is a safe country and the government is able to provide them with the appropriate environment for them to work and live safely.
We need to bear in mind that the Greek economy has a lot of growth potential, and its economy is also going to be supported by the European Recovery Fund. It’s a safe country, a member of the European Union, a member of the Eurozone, and one of the oldest members of the bloc. It’s also a very pleasant country to live in.