Tuesday 28 February 2017

Like the Irish, the Greeks have now come to accept emigration as just a part of life

Ingrid Melander

GREEK website designer Thanos Sioris sees only one way out of his country's severe debt crisis: board a plane and never look back.

The cordial 40-year-old never dreamed he would spend his life with his wife and son anywhere but at home in Greece, where he worked hard for 12 years to build up his company.

But the debt crisis that has rocked the eurozone abruptly shattered his world. The country's worst recession in 40 years and skyrocketing taxes are now threatening his business and forcing him to uproot his family to survive.

"Here in Greece, everything is so depressing and so expensive . . . my clients are closing down, firing staff, they owe money to banks," Sioris said as he prepared to leave for Hong Kong.

"Why live here without work, without income?"

Sioris is part of a new wave of emigration of thousands of qualified Greeks seeking to escape their country's record high unemployment.

At home they face many more years of austerity to shoulder Greece's gigantic debt burden, expected to exceed €350bn this year. That's more than €30,000 per inhabitant -- more than one-and-a-half times the average per capita GDP.

Unemployment has jumped to more than 16pc, well above the eurozone's 10pc average, with the young hit the hardest as the economy is dragged down further by austerity measures meant to shrink the budget deficit.

Tips on how to make it to the UK, Germany or further away to Australia or the US have spread like wildfire among students, jobless youth or families who have seen their incomes drop dramatically.

When Australia organised an informational seminar in Athens in early October to explain its migration policy and visa procedures it caused a media frenzy and its website was flooded by thousands of applications.

But actually finding a job overseas has proven a tough battle, with Greeks competing with high-skilled workers from all over the world.

"There has been a significant increase in interest (from Greeks)," said Australian ambassador to Athens Jenny Bloomfield, herself the descendant of Greek migrants. "But there are no special arrangements for Greece or for any other country."

Some 140,000 to 150,000 Greeks migrated to Australia from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, but since then Australia has been granting only about 100 visas to Greeks each year.

Those seeking to migrate to Australia, the US, or closer to home in Europe, are mostly young, highly skilled Greeks who have studied abroad, a far cry from the time when hundreds of thousands of their parents and grandparents, poor farmers and blue-collar workers left to work in the world's factories and mines.

"What we have is white-collar workers, graduates leaving the country," said Lois Labrianidis, professor at the University of Macedonia. He estimates that about 10pc of graduates work outside of the country and warns this will have long-term effects for Greece as it battles this crisis.

"These are people who should help this country's economy move from products and services based on cheap labour to high-end products," he said. "The fact that they are leaving is a major blow to the country."

Greeks can move freely within the border-free EU, meaning a job interview is no more than a budget airline flight away.

The German branch of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE), a not-for-profit organisation which helps the Greek diaspora, has been swamped.

"We've never seen anything like this before," Costas Dimitriou, the head of SAE in Germany, said in a phone interview. "People come here, or write to us . . . that they feel they are drowning, that they need help or have no money to feed their children."

Dimitriou estimates that the 300,000-strong Greek community in Germany has grown by over 10,000 since the crisis started. This is at the end of a decade when many Greeks had been returning home, lured by their country's economic success in the years of joining the euro and the 2004 Olympics.

"They cannot pay their phone bills, their houses are confiscated, they have loans and they have lost their jobs," said Dimitriou. "This is why they want to leave." (Reuters)

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