Economic recovery stifled by serious brain drain

Over the past two centuries large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled Greeks have left the Aegean shores in search of a better future. Today’s emigrants are highly skilled professionals, with postgraduate qualifications, who are unable to function in the country’s depressing economic environment. But their leaving is also delaying – even preventing – Greece’s recovery.

When Greece joined the European Union (EU) just over 30 years ago, the flow of immigration was gradually staunched and many people returned to take advantage of the increased economic opportunities that were opening at the time.

As a result of EU membership, the standard of living improved, more resources were invested in education, illiteracy was eliminated and, in a short time, Greece established a large number of universities and technical institutions that produced degree holders at graduate and postgraduate level.

The improved financial situation allowed Greek students who could not be guaranteed a university place in their own country to study abroad, and conditions within the EU made this movement easier.

It is estimated that more than 100,000 Greek students undertake studies abroad at all levels every year.

Improvements in education standards and the plethora of degrees ultimately impacted on opportunities for employment for many doctors, lawyers, engineers, economists and other professionals.

Rising unemployment did not cause concern during the period of economic vigour. But rising education standards and the acquisition of degrees by a high proportion of the population created an imbalance with manual labour, which became scarce.

This gap was largely filled by immigrants and refugees, who came to Greece from poorer Asiatic and African countries as well as from former Soviet republics. So, in a short time, Greece went from a net exporter of emigrants to a large importer of immigrant and refugee labour.

Estimates suggest that before 2008, the first year of the economic crisis, there were more than 1.5 million immigrants and refugees from more than 20 nationalities in the country.

The fallacious dream of the 2004 Olympics – alone responsible for more than half of the country’s current financial debt – was made possible by immigrant labour.

In 2008, despite highfaluting statements by the then government that “the country was shielded from the worst aspects of the meltdown”, the economic crisis hit Greece like a gale-force wind whose catastrophic effects continue. Salaries – including lecturer salaries – wages, pensions, social services and supplements have been cut by more than 50%, and public services have had 30%-50% cuts to their budgets.

The country’s borrowing ability was suspended and the infamous troika came in to establish a German-inspired policy of austerity and balanced budgets. The result was that joblessness rose to 27% in the general population and 67% among young people.

The standard of living collapsed and not only the immigrant workers but also native Greeks started considering emigration.

The emigrant waves

There is an educational difference between previous emigrant waves and current ones. previously, those departing were often the unskilled or semi-skilled – farmers, fishermen and manual labourers who contributed to rebuilding other countries devastated by war.

Today’s emigrants are more highly educated. A survey conducted by a leading human resources company has revealed that 73% of those leaving Greece now have a postgraduate degree and 51% a PhD, and most have studied abroad in some of the world’s best universities.

The destinations of current emigrants include the UK with 31%, the US with 28% and Germany with 6.6%.

The latter figure seems rather low, but may be explained by many emigrants going to Greek families already established in Germany and not being regarded as immigrants. Some 34,100 Greeks went to Germany last year, a rise of just over 43% compared to 2011.

Emigration to Australia and Canada from Greece has not increased and remains in the region of 200-300 people annually, according to their respective ambassadors.

Among the professionals who choose the emigration route are economists and lawyers, computer programmers, engineers and chemists, architects and accountants. Professors have been known to cross the border to neighbouring Albania and Bulgaria to earn extra income by delivering lectures there, while many emigrant doctors and lawyers who cannot find employment are working as hairdressers, tourist guides and even pet escorts.

While the movements of populations across countries and continents can be beneficial and even desirable under certain conditions, Greece has a serious brain drain that in the long run will adversely affect the country’s effort to overcome the present crisis.

The slogan promoted by a number of government agencies – "Crisis is an Opportunity" – sounds like a sick joke to those who suffer the worst consequences of the crisis.

Economic orthodoxy claims that the road to economic recovery cannot take place without young people with fresh ideas, without well-educated executives and managers, without postgraduates who could help rescue the country from stagnation.

What is happening to Greece is the opposite. Its best people are abandoning the country to work for the hangman who tied the noose around the country’s neck in the first place.