Stories of migration

Brain Drain in Greece

© Becky Stares -© Becky Stares - Fotolia.comAbout half a century after the first wave of emigration from Europe’s then “poor house”, the debt crisis threatens Greece again with a mass exodus. But if before it was mainly unskilled workers and farmers that set off to try their luck and seek a living in foreign parts, now the country is faced by a “brain drain” of highly qualified professionals. Developed countries such as Germany await them with open arms.

Competition knows no mercy. As luck would have, just as in crisis-shaken Greece masses of disaffected doctors took to the streets in early April 2011 to protest government cuts in health care designed to stave off national bankruptcy, the International Placement Service (ZAV) of the German Federal Employment Agency invited them to “information and job brokerage events for physicians” in Athens and Thessalonica. The events were addressed to doctors in all specialities who could there “enquire about living and working conditions in Germany” – and especially to graduates “waiting for advanced training as specialists or an ‘agrotiko’”, the internship in the countryside with which young Greek doctors tend to shorten the long waiting period of two to twelve years before entering their specialisation – and which is equally unpopular and inevitable.

Doctors in the vanguard

© Manuel Tennert - Fotolia.comIt is well known that, for some time, there have been significant personnel shortages in Germany in several medical fields. And medical care in the countryside and in particular in eastern Germany leaves much to be desired. In 2005 every fifth doctor in eastern Germany came from abroad. Especially popular are Greeks that have completed their medical training in Germany. Yet they are only the vanguard. Exactly 32 years after the official recruitment stop for Greek “guest workers”, German work placement officers are again on the road, like the Germaniken Epitropin en Elladi (German Commission in Greece) in the 1960s and 70s.

The exodus is still within limits and still far removed from the days when every tenth Greek tried his luck in foreign parts and entire villages and regions were abandoned. Yet according to a survey by the Greek opinion research institute Kapa Research from August 2010, more than two-thirds of all young university graduates are considering emigration – no wonder with youth unemployment at 40 per cent. And one must bear in mind regarding this statistic that particularly young people do not register at all as seeking work if they are not entitled to unemployment benefits. Job placement through the employment office is unlikely because by far most jobs in Greece are filled through personal connections.

Little hope for a turnabout

© sogmiller - Fotolia.comIf the Greeks first responded to the crisis in a manner characteristic of the country by tightening the belt, closing ranks and taking their fully-fledged children back into the nest, by now most of them have recognised the lack of economic prospects. For those who returned home after studying abroad and have now lost their jobs, it is natural to leave again. Especially as countries such as Germany have made no secret of the fact that they are seeking highly qualified people to meet their need for skilled personnel.

All this ominously recalls the situation in Ireland, where the economic boom of the emerging IT and service industry not only kept people in the country but also lured many emigrants back from the diaspora. Today, with the crisis, many are again packing their bags. In Greece, moreover, daily bad news and discussions of further cost-cuts to rehabilitate the budget is spreading uncertainty. Few people still have confidence that the reforms and cuts will lead to an economic turnabout by the end of 2011.

Bad times lie ahead

© K.F.L. - Fotolia.comThe downward spiral began in 2009 when, as a consequence of the worldwide financial and economic crisis, unemployment soared, according to Eurostat, from 7.9 to 10.2 per cent within a year. In November 2010 it was, according to official figures, already 13.5 per cent. And for 2011 economists of the OECD expect an increase to 14.3 per cent. The Greek Trade Union Federation GSEE regards this number as far too optimistic. It assumes a figure of at least 20 per cent – which would correspond to the unemployment rate of 1960, when hundreds of thousands of Greeks had to emigrate – and predicts a relapse of purchasing power to the level of 1984.

The Greek shipyard and construction industry are both devastated. While the chemical industry has still been able more or less to hold its own thanks to fusions and the rise in drug consumption, the loss of public contracts has hit the electronics, IT and telecommunications industries hard. But the savings and restructuring measures of public hospitals, and the decline in investments in private clinics and diagnostic centres, are also having adverse effects on medical technology. And even tourism in this former holiday paradise has not been spared. Menelaos Givalos, a political scientist at the University of Athens, has already warned the Greeks on television that the really bad times are still ahead. In September 2011 there will be a big wave of layoffs – with “extreme social consequences”.

Roland Detsch
is a freelance editor, journalist and writer based in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
May 2011

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