Monday, 17 March 2014

Neo-immigrant (Νεο-μετανάστης)

The UK recently announced a rise of more than 30% in migration to the UK in the last year, up to September 2013: Not sustainable, not absorbable (my opinion). I guess David Cameron probably didn't manage to curb Greek migration to the UK, as he had declared he would do in UK Parliament sometime in the summer of 2012.

For those Greeks who had been procrastinating up until now as to whether they should leave their problematic country and try their luck abroad, 2014 seems to be a decisive year for them. They are finally taking the plunge. What a shame it is the wrong time to do so, insofar as it concerns moving to a western country to live the dream of a "better life". Immigration issues these days tend to work against new migrants - the traditional employment market is saturated, and there is an increasing trend towards racism in highly industrialised countries, not to mention the problems that climate change seems to have created which simply slipped people's notice until it was too late: Australia and California are suffering drought; south England and Christchurch (New Zealand's second biggest city) are facing floods; and the US east is getting colder every year.

Feeling of hopelessness are making Greeks more resolute, with the idea of a new start far away from their shores looking ever more enticing. In the eyes of the na(t)ive Greek, the lights look brighter, the grass looks greener, and more importantly, the pocket looks fuller, up north. The doors are (still) open for Greeks in European Union countries in a way that they aren't in the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, but their choices remain limited: the choice seems to be mainly limited to the UK or Germany, with a biased preference for London or Berlin, respectively, although Greeks are now also branching out and trying for other parts of each country because of the troubles they have faced in finding work and accommodation in these two highly competitive capital cities.

If 2014 is proving to be a decisive year for the reticent migrant, it is also a year of revelations: the Greeks who migrated at around the time that the crisis began to be felt (some time in 2010) rather than officially 'broke out' (which is some time around November 2009: I wrote 'broke out' in quotation marks because the Greek financial crisis had been developing long before this 'official' start date) are now coming forth to tell their experiences through blogs, forums, help groups and various media articles, all appearing with greater regularity in the online mass media (as regularly as are stories coming out from Greece, of new ways of thinking). The stories evoke mixed reactions to immigration to the north: although work opportunities exist, and the majority of Greek movers express a degree of contentment concerning their move, many also describe a sense of delusion and disillusion which often leads them to re-think their move. Ultimately, cultural difficulties related to their move to highly multi-cultural destinations come into play when deciding whether to stick it out or not; not all Greeks who moved during Greece's difficult times have remained abroad (in other words, they both emigrated and repatriated since the crisis broke out). The basic reason for this is simple to understand: migration is not all it's cracked up to be. You often find yourself running away from one set of problems and ending up with another set.

It's a complex interplay to work out what went wrong for these people, whose numbers are impossible to gauge at this moment. It seems logical to believe that at this stage they are a minority, compared to those who have not returned... yet, the drama is still being played out. Why did these neo-immigrants (as they are generally known, to differentiate them in the Greek diaspora from settled migrants) return to problematic Greece? What did they expect to find where they went? Was it as elusive as they make it out to be, which drove them back home? Some clarifications need to be made before such a question can be answered. We need to understand what is going right in Greece, in a sense. Is the Greek economy improving? Well, only on paper... Is there more work here? No, not really... Maybe they missed the frappe in good weather? Yes, but not to the extent that it makes them all want to return home - Greeks are not as shallow as they are made out to be. It's something else, something not quite so tangible, a kind of feeling, attributed to Greece herself; Greece is that thing, after all.

One thing that should be remembered when analysing Greek neo-immigrants is that they did not leave their country on a working holiday. The concept of a working holiday is not understood by the grand majority of Greeks, even though that is in effect what they are actually doing. They just don't realise it, which is what leads them to their misconceptions about the world beyond thier borders (and especially up north). Had they realised what they were doing, they would have returned home feeling less deluded and/or disillusioned.

For starters, a bit of background information...

In 2010, people in Greece (I like to write that instead of 'Greeks' because not everyone in Greece is Greek) began losing their jobs in high numbers. Even though there was relatively high (for European standards) unemployment since before the crisis, the figures were not as high as they are now: Greece is reported as having the highest unemployment figures in the EU. Since the crisis broke out, unemployment has been steadily increasing, breaking its previous record, and not showing signs of decreasing. This has created an unprecedented need for people to seek opportunities for employment beyond the Greek borders.

While work opportunities seem to be the first consideration for Greek neo-immigrants, there is also the general feeling of the malaise affecting Greek society, influenced by the feeling of hopelessness about the economic and political situation. Greece does not have a good track history of stability in these areas at any point in its history, despite the prosperity of the time period. While there have been stable political and economic periods in Greece, they are far and few from the unstable ones. Before the crisis, Greeks were still 'relocating', but not to such a great extent. The idea of leaving one's country to work abroad for a short period has never been widely associated with Greece. But the idea of being educated abroad was a common one, and it continues to be. So Greeks are familiar with going abroad to study... but not necessarily to work. A good many people who studied abroad stayed abroad due to a good job opportunity, but a good many (I'd say most) also returned to Greece, believing in the qualifications they had gained abroad: a Master's and/or PhD. But the country was not able to absorb such qualifications due to the social/political climate - Greece is predominantly a highly renowned tourist destination and an upcoming leader (especially since the crisis) of 'real food', not an internationally renowned centre of advanced/vocational research or business activity. So what do you do with a PhD in a country where good marketable profitable food ventures involve getting your hands dirty while digging up the earth, or maintaining tourists' needs like what they eat, where they sleep and how they pass their time? Sure, we need educated people to devise good programs for all of these things, but we also need hands that are willing to get dirty and workers that are not based in an office - and we need far more of the latter than the former.

This is partly the reason why Greece is facing an employment crisis. Graduates are waiting for the dream job to come up in a country that can't offer it to them. It can offer them work, but not the kind that they believe they deserve. They think that their degree automatically places them in an employment and/or income category that is higher up the ladder than the work and income that is presently being offered to them. But anyone who has worked in a western country will know how so untrue this is. It does not even need to be explained to us (us = people who have been raised and/or have worked in a western country). Greeks are slowly coming to grips with this reality about the western world when they try to seek their fortune abroad. Most are surprised to learn that they may even have to consider volunteer work before they are offered paid employment in their chosen field, and it most certainly won't be well paid, either. Well-paid jobs do exist of course, but usually for those lucky few who have been head-hunted, often highly experienced and/or highly qualified people. Most of us do not fit into that category.

Language is the main factor in the UK choice. Most Greeks will speak some English, which is why they flock there. While Germany is also a choice for emigration, it is not quite as popular as the UK. Concerning the German language, fewer Greeks speak it. Greeks are more likely to know French than German, but Paris is not a popular choice for neo-immigrants. Paris is in crisis in a way that places like London and Berlin are not. Their crises are not visible to the neo-immigrant (a saturated job market, over-capacity, inadequate housing, etc)  So the choices for Greek neo-immigrants are obvious: go somewhere that allows you to enter freely and whose language you speak.

Greek migration sounds like a dire act of desperation to the ears of non-Greeks: there is an economic crisis in Greece, people are unemployed, they leave to find jobs. When the Greek crisis broke out, great ado was made of the 'fleeing' Greeks. To describe them as fleeing is an exaggeration; even if they were, what were they fleeing from? The scenario sounds like one of escaping poverty - but Greek neo-immigrants were never poor in the literal sense. The Greek sense of poverty is quite a different kind of poverty than, say, the British (and perhaps also the German) sense of poverty. Few Greeks who leave Greece in search of work up north are actually poor in that literal sense of not having much money or many belongings. None of those leaving are homeless or hungry. Most were living in the family home or in their own house. From my reading, most were even employed before they left Greece but were dissatisfied with their work and/or income. Few received any benefits, apart from unemployment benefit, which in Greece is only given to somebody who became unemployed, and only for a limited period of time - to get unemployment benefit, you need to have worked. When you read about Greeks wanting to emigrate but only if they can bring their pets and/or cars with them, you wonder how desperate they are.

The kind of work that Greeks end up doing in the UK and Germany is also very revealing. Leaving aside the chosen few who were head-hunted and highly sought-after, it is highly unlikely that neo-immigrants will find work very quickly in their new location, or that they will find work before they leave Greece. Nor will their first job be in their chosen work field. It is not uncommon for neo-immigrants to land entry-level low-paid jobs in positions such as store salespeople, hotel staff, food-industry workers (eg restaurants) and nursing jobs. They are often the same kinds of jobs that they could be doing in Greece, under different conditions (and under a different title). Although the salary levels seem higher, the expenses suddenly feel overwhelming. Renting a room in London (which costs twice the rent of a whole Athenian apartment) and living with strangers are two new experiences. Everything costs money, and it costs a lot more money than it would have cost in Greece. Even olive oil, which may have been a staple in their Greek home, looks out of reach. Talking of money, very little remains of their salary, just like in Greece. It is not at all uncommon for Greeks to register for benefits in the UK or Germany; benefits are the substitute for mama's and baba's money. Where parents' money helped them in Greece, benefits tide them through in the UK. It's all perfectly legal,but possibly just as unsustainable as mum and dad's money.

The answer to the question of why some Greeks are repatriating as fast as they are emigrating lies in some simple truths: it's getting more and more difficult to find satisfactory work abroad, at the same time that it is also getting easier to repatriate. Young Greeks hide a certain degree of naivety when making the choice to leave Greece to find work abroad. Even when they lived away from home while they were studying, it was done on parents' money. They weren't living independently in the true sense. Abroad, they find themselves unable to make ends meet, in the way that ends met while they were living in their student flat, or in the family home. Home suddenly reminds them of what they had, and how much less it cost them to have it, which leads them to reconsider their lives in the foreign country, in the same way that they reconsidered their lives in their homeland before emigrating.

Neo-immigrants are more transitory than they realise. Once the idea of working abroad as an experience catches in in Greece, Greeks will realise that they do not have to be neo-immigrants, or even immigrants. They are still in the learning process of the experience of working abroad. I expect that it will help them in the long run to better understand themselves and their country. The grass certainly does look greener on the other side, but you can only find out how damp it is when you get there

Electric Theseus, by Pavlos Sidiropoulos
... They sentenced you to waste your time living a life without prospects.
You lose yourself like a gull in Omonoia, and when you search for a solution to escape.
You pay your dues on tolls and shatter to pieces on the highway.
Electric Theseus is in a well, while Ariadne has gone mute.
Who is the prisoner doing life in the dark, and panics without payment?
Who bows their head to the boss, and who cries at night like a child?
Who dreams that somebody is coming out and taking thier first step?
Electric Theseus is in a well, while Ariadne has gone mute ...

References (* = in Greek): (immigration study leads to surprising findings)
* (a Greek - Cretan - woman describes her life in London)
* (a London performance based on working with Alzheimer's patients, staged by two Greek women, including the Cretan lady in the above link)
* (a Greek woman living in London explains why she does not want to go back to Greece)
* (a Greek man describes the feeling of always being asked how long they intend to stay in Berlin)
* (an analysis of three years of living in the UK - the 200+ comments, most of which are also written in Greek, are just as revealing as the article!) (translation into English of the above link, but not the comments)
* (a Greek woman living and working in Berlin) (a Greek woman describes her experiences in the UK)
* (a help group for Greeks moving to London/UK)
* (same as above)
* (a help group for Greeks moving to Berlin/Germany)

For more blogs and news about Greek neo-immigrants, you can also google νεομετανάστης, νεομετανάστες, and other related words (Greek nouns follow rules of declension).

The following links do not have to do with Greek emigration, but they add to the discussion:

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