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Greece: Some are leaving, others arriving

The economic collapse of the past two years and the inflows of poor immigrants make for a disastrous mix.

Last modified: 13 Nov 2010 11:18
Greek students have been holding regular protests against planned education reforms and government austerity measures [AFP]

I spent one day last week interviewing young Greeks who are desperate to leave this country. The two women whom I met in Athens  are intelligent  graduates, in their twenties, looking to launch their careers.

They speak six languages between them. But in this recession-hit economy, they see no prospects. Their pessimism is understandable; new figures show that unemployment for Greeks in their early 20s has reached an appalling 30.8 per cent. The women I met have come of age at just the wrong time, and are now planning to go elsewhere in Europe.

In fact, by the time you read this, one of them will already be in Sweden, looking for work there.

But Greece is full of ironies. Because just the following day, I was up on the Greek-Turkish border, with an EU police force struggling to control the flow of illegal migrants who are desperately trying to get into this country. These migrants are also in their 20s; they come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Eritrea, and so on.

They have travelled by air, by ship, by foot, and many are covered in mud and exhausted by the time they are arrested shortly after they slip over the Turkish border. They have spent whatever money they have to get this far, paying exorbitant fees to ruthless people traffickers and corrupt officials along the way. 

As a friend of mine pointed out, poverty is a relative concept. If you've come from a village in Afghanistan, Greece is (still) a very prosperous place. But this situation is slightly more complicated than it first appears, as I discovered when I spoke to many of the illegal migrants through the wire fence of a squalid Greek detention camp.

Most said they had no intention of staying in this country, but aimed to travel on to Germany, Britain, Sweden or France. In other words, even these people, who know so little about this old continent, are aware that Greece is pretty close to the bottom of the European pile.

This country is not the "Europe" that they (however erroneously) imagined as a land of milk and honey when they took the momentous decision to leave an African or Asian village. They dreamt of London, Paris, Stockholm and Munich, not Athens, or Thessaloniki.

Emerging trends

After four years of living in Athens, I can see some trends emerging that are not relative but absolute. The city centre is a noticeably poorer, more squalid and depressing place. The economic collapse of the past two years and the inflows of poor immigrants make for a disastrous mix.

Many businesses have closed down, many buildings have become slum-like accommodation.

Where will it all lead? One disturbing sign was last week's local elections. Chrysi Avgi ("Golden Dawn") is a Greek fascist organisation; it attracts violent people, and it is full of hatred for people of colour. In the past it has always been an irrelevance in elections. But this time, it won more than five per cent of the vote, and a seat on the municipal council.

In some of the inner-city areas where tensions between locals and immigrants are at their greatest, Chrysi Avgi won 15 per cent of the vote. Its success is already leading to a hardening of the political tone. The front-runner for mayor in this weekend's run-off vote is now talking about "the immediate repatriation, through legal means, of all illegal migrants".  

Maybe I'm digressing. But in Greece, the economic crisis now touches everything. Returning to those who want to leave, and yet another irony; in some ways Greece has been here before. In the 1950s and 1960s; many thousands of Greeks left this country, and travelled to America, Australia and Germany in search of new opportunities.

 Of course, there is a big difference between now and then. That first wave of Greek emigrants were leaving a country devastated by invasion and civil war. They owned little, and often came from the poorer islands or more remote parts of the mainland.

This time, it's the best and the brightest, the children of the metropolitan elite, who are going. One of the women I spoke to said, "It's like 30 years ago, when the Greeks went to the United States and Germany ... we're going to be immigrants". She toyed with that last word slowly, and smiled sadly, as if she had never imagined it would apply to her.