Exodus

02.16.12

Greek Exodus: Workers Flee to Canada and Australia

Forget austerity. Thousands of Greeks, hung out to dry by the EU’s bailout requirements, are fleeing in record numbers—as far away as Canada and Australia. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

Lambrousi Harikleia reached her breaking point on Wednesday when her boss at the Greek Housing Authority in Athens announced that, thanks to the Greek government’s far-reaching austerity measures, both she and her husband would be losing their jobs. Harikleia and her husband, who have a disabled child, climbed out the window of their office building and threatened to jump to their deaths. “At least if we are dead someone will have to take care of our child,” she can be heard saying from her dangerous perch. After over five hours on the ledge, police were able to coax her to safety, but she still won’t be getting her job back.

Harikleia is one of thousands of increasingly desperate Greeks who cannot see a future under the current Greek austerity measures. The government has squandered its savings and is mired in a debt crisis that is no longer sustainable without help from the EU—which is clamoring for drastic cuts. But it is everyday Greek citizens who say they are paying the highest price for the government’s mishandling of its assets. Youth unemployment has climbed to just under 50 percent, and the future looks bleak. Austerity measures, which have included stinging cuts in wages, pensions and public sector jobs, are being demanded by the EU as part of a massive bailout deal that will or won’t happen in March.  If the bailout fails, Greece will default on its loans and face expulsion from the euro, the EU’s common monetary currency.

While frustrated members of the EU debate whether Greece’s attempts to manage its debt are good enough to warrant the bailout funds, many Greeks are either taking to the streets to protest or hitting the road altogether.

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A protester throws an object towards riot police during clashes in Athens on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. (Kostas Tsironis AP Photo)

In the last year, thousands of Greek workers have left the country. “There is no choice but to get out,” says 24 year-old Kostas Papadakis, who was one of many Greek nationals waiting for the Canadian Embassy in Rome to open on Monday morning. He and his girlfriend traveled to Rome last week after what he says was the last straw. “There is no work, there are no services. What is there to stay for?”

In the last six months since the Greek economic debacle hit its pinnacle, the Rome embassies to Canada and Australia have seen applications for work permits and visas nearly double. Rome embassies process Greek and Balkan country applications for the Commonwealth countries, but instead of working through local consulates in Athens, many Greeks are using their EU travel rights to come directly to Rome to try to get the necessary paperwork to leave. Papadakis says the local consulates are so overwhelmed that they have stopped taking new applications for visas altogether. “I feel like we are the first wave of people who realize just how serious this is,” says Papadakis, who has an engineering degree. “Even if we do find jobs, there is no way to earn a sustainable living any more.”

“There is no work, there are no services. What is there to stay for?”

John Yannitsos, head of the Calgary Hellenic Society, reports receiving hundreds of calls from Greeks with Canadian ties who want to move to Canda. The society can provide them with information, but they cannot offer any financial or placement assistance—meaning once they get there, there is no guarantee they will have a better life. “A while ago, it was in the dozens [of calls],” he told Calgary newspaper Metro. “Now we’re approaching a hundred-plus inquiries, and that’s just in Calgary.”

Would-be Greek immigrants are also flocking to Australia in record numbers.  Greeks make up the seventh-largest ethnic group in Australia, and many established family members are sending money to support their families in Greece or bringing family members to Australia to start over. The Australian Greek Welfare Society and the Greek Orthodox Communities of Melbourne and Victoria have formed a special task force to deal with the influx.

Bill Papastergiadis, head of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne, is lobbying the government to waive visa requirements that prohibit young Greeks from working when they visit the country. “We have to give these young people an opportunity to break the cycle, earn a living and then go back to Greece to invest. Otherwise we risk an end to the Greek culture.”

For people like Greek national Papadakis, returning to Greece is not on the horizon. “I have to get out and make it first,” he says. “And then I’ll have to wait and see if there is anything left to go home to.”