Migration now and then - Greeks in Germany

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"Heimatkunde" 2011 © Jannis Psychopedes

by Elena Marda

Does history repeat itself after all?

Sullen faces, tired eyes, weak postures, dark clothes and a sense of fear and insecurity in front of a completely different and unknown environment. Waiting in the line, outside of the Selection Committees with a certificate of good health in their hands. March 1960.

Worried faces, vivid eyes, healthy bodies, nicely matched clothes and a sense that a part of this belongs to them as well, the bitterness that hope has been kidnapped. Waiting in the line, outside of the employment agency with a three page CV at hand. March 2012.

Is there after all that much difference between the uneducated Greeks that began to settle in Germany shortly after the end of the World War II and were reinforced by a new wave during the 1960s, with the highly sophisticated Greek students and young professionals that wish to find a better job than the one that they are being offered (if any) in Greece?

World Word II was a landmark in European history for several reasons. For Greece, it marked the great exodus from the countryside to bigger towns inside the country and abroad. Insecurity and the poor living conditions transformed the once farmers to workers. For Germany, it highlighted a new start, an attempt to rise from its past mistakes and to reinvent itself in the form of a mainly industrial economy in need of cheap willing labor.

In 1960, the “Agreement of employment of Greek people in Germany” established this newly forged relationship between the two countries. Since then, around 1 million people immigrated to Germany to work in industries, mines and services as unskilled workers. Only 7% of them were from cities, whereas the vast majority (around 85%) was coming from small towns and villages (Matzouranis 1998). Their major contribution was nothing more than cheap labor, being used to work long hours under difficult conditions in order to save money and send it back to their families that were left behind.

These work contracts were not assuring the establishment of the whole family, and were exclusively oriented to people of a productive age, since 90% of them were aged between 18-35 (Fotiadi 2010). The immigrants were given the name of “guests” and they were denied any political or social right. Germany struggled not to be characterized as a country of “host”, and the “Gastarbeiter” was the new name for the Greek (and other) immigrants, only to turn into an insult shortly after.

Some years later, the protagonists have changed, but the scenario stays more or less the same. According to the daily newspaper “Kathimerini”, during the first semester of 2011 there has been an increase of 84% concerning the arrival of Greek workers to Germany. The characteristics of the Greek “new-immigrants” vary. Most of them are young and highly educated, but at the same time it seems to be a rather big number of second generation immigrants who took the decision to return to the homes of their parents and grandparents (Fotiadi 2012). To this end, Goethe Institute in Athens has observed a significant increase in the number of students interested in learning the German language, even though it had not been their priority up to now (iefimerida.gr, 2011)

However, living in Germany is not an easy issue for the newly arrived Greeks that have to overcome a number of practical obstacles when prejudice sometimes is covered under the demand of an IRS clearing or a proof of bank savings for the lease of a small apartment (Fotiadi 2012). Even the integration of children at schools is problematic at times,, since Greek schools in Germany shrink and shut down due to reductions applied to the educational budget from the Greek government. Greek children in Germany learn the word “Sparen” (“saving money”) perhaps way too early. Immigration and integration of Greeks remains a challenge for the German state and society, besides the reformed legal framework that has been put in place in 2005 in order to encourage motivated professionals to settle in the country.

Unfortunately, there are many who try to take advantage of this difficult situation, trying to make a profit out of the desperate need of people to find a job in Germany. Some “employment agencies” in Greece overcharge for their services, Greek job seekers being promised that they will have a secure job in Germany, even without having the minimum requirements, like speaking the language. In order to face this problem and avoid further exploitation, the “Greek Network Operators in North Rhine Westphalia” has been created to coordinate the resources of the agencies involved, to exchange information on the needs of newcomers and to provide assistance, depending on the needs of future employers and employees (24h news room, 2012).

The phenomenon of migration towards other countries of Europe, where one is more likely to find a well paid job, is already influencing the foundations of Greek society. Greece is turning once again – just like during the 1950s and 1960s – to a country of emigrants – compared to the country of host that it has been lately, due to the mass wave of people migrating to Greece, coming mainly from Asia and the Balkans.

From a broader perspective, while Greece seems to have the most burning problem in terms of its financial situation, the word unemployment is not unknown for the rest of Europe, either. According to Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union) “the euro area seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 10.8% in February 2012, compared with 10.7% in January” (Eurostat, 2012). And since unemployment is all about real people and their needs, the percentage is translated to 17.134 million men and women who have not been able to find a job in February 2012.

This unfortunate situation reveals an almost subconscious inclination of people to move towards northern richer European countries, without being fully informed about the actual prospect of finding an occupation. Indeed, the Federal Statistical Office “Destatis” observes an increase of 30% related to immigrants from countries of central Europe that have recently joined the EU towards countries of northern Europe with stable economies and protected financial environment. Yet again, Greece is observed to obtain the highest increases in all unemployment rates, leaving little hope for a quick amelioration of the productive dynamic (idem). Interestingly, this development is considered to be related to the removal and remaining restrictions on the German labor market to nationals of those countries. To the same extent, Bundesbank has recently given to publicity its monthly report underlining that the German state will be forced to accept around 200.000 immigrants each year in order to counterbalance its rapidly ageing population (To vima, 2012)

But migrating is not necessarily a bad consequence, neither for the immigrants, nor for the country of host. Contrary to various political statements, the multicultural model is not dead. The new wave of migration with its diversity and dynamism enriches the economic, social and cultural life of cities in Germany. This new air is reflected in various cultural programs, efforts, activities, associations and venues that dynamically change the character of German cities like Berlin. Likewise, but from the other side of the mirror, people who migrate to Germany, once they settle in, after overcoming the language difficulties and the first impression of a brand new country, have the possibility to explore and embrace a different culture, a new way of living.

Some of the professionals will return to their home countries with new skills and ideas to help ameliorate the economy of their country. Moreover, the diverse social and culture settings and the various - unknown up to recently - environments at which they are exposed, may contribute to the formation of people who are more open and tolerant to different opinions, ideas, religions and perceptions – a characteristic more and more needed these days when the radical extreme right wing seems to find a more permanent place in the society.

Nevertheless, and besides the positive attitude with which one would like to handle the new economic reality in Greece, it is impossible to ignore the fact that optimism for the future is getting one of the endangered species of the social Greek structure. A society in decline, as the one existing in the southern-east part of Europe, needs more than reforming policies and reinforcing financial packages. The economic crisis that has been striking so violently the country for the last five years is depriving it from the most important element: the youth. Young people turn to other countries taking away with them all the essential characteristics that are needed in a country that desires to start over.

This phenomenon is what experts call “braindrain” and it refers to the mass migration of trained, talented people from one country to another in search of a higher quality of life (Kyambalesa, 2009). This “human capital flight” can change the bases of a society, since the most productive part of the nation is being forced to flee. This can be a significant loss to a country like Greece that is found currently in the path of socio-economic changes and reforms. Young, skilled, motivated professionals are the essential power to start over the statist engine and to expedite development and competitiveness – both processes so much needed in Greece.

In addition, it is not only the people who decide to expatriate, but the ones who do not return to Greece after having completed their studies. Several students who graduate from German universities delay their return home after being offered beneficial contracts to various institutions or prefer to try their luck before returning to Greece. This is more intensely observed among the medical professionals, since Germany needs more people in this particular sector. Under the hard working conditions that exist in Greece for some fleeing seems to be the only realistic solution to their everyday survival problems.

However, something seems to be changing. The momentous rise of the radical left (SYRIZA) that obtained 16,78 % of the total votes in the recent elections overshadowing the two larger historical parties (New Democracy - 18,85 % and PASOK - 13,18 %), and at the same time, the first entry with 6,97 % of the extreme neonazi party (Golden Dawn) in the Greek Parliament make it clear that the political scenery of Greece has drastically and forever been altered (Ministry of Interior, 2012).

Besides the obvious remark that the long lasted bipartisanship is now shaking, the message is still blurry. The high percentage of abstain in the elections that is estimated around 35 % (ibid.), along with the plausible assumption that a significant part of the vote towards extreme parties could be considered as a protest vote, meaning as well that it could easily be redirected towards a completely different political formation, are two variables that should be carefully weighted when it comes to conclusions regarding the current political situation in Greece.  To this extent, the worrying exponential increase of the Golden Dawn is a phenomenon difficult to grasp keeping in mind the difficult situation under which many Greek people work and live. On the one hand, in times of desperation extreme parties seem to gather the interest of voters who are constantly surrounded by an environment of fear and insecurity, (to this one would add the lack of a comprehensive migrating policy in Greece and the acknowledged difficulty of surveillance of the borders with Turkey that explodes the problem of illegal migration that is observed in the center of Greek capital). But on the other hand, it seems that Greeks have quite easily forgotten that they themselves as well have been migrants for almost two decades, and that under the current condition there is a renewed interest in leaving the country by younger and older people.

Additionally, one should take into consideration the fact that the left coalition-party SYRIZA has been voted by a large number of young people, pointing out perhaps that there is still willingness to stay in their country and correct all the mistakes of the past making a fresh start. But in the EU and especially the euro zone, a fist start is almost unconceivable without allies. The appointment of François Hollande in the presidency of the French Republic gives some expectation for a reconsideration of the exclusive austerity packages that are proposed like a financial panacea to every country with economical problems. The fall of the central-right government in Romania and its replacement by the socialdemocratic newly formed administration of Victor Ponta after denouncing the privatization process and the "privileged" lobbying of public funds, is yet another sign that the triptych austerity – reforms – reductions of the IMF can no longer be considered as the unique solution (Real.gr, 2012). 

The modification of the political environment not only in Greece but in the rest of the Europe as well, could have a significant consequence as regards to the amount of people who desire to flee. While there is a slight sense of optimism and insurrectionism in the streets of Athens, it remains to be seen what the outcome and, therefore, the impact will be on the lives of people. Political instability will only grow the fear and the insecurity of people who will massively turn to alternative solutions and migration. Even if a left wing government is formed, it seems that there are not many options left for the Greek people and the dead-end of the austerity measures imposed. Germany is vividly present once again as the chancellor Angela Merkel stresses that “the programs that we have agreed with Greece will be continued and resumed“ (BBC, 2012) implying that there is little hope left that the financial package can be modified in favor of the lower incomes. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or is it that desperate measures brings nothing but desperation to people?

There has definitely much been said, discussed, debated, acknowledged or criticized regarding Greece, Germany, the euro zone, the crisis and the evident correlation that has brought these coefficients together provoking unprecedented consequences to a number of people, some politically involved and active, others not. After going through migration history in Greece one cannot help but wonder: is it the Greeks who abandon Greece, or is it Greece that has already abandoned its children? When the proven scarcity for jobs and the lack of faith and hope is in everyone’s mouth, it is hard and perhaps irrelevant to judge those who try to designate a better future for them and their families. Poverty is not only a threat for these people, but a harsh reality that has to be eradicated. On the other hand, the social (and perhaps theoretical) problematic remains; is it possible to imagine a better future for Greece when young people continue to emigrate for other countries without the prospect of coming back to pass on their beneficial experiences? The answer is uncertain and diverse for each one of us. For me the solution is clear: people who travel, broaden their minds and return to communicate their experiences to the rest of the society is the only way for the country to exit from the economic and social dead-end. It is the only way for Greece to get better. In all terms.




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Elena Marda has obtained her master in Political Sciences from ULB University in Brussels, while working as an intern in the European Parliament. She now lives in Athens working for a member of the Greek Parliament.