ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek website designer Thanos Sioris sees only one way out of his country’s severe debt crisis: board a plane and never look back.
The cordial 40-year-old never dreamed he would spend his life with his wife and son anywhere but at home in Greece, where he worked hard for 12 years to build up his company.
But the debt crisis that has rocked the euro zone abruptly shattered his world. The country’s worst recession in 40 years and skyrocketing taxes are now threatening his business and forcing him to uproot his family to survive.
“Here in Greece, everything is so depressing and so expensive ... My clients are closing down, firing staff, they owe money to banks,” Sioris said as he prepared to leave for Hong Kong for one month to develop contacts there.
“Why live here without work, without income?”
Sioris, who is making plans to move to the Asian financial centre by next summer, is part of a new wave of emigration of thousands of qualified Greeks seeking to escape their country’s record high unemployment.
At home they face many more years of austerity to shoulder Greece’s gigantic debt burden, expected to exceed 350 billion euros this year. That’s more than 30,000 euros per inhabitant — more than one and a half time the average per capita GDP.
Unemployment has jumped to more than 16 percent, well above the euro zone’s 10 percent average, with the young hit the hardest as the economy is dragged down further by austerity measures meant to shrink the budget deficit.
“Half of my friends want me to take them with me,” Sioris said, as he made plans to swap his home’s turquoise waters and ancient monuments for Hong Kong’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers.
Tips on how to make it to the United Kingdom, Germany or further away to Australia or the United States have spread like wildfire among students, jobless youth or families who have seen their incomes drop dramatically.
When Australia organised an informational seminar in Athens in early October to explain its migration policy and visa procedures, as it does regularly around the world, it caused a media frenzy and its website was flooded by thousands of applications.
But actually finding a job overseas has proven a tough battle, with Greeks competing with high skilled workers from all over the world.
“There has been a significant increase in interest (from Greeks),” said Australian ambassador to Athens Jenny Bloomfield, herself the descendant of Greek migrants. “But there are no special arrangements for Greece or for any other country.”
Some 140,000 to 150,000 Greeks migrated to Australia from the early 1950s to the early 70s, but since then Australia has been granting only about 100 visas to Greeks each year.
Those seeking to migrate to Australia, the United States, or closer to home in Europe are mostly young, highly skilled Greeks who have studied abroad, a far cry from the time when hundreds of thousands of their parents and grandparents, poor farmers and blue-collar workers left to work in the world’s factories and mines.
“What we have is white-collar workers, graduates leaving the country,” said Lois Labrianidis, professor at the University of Macedonia. He estimates that about 10 percent of graduates work outside of the country and warns this will have long-term effects for Greece as it battles this crisis.
“These are people who should help this country’s economy move from products and services based on cheap labour to high-end products,” he said. “The fact that they are leaving is a major blow to the prospects of the country.”
Greeks can move freely within the border-free European Union, meaning a job interview is no more than a budget airline flight away.
The German branch of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE), a not-for-profit organisation which helps and represents the Greek diaspora, has been swamped.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Costas Dimitriou, the head of SAE in Germany, said in a phone interview. “People come here, or write to us ... that they feel they are drowning, that they need help or have no money to feed their children.”
Dimitriou estimates that the 300,000-strong Greek community in Germany has grown by over 10,000 since the crisis started. This is at the end of a decade when many Greeks had been returning home, lured by their country’s economic success in the years of joining the euro and the 2004 Olympics.
“They cannot pay their phone bills, their houses are confiscated, they have loans and they have lost their jobs,” said Dimitriou, himself the son of a Greek couple who migrated to Germany in the 1960s. “This is why they want to leave.”
Adding insult to injury, some would-be Greek migrants face difficulties because of the stigma created by the same debt crisis that is pushing them away from their home.
“All of a sudden, they are looking at us with suspicion... they see us as lazy good-for-nothings that they are throwing their money away at,” Dimitriou said, referring to the European Union and International Monetary Fund’s bailout of Greece.
It’s not just Greeks who are thinking of leaving.
Tens of thousands of foreigners who were part of a mass migration to Greece over the past two decades, when the economy was booming and the country needed extra hands, have now lost their jobs.
Mirela Gjata and her husband Avni, a builder, are among hundreds of thousands of Albanians who came to live in Greece after the fall of communism and integrated well. After 15 years, they want to leave with their two daughters.
“It’s a very hard situation now,” said Gjata as she left the Australian embassy, clutching a document explaining how to apply for a visa.
Sitting on a bench working her way through a French grammar book in the warm autumn sun in central Athens, 32-year-old unemployed engineer Domna Raptopoulou said is trying for Australia or Paris, where her boyfriend lives.
“There are no jobs here,” she said.
Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Sonya Hepinstall