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The World's Biggest Greek Community Outside Greece Is Preparing to Get Bigger

We look at how the unfolding Greek crisis will affect Melbourne, Australia, home to thousands of Greek nationals.

by Max Rann
08 July 2015, 6:00am

Image via Flickr user EnKayTee

Image via Flickr user EnKayTee

Last week, Greece defaulted to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after missing the deadline for its €1.5 billion repayment. Then, on Sunday, a referendum to decide whether to submit to its creditors' repayments resulted in 61.3 percent of Greeks voting no thanks. Greece now seems poised to make a gut-wrenching exit from the Eurozone.

Whatever happens next, Australia will undoubtedly be affected. Economically speaking, today the Australian dollar is trading at $ 00.75, the lowest it has been in six years. Socially, the effects could be even more far-reaching.

Australia is home to thousands of Greek nationals, while Melbourne holds the world's largest Greek community anywhere outside of Greece. Bill Papstergiadis, the president of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne, told VICE that since the financial crisis broke in 2008 there's been a major influx of Greeks into Australia. Like many others, Bill feels this is likely to continue.

"The majority of those coming are dual citizens," he says. "They're young people aged 18 to 50 who are looking for better career prospects."

Indeed, between 10,000 and 20,000 Greeks are estimated to have arrived in Australia since mid-2013. Given the Australian government's frequent rejection of asylum seekers on the unsubstantiated grounds that they're "economic migrants," there's an irony to this news that Greeks are migrating to Australia while Greece flounders in economic meltdown.

However, of the new arrivals, nearly 60 percent are Australian citizens or permanent Australian residents of Greek decent, returning to Australia after many years living in Greece. This has been the largest wave of immigration from Greece since the 1940s, when more than 150,000 people fled to Australia during the Greek civil war.

This time around though, it's not the needy and battle-scarred. Figures show these are young, highly educated people, with around 60 percent possessing tertiary-level qualifications. As Papstergiadis puts it, "It's not pensioners who are coming back, these are well educated people, coming for work, and Australia didn't have to spend money educating them."

Sotiris Hatzimanolis, editor-in-chief of Neos Kosmos, Australia's largest-selling Greek newspaper, agrees that Greece's brain drain can only be a good thing locally. "For Australia, both for the community and economy, it's good," he says. "Though many have difficulty getting work when they initially arrive, once they've broken into employment they have a lot to offer Australia."

Similarly, the Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS) writes, in a recently published report, that, "if harnessed appropriately," these migrants "bring benefits to Australia." However, it also raises numerous concerns about the difficulties the people are facing when first arriving in Australia. These include financial hardship, emotional distress, and social isolation, along with difficulties in accessing affordable housing and gaining employment.

Likewise, Papstergiadis says that many of the recent arrivals are struggling to get work in their field once they arrive in Australia. These are IT professionals, engineers, and medical specialists who are now taking menial jobs out of necessity. Yet he says there's a palpable desperation back home and unskilled work isn't a disincentive. "I've had well over 1,000 letters from people in Greece asking me for help," he says. These requests have come from Greeks of all walks of life saying they'll take any work, because they're struggling to feed their families."

Considering that Greece's unemployment levels hit 28 percent in 2014, with youth unemployment closing in on 58 percent, and suicide rates growing rapidly year-by-year since 2010, it's no surprise Greek's are looking for an overseas exit.

Harry Tsindos, co-owner of Melbourne's Tsindos Greek Restaurant, has witnessed the migratory influx first-hand. He described how highly skilled people have been coming to the restaurant looking for work. But the most concerning part for him is how the rest of the country now perceives Greeks.

"You say you're Greek and people joke at you saying, you don't pay tax, you don't bother working, or you can't pay us, things like that." While he's aware it's usually a casual jibe, he says he routinely finds himself defending his fellow countrymen.

In a country where it's common for southern Europeans to be called wogs, this kind of casual racism isn't surprising. And, though the crisis may have provided fresh cannon fodder, it's really nothing new. In the 1960s and 70s, southern Europeans were the recipients of the sort of racial attacks that have now been diverted towards the Muslim community or Asian foreign students. Yet, the fact that Greeks have it better offers Harry little solace.

He says that bowing to austerity measures has been humiliating for Greeks, while not keeping up with IMF repayments "cuts deep to the soul." But he's adamant there's not a cultural issue. "I've been a close observer of this and there's a lot of misinformation going on," he says. "I don't accept this is a cultural issue. The Greeks are industrious and hard working."

Which is why Tsindos says watching the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on TV with "the weight of the world on his shoulders" after defaulting to the IMF was heart breaking. "I don't agree with everything he's done," he says, "but I'm proud of him standing up for Greece."

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