Greece’s Brain Drain Problem Isn’t Going Away

Greece’s Brain Drain Problem Isn’t Going Away
Protesters with placards reading “Merit” and “Firing” march against government spending cuts, Thessaloniki, Greece, Feb. 20, 2013 (AP photo by Nikolas Giakoumidis).

Over the past decade, Greece has experienced a major wave of outward migration, with more than half a million people leaving the country out of a population of around 11 million. This exodus was driven by Greece’s prolonged economic crisis, which erupted in 2009 in the context of the eurozone debt crisis and technically ended in the late 2010s, but whose impact is still being heavily felt in Greece’s society and economy today.

During this time, Greece’s GDP declined by more than a quarter, while public debt reached more than 180 percent of GDP by 2018, when Greece finally exited the structural adjustment programs that had been a condition for bailouts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The austerity measures that were implemented as part of these programs resulted in soaring unemployment rates, which reached 27.5 percent in 2013, as well as drastic reductions in income and cuts to social welfare benefits. In the absence of an effective safety net, a significant number of Greeks ended up impoverished, with 23.2 percent of the population living in poverty in 2015. 

The effects of recession and austerity, combined with a generalized mistrust and disillusionment toward Greece’s institutions and the political system more generally, explain why so many Greeks chose to leave the country—and to stay away, with an estimated 400,000 remaining abroad today. Emigration increased steeply in 2010 when the first bailout memorandum with the EU was signed, peaked in 2012 and decreased modestly the following year before stabilizing, with approximately 50,000 Greek citizens emigrating annually until restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic slightly lowered those numbers in 2020.

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