As the European economic crisis deepens, more and more people are leaving to seek a better life in emerging economies around the world. We speak to four who have moved abroad
For years Europeans have wrestled with the issue of immigration, from worries about changing national identity to integration and use of resources. And with Romanian and Bulgarian citizens eligible to work in the EU next year, the debate over whether – and how many – immigrants from struggling economies should be allowed to stay is as fraught as ever.
Yet something has changed. From Ireland to Greece, young Europeans are now the ones desperately seeking exit strategies from economies in free fall. Meanwhile, politicians from emerging economies such as Brazil or countries with skills shortages such as Australia are busy publicising the opportunities they offer to old-world escapees. But what is life like for those who take up the opportunities to follow the money and move abroad for work?
UK to Botswana
The popular image of British expats used to be of retirees, soaking up the sun and the slower pace of life on the Spanish coast. Not any more, according to Home Office figures. Of the 4.7 million people who currently live outside the UK, 93% are of working age. Yet while the numbers leaving grew for the past decade, they peaked in 2008 at 427,000 and have now dropped to around 350,000 a year – possibly because in a recession people need to save up to move abroad. But the figures have been enough to spark mild panic and fears of a “brain drain”. Conservative MP Nick de Bois said this month that it was worrying that “our most economically active are leaving to apply their talents elsewhere“, saying many are heading to “growth economies” elsewhere in the world.
One of those lured by the siren call of countries with emerging economies is Shiraz Chakera, 34, who now works for Unicef in Gaborone, Botswana: “Until the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ I worked in the policy unity at the General Teaching Council For England. I had been there for 10 years when the decision was announced, a few months after the current government came into power to get rid of it. They said it was to cut costs, but I think it was more political than economic.
“I did not think about going abroad at first. But the opportunities in the UK were minimal – thanks to the economic crises and government policies, there wasn’t going to be much investment in education. Instead, it was the emerging economies – India, China and various African nations doing exciting things.
“I started applying for jobs in the UK but also abroad as my master’s was in international development and education. But because about a dozen major education organisations were going under, so many people were applying for each role in the UK. For four months I looked every day, but I wasn’t getting very far. I had a couple of interviews, but most of the time I didn’t even get a reply.
“Then I was contacted by an organisation in India – the Akanksha Foundation. They run schools in partnership with the government to improve the quality of schooling in the slums. It was a great opportunity, but the salary was local so I knew I would have to use my savings. I had also just got engaged, so it was a hard decision. Luckily, my fiance is also interested in education and international development, and loved India, and I decided I should take it to get a foot in the door.
I flew out there in January 2011, and it was an amazing place to work. Mumbai and Pune, where the foundation is based, are exhilarating cities and it was a young, vibrant organisation. My wife flew out a month later, but by then I had got a call from Unicef for a job I had applied for back in October 2010 – this time in Botswana. I was really excited because it was an organisation I really wanted to work for and a job that would make a big difference.
“I didn’t know much about Botswana, although I had relatives who lived there in the 80s. I got the sense it was a sleepy country, sparsely populated, but well-off and with an emerging economy. If my wife had vetoed it, we wouldn’t have gone but she did her own research and decided she could get a job there too and settle in.
“When we arrived in May 2012 it was interesting. A lot of my family is in Kenya and Tanzania and I had travelled in west Africa, but Botswana was very different. It feels almost like midwest suburban America – very well developed, with wide roads and everyone driving 4x4s.
“Gaborone is a small city and after London, Mumbai and Pune, really felt it. There isn’t much going on. The expat community is also a much larger proportion of the city, not just westerners but lots of African expats too. It has been hard to get used to a social life that revolves round pool parties and barbecues. We miss the street food in India, and the bars, restaurants and cafes in London.
“But having said that, Botswana is a lovely place and the people are great. It’s like a nicer South Africa without the terrible history. And Gaborone is a hugely welcoming city. We have made a small circle of good friends and got to travel round the country a little bit and go to Johannesburg for the occasional weekend away.
“My wife has also found work volunteering, and although my contract is up in April we would like to stay at least another year. I am setting up a national programme for children who have dropped out of school and one year isn’t enough. But London will always be home and I wish I could visit more often. My brother has just had a second child and Skype doesn’t cut it.
“I think we will return in five to 10 years, but exactly when depends on the economic and political situation. Hopefully by then there will be more investment in education and more political will to create a better system in the UK. If that doesn’t happen it will be difficult to come back.”
Greece to Australia
Since the economic crisis hit Greece, Australia has become the land of opportunity for those fleeing the money worries and social unrest in their homeland. Last year Australia was expecting a 65% increase in Greek migrants as the situation in Europe worsened – and with unemployment in the Mediterranean country at 26.8%, the highest recorded in the EU, this is likely only to increase.
Melbourne already has more Greek-speaking people than any city in the world apart from Athens and Thessaloniki, thanks to a community established after the second world war, when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany. So many new immigrants have family links to the new world. Litsa Georgiou, 49, who migrated to Australia from Greece with her husband, Vlassis, and their five-year-old daughter Iliana, are no exception. But that hasn’t made the upheaval easier.
Litsa Georgiou: “We made the big move two years ago and it was exhausting, emotionally and physically. The crisis is entirely to blame. If I had my way I would still be living in Greece. I think about it every day and speak to friends there at least once a week. I miss the lifestyle, which is much more laidback than Australia – and of course the atmosphere and traditions. I don’t think there is one ugly place in Greece. I’ve found Australia hard even though I grew up here for a while.”
We had to live for a year with my parents, who also moved back before the crisis. Now we rent our own two-bedroom flat in Kingsgrove, a suburb in Sydney. Our daughter, Iliana, acclimatised very quickly. Kids adjust – it’s adults who take longer. We’re still homesick. Very often we play our DVDs, videos we took back in Greece, and we’ve got photos of our family and friends plastered all over the fridge.
We hear a lot about the country on the news as we watch [satellite] Greek TV and it’s not pretty, it’s really sad. When I look at the situation there I know I made the right move, especially where the little one is concerned. At least here we’re not struggling. We’re lucky, our rent is only A$300 a week and we’re able to pay our bills – we can make ends meet.
In lifestyle and culture Australia is very different to Greece. And it’s so regulated. You can’t get away with anything here! But opportunity-wise, in terms of work and Iliana’s future and education, it has a lot more to offer. It’s still the land of plenty even if the cost of living is unbelievably high.
Seven months ago I found work in a catering company. It’s very different from working in fashion and retail, which is what I’ve always done – but it pays well and it helps us cover day care and dance and swimming lessons for the little one. Our ideal, though, is to return to Greece and that will never leave us. Vlassis always says ‘when we’, not ‘if we’, go back to Greece. And every week I play the lottery, hoping that if we set ourselves the goal [of returning] we’ll get there one day.”
Vlassis Georgiou: “We had to start all over again moving here. Greece is my country but we just couldn’t survive there. The only reason we came here was the crisis and it annoys me that we couldn’t stay in the place that was our home. Australia was a culture shock in the beginning. But there was no future in Greece for our daughter – and all my friends, young people in their 20s and 30s, could barely make ends meet. By the time we left it was crazy. I saw dead dogs in the rubbish and it was clear they had been eaten. Later I heard that immigrants were eating them because they were so desperate. And then everyone knows someone who has taken their own life. I wasn’t an exception.
“I speak every other week with family and friends in Greece and all I hear is a lot of misery. Everyone wants to leave. Over the past year I know five people who have moved to Australia, all looking for work, and that’s just from Kiato [a town in the Gulf of Corinth] where we lived.
“In Greece a day’s wage is what you can earn in an hour in Australia. I’ve got a good job here working in unit maintenance, tending to buildings and gardens. In Greece you stress because you don’t have work. Here, it’s the work that stresses you, as I’m discovering having six men work under me in my team. There’s not much time to relax, but healthcare and schools are much better in Australia and it’s a country with opportunities.
“I miss Greece but I have to survive and although I know the only reason I came here was money, I also think Greece really needed to change. It can’t be compared with Australia. Over there, politicians are liars and traitors and the whole system is so corrupt. It may take 100 years to repair itself and even then I’m not sure. Every day I watch the Greek news and can’t believe how the situation goes from bad to worse. The Greeks are confused, they don’t know what to do. Seeing it from a distance I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up killing each other. There’ll be a social explosion for sure. We’re not living the best life but I can say that if you want to survive, Australia is the best country.”
Interviews by Helena Smith
Ireland to UAE
Ireland is no stranger to mass emigration but figures show that it is at a 25-year high – a record 87,000 people left the country in the first quarter of 2012. According to reports, the former Celtic Tiger now has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in Europe, with 14.6% of the population out of work.
Some commentators say emigration has saved Ireland from an even bleaker social and economic outlook, calling it a “social safety-valve” which has reduced unemployment and the stress on social services. The Economist also thinks it might be the reason why the country has avoided the social unrerst of neighbours such as Greece. But that is little comfort to emigrants such as Brendan Doris, 62, who feels he has been forced out of his home by the crisis.
“I moved to UAE out of desperation. I came at the end of September 2012 and I will be here for at least four years, if not longer. I’m an architect and self-employed, but I couldn’t get enough work in Ireland. All my clients kept putting projects on hold – there was potential work, but I can’t eat potential.
“My wife and I had liquidated every policy and fund we had – the kids’ college fund, our endowment policies – and we had no resources left. We had used all this and all our savings to keep paying our mortgage and I didn’t know what else to do. Social security is means tested and arbitary and they said they would give me €93 (£80) a month – how would a family survive on that?
“I had been resisting job offers abroad for about two years, but finally we had no more turns left and nothing to fall back on. I knew I couldn’t bring my family out because one of my daughters is autistic and it took years to get the system of support we have now, such as a specialist school. I have four children in total, aged 10-15, just the stage in life where they are making their own ties in society. So to bring them to an asphalt strip in the middle of the desert – not meaning to be derogatory about UAE, but that’s what it is – would be a wrench.
“Most of the people working here, their families go back home in the summer when the temperature gets to 38C but that presupposes somewhere to go to – we couldn’t rent out our house and then just move back when it suited us. Because of the European job crisis wages have dropped here too. So you are being closed in on from all sides.
“I met my wife in Malaysia when I was working on the international airpot there. We left there in 1999 – we were renovating a house to live there permanently, but the economy collapsed and there were no jobs so we decided to move back to Ireland. We thought we could make a go of it and for a time we did. I was MD of a small construction company, but the boom was false and when it stopped, the first to go were the small subcontractors.
“It has been difficult emotionally. I spend an hour and a half on Skype with the family every night, helping with their homework and watching them having their meal, so we have a virtual family evening – in some respects it’s more regular than when I was there. But this is very stressful and we still go through periods of doubt about whether we are doing the right thing. My wife is taking the kids around while trying to run her little Montessori school from home. Yesterday she missed one of our children’s plays, which was upsetting, because she had to take our other daughter to the doctor.
“I miss them. From when I finish work at six in the evening until six the next morning, it’s all I think about. Many nights I wake up and just look at the sky. I wouldn’t like to live here permanently because you can’t become a citizen and I am very attached to my own country. I am living in a hotel so I get all my laundry done and food cooked for me and everything is taken care of.
At work it’s an intense period – it’s the beginning of the project and they want everything two weeks ago. But I had my first social event last night with one of the engineers who has moved out from Canada. And I am trying to develop a life here – I need to start playing squash, to learn Arabic and even get round to learning the piano.”
Portugal to Mozambique
It is a bad time to be young, Portuguese and looking for work. The country’s youth unemployment rate has just hit 39.1%. A government minister caused a Facebook and Twitter outcry, not by telling jobseekers to “get on your bike”, but by encouraging them to emigrate. That is what Diogo Gomes did two years ago. He had just finished a degree in business and marketing management and wanted experience in the labour market. His best chance, he realised, lay overseas.
“The situation in Portugal is very delicate,” Gomes says. “In the past few years we have had very unprofessional leaders who have led the country into a huge deficit. The immobilised economy and the necessary austerity measures cut job creation. To move abroad is the only way to find a job and gain experience.”
Gomes, from Oporto, enrolled on a government programme placing trainees with Portuguese companies around the world and offering financial support. “Three weeks before leaving the country, I was informed that Maputo, Mozambique, would be my destiny for the following months.”
Now the 25-year-old, who is single, relishes this corner of southern Africa with its ocean views, elegant colonial-era architecture and celebrated seafood. “Actually, I consider myself a pretty lucky person. The Mozambican lifestyle is amazing and it’s very easy to adapt. There are plenty of things to do at night and you can have fun every day of the week.”
Gomes is the commercial and marketing manager of TD Hotels, a chain that has properties in Portugal as well as Mozambique and Angola. He is one of thousands of Portuguese deserting home with a sense that the grass is greener in these two former colonies, both of which are prospering as their one-time ruler declines. The trend has been described as a form of “reverse colonialism”.
“In terms of economic growth, these are two countries with very interesting developments that, allied with the fact of having the same language and similar culture, made this a natural happening,” Gomes says.
“Mozambique is enjoying a huge boom with coal and natural gas exploration and will stabilise this growth when this starts to materialise. Angola is a wealthy country in terms of oil and precious stones. However, these natural resources must be accompanied by services and a construction industry that still needs to progress. This means opportunities for foreign investment.”
The Portuguese occupation of Mozambique was another bitter chapter in African history; they left in haste, sabotaging vehicles and pouring concrete down drains and wells. But Gomes does not detect schadenfreude or resentment. “Mozambican people are very intelligent, they know that the colonial era is part of the past,” he reflects.
“They know that their beautiful country needs improvement and that we are here to make it happen faster. The civil war froze the economic and educational development and know-how is now needed to help it along.”
Meanwhile, Gomes misses the life he left behind – but not too much.
“Despite all the negative points, home is always home and Portugal still is a fantastic place to live. You only give the right value to certain things when you are far from them. However, I’m very happy where I am and twice a year is enough to visit my family and friends and go back to my roots.”