The journal Work, Employment and Society (WES) recently published our article titled: The ‘new’ migration for work phenomenon: The pursuit of emancipation and recognition in the context of work, which was based on a survey of 150 skilled Greeks who migrated to Germany for work in the aftermath of the economic crisis. This paper examines the ‘new’ migration for work phenomenon gripping Southern Europe, since the Global Financial Crisis struck in 2008.

Since the financial downturn and up to 2016, over 400,000 of Greece’s 10 million citizens have migrated, with more than one third heading to Germany. The central aim of the study was to understand the factors that motivate Greeks to leave their crisis-stricken homeland. Dominant wisdom sees a focus placed on economic motivators alone – particularly for skilled migration. The evidence presented in our paper debunks this convention, demonstrating the significance of non-economic factors that go beyond social networks and family reunion.

Drawing on Honneth’s notion of emancipation, we concluded that in the case of our participants, migration presents as a form of emancipation that allows individuals to not only regain recognition and self-respect, but also to protest the erosion of social and human rights in their home country. The mainstream debate around migration, including the debate concerning refugees, often places a primacy on economic factors as the sole motivator for migration. Our study has shown that this is not always the case, since most of the survey participants migrated in search of meaningful work and as a form of resistance to deteriorating institutions and social injustice, which is in stark contrast to previous migration waves from Greece. This unexpected finding has sparked intense media interest across various Greek media outlets.

At the time of writing, our research has appeared in two press articles in the daily newspapers Ta Nea (one of Greece’s largest daily newspapers); it has been discussed on ERT radio (Greece’s state broadcaster) and on the main public broadcasting channel ANT1. With debates surrounding the daily intake of Syrian conflict refugees raging across all Greek media outlets, it is unsurprising that migration-related stories are a daily news item, but it is fair to say that Greece has for a long time served as a country of emigrants rather than immigrants.

Greece has a long history of emigration, which has created a sizeable diaspora of at least three million people around the world. Low-skilled workers and farmers formed the main cohorts of Greek migration between 1903 and 1917, when Greeks migrated primarily to the USA, Australia, Canada, Brazil and south-eastern Africa. The post-World War II exodus through to the early 1960s also included predominantly low-skilled farm workers (Ventura 2015). In the third wave from 1960-72, five in ten declared themselves as manual workers (Moskos, 1989). Ventura (2001) noted that following World War II and the Civil War and up to the political changeover of 1974, successive Greek governments used migration as a ‘safety valve’ to address potential social unrest from a bloated population and a large labour reserve.

The recent migration flow to Germany is an interesting case not only because it provides an opportunity to study a new migration pattern from one of the most crisis-stricken regions of Europe to one of the least affected regions, but also because it allows us to build on theories of migration elaborating the motivators for migration while challenging the dominant wisdom. Importantly, a significant difference between the current and previous flow of migration is that migrants from Greece today are characterized by a different profile, as they are mostly highly skilled, young and often in employment when deciding to migrate. Significantly, Greece is experiencing its biggest brain drain in modern history, with close to half a million of its most able and talented professionals having left since the start of the economic crisis (Bank of Greece, 2016). These numbers are impressive given that until recently Greek citizens were amongst the least mobile Europeans (European Commission, 2010).

Honneth’s notion of emancipation may also prove useful for future research into what motivates skilled workers to migrate, beyond crisis-conditions. Our research presents utility for studying skilled migration beyond Europe and more generally. For example, patterns of migration in the context of Brexit in the UK. Academics from EU and non-EU countries are departing from British universities for jobs elsewhere since the UK voted to leave the EU. The same applies to EU doctors and nurses. There are 41,000 nursing vacancies in England alone, but in 2018 there was an 87% fall in the number of EU nurses coming to the UK. Furthermore, the notion of emancipation from wretched conditions of work and from human rights violations could also aid a better understanding of the motivation for migration by refugees, whose mobility is often associated with economic factors in mainstream media.

More broadly, the mainstream debate placing the spotlight on the economic motivators for migration sees the so-called economic migrant pitched as the ‘boogie man’ of Europe; a migrant who is only coming to take jobs, money and other resources from the population of the receiving country. As such, the ‘boogie man’ portrayal has been framed as a threat to the populations of countries that receive migrants, presented as a ‘convenient’ truth by politicians and the media across Europe to distract from wider structural and social issues.

One could argue that we urgently need to reframe our notion of ‘the migrant’ in a way that re-humanises them, which in turn will allow us to develop empathy for their decision to migrate, work and settle elsewhere. As our study showed, individuals migrate to free themselves from: the shackles of their home country, the lack of social and human rights and for the possibility of a life that provides them with dignity and recognition.

Bank of Greece (2016) Φυγή Ανθρωπίνου Κεφαλαίου ̈Η Σύγχρονη Τάση μετανάστευσης των Ελλήνων. στα Χρόνια της Κρίσης Οικονομικό Δελτίο 43: 33–58.

European Commission (2010) Geographical and Labour Market Mobility. Special Eurobarometer 337/Wave 72.5 – TNS Opinion & Social. Available at: ebs/ebs_337_en.pdf (accessed 3 March 2019).

Moskos C (1989) Greek Americans: Struggle and Success Transaction publishers: US.

Ventura L (2001) Greek governments, political parties and emigrants in Western Europe: Struggles for control (1950-1974), Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 17(3) 2001:43-66

Ventura L (2015) Early Cold War: The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, ed. Ventura L, University of the Peloponnese, Tripolis, Greece

Joana Vassilopoulou (Brunel University & Erasmus University), Dimitria Groutsis (The University of Sydney Business School), Olivia Kyriakidou (Researcher, Founder of imasterPA) and Mustafa Ozbilgin (Brunel University & Université Paris-Dauphine).