Over the last decade, Greece has been one of the hardest-hit countries by the global economic crisis – a crisis which not only affected Greece economically, but which provoked many political and social changes. One of the major consequences of the crisis – and rarely discussed in-depth – is the increasing and continuous loss of human capital through the emigration of the highly skilled. Qualified Greeks from 2008 onwards are increasingly seeking employment in other European countries or overseas according to their qualifications and skills (Labrianidis and Pratsinakis 2016). While both the existing literature on Greek brain drain and the media try to determine the size of this emigration, less attention has been afforded to the experiences of skilled emigrants and their potential contribution to development, ‘back home’ (Cavounidis 2015).
In my study ‘New Knowledge Comes Home: Highly-Skilled Greek Migrants’ Aspirations for, Realities of, and Barriers to Knowledge Transfer’ (Fotiadou 2017)  I have sought to determine how highly-skilled Greek migrants in London transfer knowledge from and to Greece. Drawing on 22 in-depth interviews with highly-skilled Greeks in London, the analysis is based on the geographical transfer of social, cultural, political and economic remittances and on the perceived aspirations for and barriers to this transfer. I examined the kind of knowledge transferred and how this is effected, the meanings that are attached to this knowledge, and the barriers to knowledge transfer that are subjectively perceived by highly-skilled Greeks in London as well as their attempts to overcome them. My study also nuances the boundaries and limitations of knowledge transfer, determines how it is gained, and how it could or does contribute to development in the migrants’ country of origin. The problematique focuses around how these migrants have transferred knowledge from Greece to the UK, within the UK and – as a final part of this circular movement – back to Greece.
Transnational knowledge transfer is conceptualised as a subtype of social remittances with the potential to stimulate development, but also, like other forms of social remittances, to circulate rather than only travel back to the origin country (Levitt 1998; Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2011). However, while the migration and development nexus sees migrants as the new contributors to development, it has so far ignored their voices and more precisely their experiences of transferring knowledge and skills at every stage of the migration cycle. At the same time, the academic literature on the topic seems to ignore the barriers perceived and imagined by the migrants. In my study I developed a typology of knowledge transfer but also of barriers met or imagined by the skilled migrants, based initially on a priori frameworks scoped from a literature review and subsequently on thematic analysis of the interview narratives.
The Greek migrants’ trajectories and perceptions of social remittances are shaped by their ongoing ties to the country of origin. The latter reinforces or weakens their will to contribute to the country’s recovery after the crisis. The participants were clear regarding their perceptions of the existence of barriers that prevent ambitions for knowledge transfer, or even push these aspirations away. As a result, their thinking becomes more individualistic and they put their personal gain before the greater good of society.
The study has shown that the extent to which Greek professionals in London aspire to or actually contribute by transferring their knowledge to Greece depends mostly on the cultural barriers perceived about their co-nationals. The mentality-related obstacles to sharing new knowledge and acceptance are more central than the economic obstacles. Their transnational actions and aspirations for change in specific sectors or in society in general, rely on personal reasons and ties with the country, which encourages or not these transfers. It depends on an understanding of the migrants’ experiences during the migration cycle. Their experiences before migrating strongly affect what they currently do in the country of settlement. And what they do in the host country, accompanied by the ties that they retain or not with the country of origin, explains how migrants remit or aspire to promote their ideas and knowledge back home.
Examining the experiences and attempts of the research participants to transfer knowledge to Greece, and the boundaries that discouraged or blocked this transfer, I arrived at a threefold typology of participants. The transporters are those who have concretely tried, and in some cases succeeded, in improving things in their home country. Such efforts often involved visits, collaborations and experimental plans. But barriers were often seen as too high for plans to be realised, or they found that their efforts were frustrated – by the ongoing economic crisis, bureaucratic obstacles, or the widely-referred-to ‘Greek mentality’. The second category – the dreamers – were aspirers of knowledge transfer, but those who failed to achieve anything yet – and perhaps never will. Finally, there were the denialists, the smallest group in the sample, who felt that Greece was a lost cause because of the nature of the ‘Greek mentality’ and the severity of the crisis, and planned never to return.
The original, qualitative findings of the paper may offer useful indications to policy-makers about what has to be done, mainly in terms of the removal of actual and perceived barriers, to subvert the brain drain and turn it into a productive brain gain.
Cavounindis, J. (2015) The Changing Face of Emigration: Harnessing the Potential of the New Greek Diaspora. Washington DC: Migration Policy Institute.
Labrianidis, L. and Pratsinakis, M. (2016) ‘Greece’s new emigration at times of crisis’, Hellenic Observatory papers on Greece and Southeast Europe, 99: 1-38.
Levitt, P. and Lamba-Nieves, D. (2011) ‘Social remittances revisited’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 37(1): 1–22.
Levitt, P. (1998) Social remittances: migration-driven local-level forms of cultural diffusion, International Migration Review, 32(4): 926–948
 The research which is published as working paper in the Sussex Centre for Migration Research working paper series was carried out within the frame of the Horizon 2020 project on New European Youth Mobilities (YMOBILITY) based at Sussex and coordinated by Prof. Russell King. Since Greeks were not one of the sampled groups in YMOBILITY (which were Italians, Spaniards, Romanians, Slovakians, Latvians and Irish), this dissertation-based study contributed a useful adjunct to the main project, whose interview schedule I was able to use and adapt.