International migrants are often identified as potential agents of change and development in academic and policy circles. One of the ways this can occur is through the transfer of values and beliefs from migrants to their home countries, so called ‘’social remittances’’ (Levitt, 1998). Although the existing literature focuses on various norms and beliefs (eg. fertility behaviour, entrepreneurship, electoral preferences), the potential transfer of norms regarding corruption remains relative unexplored (Carling, Paasche & Siegel, 2015).
This research gap is particularly evident in the case of Greece. Our study is the first linking migration and corruption in the country and is topical for two reasons. Firstly, Greece ranks consistently low in terms of transparency among EU and OECD countries (Transparency International, 2017). Secondly, the economic crisis in 2010 resulted in a massive exodus of a predominantly young, skilled labour force towards other EU countries (Labrianidis & Pratsinakis, 2016). Based on the existing literature, we hypothesised that migrants’ exposure to less corrupt environments will alter their previous views on corruption. Subsequently, migrants could contribute to mitigating corruption in Greece, either through remitting these new norms back home, or through acting as actors of change upon repatriation.
Our research examined the impact of experiences abroad on perceptions of corruption of Greek migrants in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, countries with significantly lower reported levels of corruption (Transparency International, 2017). Utilising a case-study methodology and conducting 27 semi-structured interviews, our findings indicate that Greek migrants’ experiences abroad influenced their perceptions of the phenomenon. The majority of the respondents reported lower tolerance towards corruption, a shift which lends support to our hypothesis but was manifested in various forms.
Overall, participants identified their host country as comparatively less corrupt, which they attributed to citizens’ law-abiding behaviour and the efficient, relatively transparent functioning of public institutions. This portrayal, which leads to a better aggregate outcome for society, they contrasted to a Greek system characterised by inefficient, heavily bureaucratic institutions and a strong dependence on personal and political connections. To their new environment, many participants responded as what Levitt defines as ‘’instrumental adapters’’ (1998): Their exposure to comparative experiences in their host country forced them to shift the previous views they carried with them from Greece. This change was often the outcome of a pragmatic need of ‘’getting along’’ in their new reality and meeting its challenges and constraints. For other migrants, their life abroad simply reinforced their pre-existing strong sentiments against corruption. In some cases, finally, change was manifested as a tangible shift in behaviour when they visited Greece.
This shift in behaviour was manifested in two forms: Firstly, as lower tolerance towards ‘’petty’’ corruption (e.g. non-issuance of receipts, ticket validation in public transport). Prior to migration, respondents viewed such practices as wrong but somehow acceptable as part of the prevalent mentality in Greece. Their experiences in the host countries, however, where such practices are less tolerated, eventually altered their behaviour. Secondly, change was expressed through the articulation of stronger demands for ‘’organisational performance’’ (Levitt, 1998), as indicated by their higher expectations for efficiency when interacting with public services in Greece.
However, although most respondents tried to remit their new beliefs back home, findings suggest limited social remittances to Greece and thus very limited potential for mitigating corruption. Four patterns appear to have impeded the impact of social remittances. Firstly, the lack of relevant direct experiences of their social environment in other countries, which would have allowed a direct comparison and a subsequent change in their perceptions. Secondly, the lack of responsiveness from their family and friends, which respondents attributed to lack of individual agency and portrayed as passiveness, pessimism and compromise. Thirdly, the need to ‘’adjust to each state of affairs accordingly’’, a justification mechanism for migrants’ reluctance to remit their norms on corruption back home. In this case, both participants and their social circle in Greece identified their host and origin country as two separate, non-interacting states of affairs, viewing corruption in Greece as a deep-rooted phenomenon that cannot change. Finally, the recent economic crisis emerged as a pattern exacerbating pessimism and compromise concerning corruption in Greece both from migrants and their friends and family back home.
The above-mentioned negative portrayal, ultimately, raises the reasonable but complex question of how change can come about in a disillusioned society. Concerning this question, our findings can lead to some further conclusions when viewed from a structure-agency scope. Within that discourse, individuals are perceived as agents because they make choices in pursuit of their goals. As for structures, they are the institutions within which individuals function and, to some extent, define the type and limits of individual’s behaviour (Roberts Clark, 1998). Interpreting our findings through this framework reveals the existence of a vicious circle in the country. On the one hand, the economic crisis and an institutional structure defined by widespread corruption impede individual agency. At the same time, limited individual agency contributes to the perseverance of corruption and thus of a highly undesirable status-quo.
This twofold gap, eventually, is crucial for comprehending the current state of affairs in Greece and formulating policies both against corruption and for more active diaspora engagement. Concerning corruption, our study recommends specific reforms at the institutional level and highlights that they will be perceived positively by the public only if combined with policies tackling the impact of the economic crisis. Concerning diaspora engagement, more inclusive policies could draw from the recent examples of Spain, Italy and Portugal (Lafleur & Stanek, 2017) and foster expatriates’ engagement in political affairs and in tackling corruption specifically.
Carling, J., Paasche, E. & Siegel, M. (2015). Finding Connections: The Nexus between Migration and Corruption. [Accessed 9 July 2017]. Retrieved from: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/finding-connections-nexus-between-migration-and-corruption
Labrianidis, L., & Pratsinakis, M. (2016). Greece’s new emigration at times of crisis. GreeSE papers (99). Hellenic Observatory, LSE, London.
Lafleur, J-M and Stanek, M. (eds.) (2017) South-North Migration of EU Citizens in Times of Crisis. Springer International Publishing.
Levitt, P. (1998) “Social Remittances- Migration Driven Local-Level Forms of Cultural Diffusion”. International Migration Review, 32 (4), 926-948.
Roberts Clark, W. (1998). Agents and Structures: Two views of preferences, two views of institutions. International Studies Quarterly, 42(2), 245-270.
Transparency International (2018) “2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.” [Accessed 12 December 2018]. Retrieved from: <https://www.transparency.org/cpi2017