In pandemic e-work, Greece sees chance to reverse brain drain

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Athens (AFP)

The pandemic was a wakeup call that reminded Christophoros Xenos of what he misses most in London -- the Greek sun and pleasant Mediterranean way of life.

The 36-year old risk manager left Greece in his early 20s for Britain, aiming to complete his studies, gain professional experience abroad and come back.

This never happened, as the decade-long Greek crisis that followed killed thousands of jobs.

But during the first coronavirus wave, Xenos took advantage of remote work to return to Greece for three months -- and homesickness hit him hard.

"I worked for three months from Athens and the Greek islands and really enjoyed the weather, the quality of life, the return to the homeland," he told AFP.

With thousands of employees like Xenos capable of working remotely, Greece sees an opportunity to bring back some of the minds the country lost during the past decade.

"We want you back," Alex Patelis, chief economic adviser to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said at a recent Delphi Forum online event.

"Open offices, set up new companies or move part of your businesses to Greece. We have the sun, the technology, and we are by your side," he said.

Some 500,000 people moved abroad during the Greek crisis. The economy shrank by a quarter and unemployment skyrocketed to 28 percent. Since then, job figures have improved, but unemployment remains more than double the European Union and eurozone average.

The exodus of half a million people cost the Greek economy more than 15 billion euros ($18 billion), according to a report by the Hellenic Authority for Quality in Higher Education (ADIP).

Around 90 percent of those who left were college graduates and 64 percent held a postgraduate degree, according to a survey by consulting firm ICAP.

- 'I want to return' -

The government offers a hefty tax incentive to those who move back to Greece from abroad -- a 50 percent exemption on income earned here for the next seven years.

Xenos says taxation is one of the main issues still keeping people abroad and the new lower taxation policy will be a big incentive.

"I want to return. I know that the salary won't be the same, but I don't want to make a huge compromise that would make no sense professionally," he said.

However, there are other major issues that need to be tackled: low salaries, state bureaucracy and internet bandwidth that is both slow and expensive.

According to a study by the EU's foundation for the improvement of living and working conditions, Greece significantly lags behind the European average in terms of creating high-quality jobs with good financial gains and prospects.

Greece also ranks among the worst-performing countries in the OECD in the employment of higher education graduates aged 25-64.

Even so, some Greeks have started to return.

- 'Incredible things happening' -

At the Athens Medical School, a dozen scientists have repatriated and so far, have not regretted it.

"Incredible things are happening in Greece, the country lacks neither in brains nor in capabilities," said Ioanna Mourkioti, a 29-year-old biology PhD student.

"It's just that everything is done more slowly due to the Greek bureaucracy," she added.

Mourkioti worked on a team that managed to create a rapid Covid-19 antigen test. They hope that a Greek company will soon move ahead with mass production, allowing Greece to become more independent in testing.

All the members of the team have completed part of their studies or spent part of their professional careers abroad.

"Our work shows that Greece can lead in research as well. It might be more difficult for a Greek researcher, having to do all the logistics by himself and lacking in infrastructure, but it can be done and it is a sector that our country can grow," said Nefeli Lagopati, a 37-year old postdoctorate researcher in biology and nanomedicine.