By Margarita Pournara
On the right-hand side stood the Acropolis at sunset. On the other, a Greek flag waved at eye level in front of Parliament. The top floor of a central Athenian hotel proved an ideal venue for a conversation with the newly appointed Australian ambassador in Athens, Greek-Australian Jenny Bloomfield. It was a chance to enjoy a rare, calm view of Syntagma Square, without Indignants and demonstrators, people who to a large extent would respond in the affirmative to the following question: Are you thinking of leaving Greece and emigrating to a foreign land?
Well before she presented her credentials to President of the Greek Republic Karolos Papoulias, well-spoken and fluent in Greek, Ambassador Bloomfield had to face a sensitive media matter. Dozens of articles in the local press started portraying Australia as the new El Dorado for Greeks in search of a better future. Given the high interest, the Australian government’s Department of Immigration & Citizenship is organizing a two-day event on Athens on October 8 and 9.
All of a sudden, the country which had in the past turned into a new homeland for thousands of Greeks was back in the spotlight. The question of course remains: Is the fifth continent truly the new promised land?
“I read stories highlighting the fact that there is a large immigrant wave,” said Bloomfield. “Nevertheless, the number of Greek applications forwarded to the Australian Department of Immigration & Citizenship does not reflect this, so far at least. Australia is a country which was created by immigrants who came from different countries, since the only original natives were the Aboriginals. Consequently, it is only normal that the country is open to foreigners, respects different characters and provides mechanisms to help newcomers integrate into society in the best possible way,” she noted, adding: “The existing legislation, which has not been amended in recent years, states that the country may accept immigrants as long as the latter fulfill certain conditions. The main condition is for them to belong to professional sectors which are key to the Australian economy’s growth. Anyone who is interested can look for more relevant information and check out the conditions on both the embassy’s and the Immigration Department’s websites. Some people think that the legal framework has changed as a result of the crisis. However this is not the case; the criteria are still the same.”
Greeks began discovering this distant land in the 1950s. It was a time when many were leaving their homeland, with the United States, Canada, Germany and Australia as the final destinations. Today there are Dodecanese islands -- such as Kastellorizo -- whose permanent residents are fewer in number than their fellow village communities in Melbourne.
“A special agreement facilitating the process for those who wished to emigrate to the country following World War II was signed in Australia in 1952. Again, this was an organized immigration scheme with an emphasis on manual laborers.
“I believe it would be wrong to compare that massive immigration wave with that of today’s. Back then, Greece was trying to recover from the German occupation and the ensuing civil war, while today the country is a member state of the European Union facing a harsh economic reality, but with developed infrastructure and resources which could contribute to growth, such as tourism.
“At this point in time, Australia is in search of skilled workers who will contribute to the country’s growth. As a Greek Australian I have firsthand experience of exactly how different the situation of the 1950s is compared to today.”
Born in Thessaloniki in 1969, Bloomfield and her family departed for Australia in 1981. A distinguished member of the Australian diplomatic corps, the multilingual Bloomfield has served in difficult parts of the world including Iran and Argentina. Besides Greece, Bloomfield is also serving as ambassador with nonresident accreditation to Albania and Bulgaria. She came to Greece with her husband and their four children.
In recent decades the number of Greeks immigrating to Australia has remained fairly low. What does anyone interested in immigrating to the country today have to do to secure a place among the 168,000 immigrants welcomed by Australia every year?&?nbsp;
“The key is professional specialization, age, the level of education and a good level of English. Anyone with these qualifications is welcome. Priority is given to those who have already received work proposals from Australian employers,” noted Bloomfield.
A private matter
Some believe that Greece is currently being drained of valuable manpower, a fact which will delay the country’s economic recovery to a considerable extent.
How does the ambassador regard this fear of the so-called brain drain, when society loses its most gifted minds?
“We live in a globalized society, which involves a great deal of activity and movement. In any case, I think that the decision to emigrate is a private matter. It has to do with how the person in question feels about leaving, what kind of ties they have to their family and their society. It depends on their personal values and dreams.
“Australians are known for living and working abroad. Experience gained in a foreign country is considered a plus back home. This could be a result of the country’s singular geographical framework. You have to take into account that our closest neighbors are Asian countries. We are close to India, which is part of the Commonwealth, and traditionally we have close ties with Britain.
“On a political level, we are allied to the United States and Japan. China is a commercial partner. Many Australians choose to live in these countries.
“Meanwhile, the majority of the 168,000 foreigners who arrived in Australia last year came from China, Britain and India,” added Bloomfield.
Seeking closer ties through business and education
“Did you know that more than 95,000 Australian citizens live in Greece?” Ambassador Bloomfield asked. “Some of them are Greeks who returned to the homeland after getting Australian nationality, while others are younger -- born in Australia -- citizens who wished to discover the land of their ancestors. But there are others as well, Australians who love Greece and chose it as their country of residence. While I do believe that the immigration issue is a major one, the importance it has taken on recently casts a shadow over a series of other sectors which ought to be developed as part of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Before coming to Athens I made dozens of contacts with Australian institutions and companies which have ties to Greece. One of my goals is to set up a Greek-Australian chamber of commerce. I would also like to help Greece make some of its highest-quality products known in Australia and to encourage investment. Also, for greater access to information regarding the possibility of Greek students enrolling at Australian universities,” said Bloomfield.
“Australia is an open, peaceful and deeply democratic, tolerant society. Four million Australians don’t speak English at home, while 30 percent of the population was born outside of the country. We have many different nationalities and religions, all coming together within a harmonious cohabitation framework. Besides the 168,000 foreigners who settle in the country officially every year, we also take in another 14,000 per year, people who flee their countries due to war and political reasons, among others. Australians share common values and a profound belief that besides rights, citizens also have obligations. Everybody tries to do their best as they believe that society will reciprocate. Citizen behavior is a very important matter. We are a Western country situated in Asia, with a dynamic presence at international institutions and a multicultural environment.”
Thousands of immigrants were incorporated in an exemplary way in Australia, a country whose current economy is showing positive levels of growth.
“We have made provisions for programs aimed at helping immigrants. These include further education, special arrangements for them to bring their children and spouses over, along with a functional procedure for them to acquire nationality. Let me stress something, however: If someone is thinking of leaving the country, they have to bear in mind that this is not a decision they should make lightly. Making such a move requires organization, seriousness, information and certainty,” said Bloomfield.
Greek society must realize the need for change
One of the reasons why many Greeks have such a positive opinion about Australia is the country’s Greek element.
“According to censuses we have conducted, the Greek community stands at over half a million people. This means that a large number of Greek families have relatives living in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and other cities, so they have an idea of what daily life in Australia is like. The Greeks of Australia are enterprising people who managed small miracles thanks to their hard work and moral standards.”
How do do those Greek Australians view Greece during these hard times?&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;&?nbsp;
“There is little doubt that the country’s image abroad has to improve. As a Greek Australian I am aware of how much courage, strength and resourcefulness we have when faced with obstacles. These are the kinds of qualities we should not underestimate. Greece has friends and allies all around the globe, and I’m not only referring to members of Greek communities around the world. I genuinely believe that there are foreigners who wish to see the country get back on its feet again and for all of us to be proud of Greece’s accomplishments. All countries go through crises. Two decades ago Australia had a different economic model. Gradually reforms were made, freeing up a number of sectors, paving the way for today’s strong, competitive economy. Nothing can be achieved without hard work. The most important thing -- and I’m talking about Greece in this case -- is for society itself to realize the need for change. This is the only way for things to change in a positive direction. All Australians contributed in order for us today to have political responsibility, transparency, meritocracy and positive exploitation of resources.”