Migration from Greece, Israel, and elsewhere

Among the comments heard in connection with the imploding of the Greek economy and politics is the prospect that emigration will increase. With unemployment estimated at above 50 percent among young Greeks, and a long history of exporting surplus population, the outflow appears to be a natural response to economic and political problems.
And what, thought I, does that mean for Israel? No society that I am aware of has as long a history of diasporas, said from ancient times to be larger in population than the tiny and poor homeland. There may, in fact, be more Irish and Greeks abroad than at home, but nothing approaching the spread of Jews and the meager Judaic population of what they called the homeland from the Roman through the British periods of history.
Even now, with Israel into its sixth decade as an independent country, one can quarrel if there are more Jews living inside or outside. The answer, as far as I can determine, depends on how you deal with the knotty problem of defining a Jew. There are probably more halachicly defined Jews living in Israel than anywhere else, and perhaps a thin majority here of the halachicly defined Jews in the world. (On account of the high incidence of intermarriage in the United States and other countries outside of Israel.) If your definition ignores halacha and defines as Jews all those who say they are Jews, you might find more Jews in the United States than in Israel. But if you consider Jews only to be those for whom a Judaic identify is the central feature of how people define themselves, or require a minimal test of what being a Jew means, Israel may be back in the lead. (On account of Americans and others who say they are Jews, or are Jews according to halacha, but have limited knowledge of Jewish traditions, history, or culture.
In any case, the commentary about Greece led me to some international statistics about migration. They provide some insights into the nature of our contemporary world.
First off, the best data are not up to date enough to gauge what is happening in Greece currently. For another thing, the data, like most economic and social indicators, are probably reliable only for countries that are well off, democratic and open to criticism and self-criticism, with administrations concerned to find and report the truth most of the time.
If you want a story about how some countries collect the data they publish, bear with me about a meeting I had some years ago with a high ranking official of the Finance Ministry in a country with one of the best reputations in Africa. The subject was annual economic growth. When I asked him to tell me the most recent rate, he named a percentage. When I asked about the determination of the rate, he said that it was his personal estimate on the basis of what he had perceived about the current economy, as it differed from what he knew about the economy for the most recent year. And how did he determine the measure for the most recent year? He estimated it on the basis of what he knew about the economy during that year, and what he knew about the economy for the previous year.
The countries mentioned below in connection with their rates of emigration are generally reliable in terms of their economic record keeping. However, the issue of migration is more dicey than is the case for the more common economic indicators. Not only is there the fuzzy issue of poorly recorded illegal migration, but there is also the lack of certainty about the nature of emigration.
Israelis living abroad for decades, already with citizenship in their country of residence, may still be inclined to say that they are away from home only temporarily, perhaps until they can salt away enough money to buy a decent residence at home, or until a good job opens up in the country they still call home. Individuals from other countries with strong nationalist traditions, as well as their children already born and educated in their overseas locales, may say the same about what they call their homelands.
The most obvious finding in the data published by the OECD is that most well developed countries export a fair number of people. Moreover, smaller countries tend to have a higher rate than the larger countries, and most of those export a higher rate of well-educated people emigrating than other people.
What this reflects is the relatively few opportunities for professionals in countries with small populations that are wealthy enough to produce a lot of professionals in their institutions of higher education, but whose economies cannot absorb all the professionals they produce. I have met this phenomenon in the large number of Israeli PhDs who have found more attractive positions outside of Israel than inside Israel, and friends among professionals from European countries with small populations who are working and living outside of their home country.
Among the countries who fit this pattern, in the order of their overall emigration rates, are Ireland, Cyprus, Iceland, Greece, Switzerland, Hong Kong (considered separately from China for many statistical purposes), Finland, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Israel, Denmark, Norway, Singapore. Sweden, and Australia. Two other countries, without small populations, whose rate of emigrants are in the range of these countries, and export a higher incidence of people with academic degrees than people without degrees are the United Kingdom and Germany.
Compared to these countries, the United States is the archetype of a large country with a well developed economy. It not only provides work for its own graduates of higher education, but it attracts a lot of graduates from other countries. While the other countries noted above have an average 6.6 percent of their population living abroad, the United States has only 0.4 percent of its population living abroad. (The rate of emigration is determined by the number of individuals living abroad in 2000 as a percentage of a countries average population between 1985 and 2000). Even though the rate is low for US emigrants, there were still more than 845,000 of us living abroad according to the OECD figures. Overall, there were about 11.5 million individuals living abroad from the well-to-do countries listed above as having a tendency to export individuals with academic degrees.
Note that Greece was a high exporter of people, even before its current problems. But it was not significantly different from the more well-to-do countries of Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and it was a lower ranked exporter than Ireland, Cyprus, Iceland, and Luxembourg.
Another finding of interest is that several of those countries exporting a high incidence of individuals with academic degrees also have a positive net flow of migration. In other words, the exporters of people also import people from other places. In the order of their net flow, those with a net influx of population are Cyprus, Luxembourg, Australia, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, Israel, Austria, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, and Iceland.
The United States scores between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom in this list, indicating that it is both a low exporter of people and a relatively high importer of people.
What we are seeing here is the relative ease of population flows, as well as the capacity of well-to-do countries--which export well-educated people--to also attract people from elsewhere who are looking for better lives.
While Greece may well be exporting a higher incidence of its population than in the past, it also continues to attract people from even poorer places, and probably even more undocumented people from poor countries who manage to get across the borders one way or another. Among the more radical political parties in the current confusion, is one with a fascist appearance campaigning on the theme of foreigners out.
In the background of all these statistics is the ease and low-cost of international travel and adaptation in this age of globalization. It''s not like the mass migrations of unskilled workers from Eastern and Southern Europe westward during the period from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries. Most of those trips were long and involved several months without working, and passage that was expensive in terms of contemporary purchasing power. Relocation tended to be permanent, and required the learning of a new language and culture. Current movements, especially for the large number of academic graduates who uproot themselves, bring language skills, professional training and information about economic opportunities, are much quicker (i.e., involve a shorter period of enforced unemployment), and are less expensive in contemporary purchasing power than older sea travel. Moreover, the ease and low cost of international travel allow occasional visits home, or even a return home when conditions appear suitable.
Israelis are, as always, nervous about their future. The issue of emigration surfaces every so often, provokes commentary about the erosion of Zionism, the need for government to do what is necessary to persuade Jews not to emigrate, to attract those who have left to return home, and do more to attract Jews born and raised elsewhere.
In fact, Israel scores about the middle of the lists described above, with emigration not among the highest, and with a net inflow of individuals. For those of us having to navigate Israeli roads and find parking places, it is easy to feel that we have enough people. Those worrying about Zionism, some of them overseas Jews, should best worry about something else.