Dimitrios Lazaridis once owned textile factories in Greece, Albania and Bulgaria.
Today the 41-year old Greek finds himself studying English in Australia and working part-time for a fish-market wholesaler in Melbourne.
In December last year, after eight months of being unemployed, Lazaridis left his wife and two children behind in Athens and moved to Australia on a student visa.
“You know it’s very difficult if you’re in Greece, you have a family, you stay in your home and you cannot do anything,” he told CNBC. “It’s terrible, believe me.”
Lazaridis may have fallen on hard times but he finally has hope.
For Greek nationals, Australian employmentvisas require sponsorship prior to entering the country and skilled migration visas are limited to those in occupations where Australia faces a skills shortage. Both can take a lengthy time to receive.
But Lazaridis’ part-time employer is willing to sponsor him for a permanent visa, which he hopes to get by the end of the year.
Lazaridis is one of 102 Greek nationals that were granted Australian student visas in 2011, up over 52 percent from the previous year, according to Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Australia’s job market, which has been a big draw in recent years for Irish workers looking to escape that country’s economic crisis, is now attracting Greeks fleeing a deepening recession at home that has pushed the unemployment rate to a record high of nearly 22 percent in March.
In total, Greeks were granted 279 Australian permanent migrant visas from July 2011 to April 30th this year — more than double the number granted the previous year, according to the immigration department.
Most of the immigrants have headed to Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city and home to 300,000 Greeks — the largest population in Australia.
Peter Jasonides, Victorian Coordinator of the Australian Hellenic Council — a group that represents the interests of the community in Australia — says he’s seen a continuous surge in Greeks coming to Melbourne. Jasonides says that in the past year the biggest group of migrants has been between the ages of 22 and 40.
“They’re trying to come either to do courses in university, or do courses in occupations in demand here, so they can hopefully apply for residency after that,” Jasonides said. “Others are coming here with former qualifications in occupations that are in demand in Australiaand they try and learn English and they try and find a sponsor, so they can get a visa sponsorship.”
Sydney-based Greek migration agent George Katsaromitsos says he’s received up to 150 inquiries from Greeks wanting to come to Australia in the last two months, up from less than two dozen in prior months.
“It’s hard to put a number [on inquiries], because it’s increasing all the time,” Katsaromitsos said. “They call from Greece, they just want to know about life in Australia, what’s happening, if they can get a job if they come.”
Australia experienced a surge in Greek immigration after World War II, when Greece was occupied by Nazi Germany and suffered terrible hardships. Since then, most immigration has been driven by Greek Australians trying to bring over family members to Australia.
Out of the 279 permanent migration visas issued from July 2011 to April of this year, 253 of them were classified as “family” visas.
In Melbourne, many local businesses are trying to help Greeks fleeing the recession at home by creating work for migrants in the city. Local taxi operators owned by Greek Australians made headlines in March when they announced plans to recruit up to 1,000 taxi drivers from Greece to ease the city’s chronic cab shortage.
The lack of jobs in Greece and the deteriorating quality of life is not only bringing new migrants to Australia, but also leading to the return of a large numbers of Australian expatriates who previously lived in Greece.
Local media reports suggest that between 800 and 5,000 Australians returned from Greece last year.
Dimitrios Matheas, 49, is one of the hundreds of Australian expats trying to settle back into life in Melbourne after returning from Greece in January, 25 years after he moved there.
Matheas, a journalist, who worked for a Greek state television station says he and his wife, who also worked for the national broadcaster, weren’t paid for an entire year, forcing them to move back to Australia along with their two young children.
“Things were getting worse and worse and we talked about it and said the best option is to return, and for the future of our kids is to come to Australia,” Matheas said.
Matheas, who is now working part-time as an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor at Melbourne’s Institute of Tertiary and Higher Education Australia (ITHEA) as well as at a local Greek radio station, says he has no plans to go back and hears from his friends and colleagues that the situation in Greece is getting worse every day.
“There’s no light in the future. It’s the lack of jobs, the government is not stable, we have electionsagain on Sunday,” Matheas said. “It’s deteriorating; the education system has just been torn apart more or less. You have children fainting in class because they haven’t eaten…Society has sort of more or less disintegrated.”
But even as Greeks come to Australia in search of a better life, new migrants face their own set of challenges, according to Bill Papastergiadis, President of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, an organization that helps migrants settle in Australia.
“From a social cultural perspective, life here is quite different… So it’s a social issue that is the biggest difficulty confronting them,” Papastergiadis said.
Tougher traffic rules, language barriers and the higher cost of living in Australia are just some of the barriers new immigrants face.
Former businessman Lazaridis said starting all over again at his age has been the biggest challenge since moving to Melbourne. He said it will take him another two to three years, before he can bring over his family from Greece, because of the high cost of living in the city.
“Nobody knows you and you need to prove everyday who you are,” Lazaridis said. “It’s another country, it’s another culture and that is the problem.”
—By Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani, Assistant Producer, CNBC.com