Walk along the harbor in Kos, a picturesque Greek island in the eastern Aegean, and you'll be greeted by a host of touts offering menus, brochures for excursions, and "Where you from?" come-ons to get your attention. Greece has an official unemployment rate of 22 percent and a youth unemployment rate of 54 percent, but many of the salespeople aren't Greeks.
In just six days on the island, I've already encountered staff from Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Denmark, the U.K., Albania, Russia, and most likely a host of other countries. The other day we even met a young lady from Oklahoma who works at a beach bar called Tarzan. Young multilingual migrants from Europe work in jobs that require interactions with tourists while, behind the scenes, illegal migrants from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa work in large hotels washing dishes, cleaning rooms, and doing other difficult jobs.
A pharmacist named Vassilis from Kefalos, on the island's southwest coast, told me that the Greek government turns a blind eye to the cost-cutting practice of hiring illegals. (And, of course, Europeans are allowed to work anywhere in the E.U. zone.) He said that Greek parties on the left mostly believe that Greece should welcome immigrants while the right talks tough in public, but acquiesces to the business community's desire for open borders and cheap labor behind the scenes. Sound familiar?
So why aren't Greek youths filing all the jobs in Kos and other Greek islands? At the Artemis Beach Bar, I asked Dionysia, a 20-year-old Kos native who seemed to be one of the few Greeks working at the beach bars, why more of her contemporaries weren't filing jobs in the tourism sector.
"It's mostly because of our school year", she explained. "Most of the students study on other islands, like Crete, and they don't return to Kos until the middle of June and by then, all the jobs are taken by foreigners, because they can start work in May."
Again, it all sounded very familiar, because in the United States we have the Summer Work & Travel program, in which thousands of foreign students who have longer summer breaks arrive on our shores to fill seasonal jobs that might otherwise be filled by U.S. students.
The other issue is that entrepreneurs in Kos and other Greek islands believe that foreign workers have the language skills to help them snare customers from those countries. On Kos Town's busiest strip of nightclubs and bars, you see the flags of a host of Scandinavian countries and the waitresses are mostly Nordic.
As hard as it is to police the U.S./Mexico border, Greece has an even harder time patrolling the Aegean, which has about 200 inhabited islands. And with all of its other problems, devoting resources to stopping the flow of illegal immigration isn't very high on the priority list.
And while foreigners continue to migrate to Greece in search of work, at least in the summer, an even greater number of Greeks are leaving the country in search of work. Many Greeks are frustrated and resentful that foreigners fill jobs in Greece even during the country's severe economic crisis, but at least they have the right to work in the other Eurozone countries. Americans have to compete with people all around the world for jobs in the United States and we don't have the legal right to work anywhere else.