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Did 1.2 million people really move out of Greece in just one year, 2010?  This article is a case study as to how quickly sensational "news" with no basis in reality can spread across the Internet, from one "reputable" news outlet to another, without any fact-checking or verification, turning a falsehood into a "fact" in the process.

Recently, an article featured in the British newspaper The Guardian cast attention to the growing wave of immigration from Ireland and from Southern Europe, particularly Greece and Portugal, as a result of the ongoing economic crisis those countries have been experiencing.  This article has drawn a lot of attention and has been repeatedly referenced in subsequent news articles, as well as Facebooked, tweeted, blogged, and otherwise shared from person to person, as a result of one attention-grabbing statistic that it cited.

As originally reported by Helen Pidd of The Guardian, the economic crisis in Greece has led to a mass exodus from the country.  Citing statistics from the World Bank, the article stated that 1.21 million Greeks—a figure amounting to 10.8% of the country’s total population—emigrated from Greece in 2010.  Included in this figure, according to The Guardian, again citing World Bank statistics, were 4,886 physicians, or 9.4% of the country’s doctors.

This statistic, not surprisingly, attracted a lot of attention.  Numerous reputable media outlets in Greece and abroad repeated this statistic in later articles on the issue of emigration out of Greece, contributing to the recent media narrative that has portrayed Greece as a newly impoverished country.  Indeed, even the Daily Kos posted an article recently, announcing that 10% of Greece's population left in one year.  This startling statistic, however, raises some important questions: did 10 percent of Greece’s population truly leave the country in one year?  If so, where did this mass flock of migrants travel to and why has seemingly no one noticed tens or hundreds of thousands of new Greek immigrants flocking to Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States, among other countries?  And if this many Greeks left the country in 2010, what would the emigration figures be for 2011, a year in which the economic crisis in Greece worsened compared to 2010?   These questions, however, were not addressed in any of the articles which followed the original report in The Guardian, all of which unquestioningly repeated this figure and reported it as fact.

The statistic of 1.21 million Greek emigrants comes from the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011.  Statistical information about immigration inflows and outflows from most of the world’s countries has been compiled by the World Bank in its Factbook, and figures on the total immigrant and emigrant stock of each country, as well as the “brain drain” resulting from the migration of doctors and those who are highly educated, are provided for each country.  According to the Factbook, an emigration stock of 1,210,300 people is listed for Greece in 2010.  In addition, the figure of 4,886 physicians having left Greece is cited, specifically for the year 2000 (and not 2010, as originally reported in The Guardian).

How were these statistics calculated, however, and do they actually mean that over 10% of Greeks left their country in just one year?   The Factbook drew upon a number of different statistical samples, and according to the Factbook, data for OECD countries (including Greece) came from the OECD’s International Migration Database.  An examination of this database, which is freely available online, turns up an interesting result: no migration data is available for Greece (and a few other OECD member countries)!

If the World Bank is citing OECD statistics that are non-existent, then where did the figure of 1.21 million actually come from?  A hint can be found on page 17 of the Factbook, which states that some of the data that is published was constructed for modeling purposes, based on a variety of assumptions that were made in order for the total worldwide immigrant stock to add up to the total emigrant stock.  Even so, that does not reflect whether the statistics cited actually reflect the annual migration of people into or out of any particular country.

Further evidence of the peculiar nature of these statistics is evident by looking at the migration figures published for other countries.  For instance, the Factbook lists 3,540,600 emigrants from Germany in 2010.  If we are led to believe that over 1.2 million Greeks left Greece in 2010, then it would follow that according to the same statistics, over 3.5 million Germans left their country that same year, or that similarly, over 2.2 million Portuguese citizens, 1.7 million French citizens, 4.6 million Britons, 2.4 million Americans and close to one million Dutch citizens left their countries, all in that same year.  Surely, such a worldwide population upheaval—and particularly one afflicting some of the world’s wealthiest countries—would make the news and draw some attention.

Yet, it was only the statistic of 1.21 million Greeks purportedly leaving Greece that was mentioned in The Guardian, and that statistic has been repeated on numerous occasions since then.  Suspiciously, the same article by The Guardian cited migration statistics for Portugal and Ireland from different sources—namely, Ireland’s central statistics office and Portugal’s foreign ministry.  The figures for these two countries were far less startling than those cited for Greece: an estimated 50,000 from Ireland and a similar amount from Portugal.

Not mentioned in any of the press accounts is the fact that the Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 was the second edition published by the World Bank.  The first edition, published in 2008 and readily available on the Internet, provides migration statistics based on 2005 figures.  And interestingly, the 2005 figures for every single country listed in the Factbook are remarkably similar to those of 2010.  For Greece, an emigrant stock in 2005 of 1,218,233 persons—or 11% of Greece’s population that year—is listed.  Should we be led to believe that another 1.2 million people left Greece in 2005, long before the start of the economic crisis to which this mass exodus has been attributed?  For that matter, should we believe that nearly 4.1 million Germans left Germany and another 4.2 million Britons left the United Kingdom that same year, again based on 2005 statistics?

This matter required further investigation, and one logical source was the Greek population census.  Indeed, a census was conducted in Greece in the spring of 2011, and preliminary figures were announced in July 2011.  According to these preliminary figures, Greece’s population did indeed decline compared to 2001, when the previous census was conducted: 10,787,690 people were counted, a decline of 146,409.  Certainly, if the country was experiencing a mass population exodus in the order of millions of people, it would be reasonable to expect that the decrease would be much larger.  But as it turns out, even this relatively modest decrease can be explained—and the explanation has much more to do with factors such as the statistical methodology that was employed, as well as a reportedly large number of Greeks who abstained from participating in the census.

According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, the 2011 census, in accordance with new European Union directives, utilized a different methodology than that which was employed in previous censuses.  Instead of counting anybody who happened to be in a particular location at a particular time, the 2011 census focused on the de facto population—those who live permanently at a location and who were present at the time of the census.  Such a statistical method would rule out, among others, the many immigrants who have arrived in Greece in recent years but who are not permanent legal residents of the country.  It also would not count Greeks who may be spending time abroad but who are not permanent residents of another country, such as students.

As stated by the Hellenic Statistical Authority, as a result of this different methodology, the results of the 2011 census cannot be directly compared to those of previous censuses.  In addition, as reported by the Greek daily newspaper Eleftherotypia and other Greek press outlets soon after the release of the preliminary census results in July 2011, there was a reportedly high abstention rate amongst Greeks from the census, and coupled with the unexpected decline in population, the Hellenic Statistical Authority has launched a follow-up study to examine the accuracy and completeness of the original census figures.  Other potential factors to which a decline could be attributed include the rapidly aging Greek population and the country’s low birthrate.  Notably though, the press accounts did not attribute the small decline in Greece’s population, as recorded by the census figures, to mass migration out of Greece.  Indeed, the tone of the coverage of this issue could be described as one of surprise: surprise that Greece’s total population reportedly declined in the ten-year period between 2001 and 2011!

If the Greek census figures, flawed as they may be, are not revealing a massive wave of Greeks abandoning the country, then how can we determine what the true migration figures are, and how many people, in reality, have left the country?   As it turns out, the numbers are far smaller and much less shocking.  The same Guardian article reported that Greek immigration into Australia, one of the most popular destination for Greek migrants, has totaled a mere 2,500—but even that number has been disputed.  The Greek newspaper Proto Thema, in an article published on December 31st, quoted Sandi Logan of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, who stated that only 12 immigrants arrived in Australia this year from Greece as part of the country’s General Skilled Migration program.  The same article also quoted the Greek-Australian newspaper Neos Kosmos, according to which 1,500 Greek-Australians who had gone back to Greece in recent years but maintained Australian citizenship returned to Australia.  Indeed, according to another article which appeared in The Guardian on December 21, 2011, only 134 Australian visas were granted to Greeks in the first six months of 2011, in an immigration process described by the newspaper as “stringent.”  Out of these, all but 15 were granted on family grounds, while an additional 102 student visas were granted as well.

Similarly stringent processes exist for Greek citizens who have sought to emigrate to the United States, as only 62 Green Cards were issued by the United States government in its annual lottery to individuals from Greece in 2011 (visas are also offered through other means, but requirements remain stringent).  Finally, while Greek immigration to Germany (to which immigration would be a simpler matter, being that both Greece and Germany are European Union member-states) increased by 81 percent in 2011, the total figure for the first six months of 2011 was 4,100—a far cry from the millions who have supposedly left the country.

Based on this evidence, it is safe to say that immigration out of Greece, while on the rise, is far, far below the millions who supposedly departed the country.  This assumption was confirmed by The Guardian, which recently published a retraction to their original article, stating that according to the World Bank, the figure of 1.2 million accounts for the total “stock” of Greeks living overseas as of 2010 and not the number of Greeks who left the country that year.  Indeed, this statistic shows a decline in the number of Greeks living abroad between 2005 and 2010.  Additionally, the retraction also corrected the year cited for the statistic of 4,886 physicians who migrated out of Greece, from 2010 to 2000, though even this is not fully accurate.  According to the study from which the World Bank figures for the migration of doctors were derived, these figures, similarly to the migration statistics, account for the total number of doctors who were medically trained in a particular country (and who are not necessarily originally from that country) and who are now practicing medicine overseas, and not how many doctors emigrated from a country in that particular year.

Furthermore, the “brain drain” statistics cited by the World Bank for Greece (9.4 percent of Greek-trained physicians practicing overseas, and a 12 percent emigration rate of Greeks who have completed tertiary education) seem far less alarming when compared to the same statistics from countries such as the United Kingdom (12.4 percent of British-trained doctors are practicing medicine overseas and there is a 16.7 percent emigration rate for those with tertiary education), Canada (22.2 percent of Canadian-trained doctors are practicing overseas), or Ireland (57.8 percent of Irish-trained doctors and 29.5% of those with tertiary education reside overseas).

Indeed, for all the fretting over Greece’s brain drain, it should be noted that this is a problem faced by some of the world’s wealthiest countries, which are destinations for immigrants (including those from Greece) in their own right.  For example, it was reported by Britain’s Express in 2007 that the United Kingdom’s largest visa consultancy firm announced that visa applications for Britons seeking to relocate overseas had increased from 300 per week in 1997 to 4,000 per week, and that most of the applications were being submitted by young professionals and skilled workers aged 20-40.  Similarly, The Independent reported in 2007 that Germany’s Federal Statistics Office recorded 155,290 Germans emigrating in 2006, the highest number since Germany’s reunification in 1990 and equal to the levels experienced in the aftermath of World War II.  As in Britain, those who were leaving consisted largely of young and highly-educated individuals.

Despite the fact that The Guardian issued a retraction, the damage has been done.  The story of 1.2 million Greeks leaving Greece in a single year has been picked up by reputable news outlets in Greece and all around the world, attaining factual status in the process.  This reality is indicative of three very serious issues.  First, it is demonstrative of the utter lack of responsible journalism in contemporary times.  News outlets and many journalists are simply uninterested in taking the time to verify and confirm figures, even those that seem outrageous (as in the case of the reported mass exodus from Greece) and which are rather easy to verify.  Second, it is indicative of how, in today’s 24/7 electronic media environment, misinformation and falsehoods can very quickly become authoritative “facts,” spreading from one website and news outlet to another within minutes and being repeated frequently enough to attain the aura of truth.  After all, The Guardian and Daily Kos and Skai are all reporting it, so it must be true, right?  (To this, I will also add the unquestioning acceptance of these stories on the part of much of the audience—as evidenced by the comments left by readers on numerous websites which publicized this faux-story).  Third, this story is reflective of the hysteria which has been a common feature of much of the news that has been reported out of Greece in the past two years—ranging from stories about the country descending into widespread rioting to stories about scores of Greek mothers abandoning their children as a result of no longer being able to afford the cost of raising them.

In all cases, these news stories have been short on hard statistics and factual evidence that has been thoroughly vetted for accuracy, but they have been heavy on sensationalism and hysteria and sheer irresponsibility.  In the end, even when a retraction is issued, it is relegated to the fine print—the shocking (and inaccurate) headline remains, and in the end, irreversibly alters the recorded history of our times as a result.

Originally posted to Dialogos on Mon Jan 23, 2012 at 03:26 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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