How Greece got to grips with a relentless refugee crisis

A ‘game-changer’ EU project has helped Greek authorities, but many issues remain

Zaineb, from Aleppo in Syria, with one of her three children at an apartment funded by the EU, in Livadia. Photograph: DG Echo

Zaineb, from Aleppo in Syria, with one of her three children at an apartment funded by the EU, in Livadia. Photograph: DG Echo

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When the mayor of the Greek city of Livadia, Giota Poulou, supported the construction of a mosque for the benefit of refugees and asylum seekers from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, she was, she says, accused of being “a member of jihad”.

It was at the height of the crisis in 2016, when thousands of migrants and asylum seekers were arriving in Greece fleeing war and deprivation and seeking security in Europe.

The city, with a population of 33,000, had been presented with a plan by the ministry of defence to locate a new refugee camp there. There were “terrible” protests and, Poulou admits, some “racist reactions”.

Mayor of Livadia Yiota Poulou. Photograph courtesy DG Echo
Mayor of Livadia Yiota Poulou. Photograph: DG Echo

“The summer of 2016 was not a pleasant task. There was no summer for us. In this room there were a lot of discussions and there were great tensions,” Poulou tells a small group of European journalists at the town hall in Livadia, “the city on the water”, about 120km northwest of Athens.

Delay tactic

In what she describes as a “tactic of delay”, the municipality proposed instead to find 40 vacant apartments within 15 days so that it could join a then pilot apartment rental scheme for asylum seekers operated by the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Athens and Thessaloniki.

It succeeded, to even the agency’s surprise, and the town has now successfully provided accommodation for more than 700 asylum seekers in rented apartments, with the support of a local organisation that also runs a care-for-the-elderly project.

Poulou outlines how she won over the citizens of Livadia, hit hard by the economic meltdown, convincing them that welcoming the migrants was the right thing to do.

Citizens of Livadia and elsewhere in Greece were “living in the limits of poverty”. It was “inconceivable” for them to see that refugees would have heating in their houses, when some of them did not have heating themselves.

“We told them we wanted to host the refugees based on solidarity and to offer them humane living conditions,” Poulou says.

Key element

This Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (Estia) accommodation rental programme is now the key element of the EU’s emergency support for Greece funded by the directorate for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Operations (DG Echo).

Facilitated by an emergency instrument passed two years ago to enable EU assistance in member states heavily affected by the influx of migrants, it is also the first time the EU has provided such a humanitarian response within its own borders.

Some €440 million in emergency funding has so far been provided in support measures for Greece, including €151 million in 2017 for Estia.

The remainder has been channelled through 18 projects to address other humanitarian needs such as primary healthcare, education, programmes for unaccompanied minors, drop-in centres for women such as the Faros centre in Athens, and non-formal education initiatives such as the one run by Unicef and its partner Elix.

DG Echo has also provided over €57 million for a cash assistance programme, delivered by the UNHCR, to help the asylum seekers and refugees to cover their basic needs.

Finding empty apartments is not a problem; many have become vacant since the economic crisis, says the vice mayor of Athens, Lefteris Papagiannakis. “We have more than 100,000 empty apartments in the region and you have to do something with them.”

Speaking at the Athens Co-ordination Centre for Migrant and Refugee Issues, funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Papagiannakis says the EU emergency funding will almost certainly come to an end at the end of 2018 and suggests the Greek government will need to seek alternative supports.

No plan for recognised refugees

Settled refugees will not be able to remain for more than a year in the EU-funded rental accommodation once they have been granted status, and Papagiannakis notes there is no social housing in Greece.

“Unfortunately there is no plan for the recognised refugees. But in order to house recognised refugees you need to offer social housing to everyone or it’s a disaster.”

Raneem from Syria together with her children at the EU-funded non-formal education project run by UNICEF/ELIX. Photograph: DG Echo
Raneem from Syria together with her children at the EU-funded non-formal education project run by UNICEF/ELIX. Photograph: DG Echo

EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, Christos Stylianides, said the Estia programme has been an “enormous success” and a “game-changer”.

By last month, more than 19,300 people had been accommodated in Greece and cash assistance is being provided to about 35,000 people every month.

“Estia has opened a new chapter in the lives of those who benefit from it. It has offered refugees a path towards dignity, stability and a more normal life. Its impact is tangible in refugees’ everyday lives,” says Stylianides.

It is expected that up to 27,000 urban accommodation places will have been created by the end of this year – up to 2,000 of them located on the islands and the rest in cities and towns on the mainland.

Eight municipalities have signed up to the scheme – Athens, Thessaloniki, Livadia, Trikala, Larissa, Karditsa, Crete and Nea Filadelfia. Three more are “in the pipeline”, says Stylianides.

Poulou says she is in touch with other mayors and is trying to convince them “they don’t have to be afraid of such a programme”. “It can have lots of significant benefits for local society.”

Recent arrivals

More than 8,000 people arrived by the Mediterranean route last month to Spain, Italy and Greece from countries such as Syria, Nigeria, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco and Algeria – nearly 2,000 of them to Greece.

About 45,000 migrants are currently stranded in Greece awaiting decisions on their status. More than a million people have arrived in the country since 2015, about 40 per cent of them children.

The total number of sea arrivals in 2017 was 172,301, down from over a million people in 2016. UNHCR figures published last Wednesday estimate 382 people attempting to reach Europe by sea so far this year are dead or missing.

Hoping for family reunification in Germany

Tucked down a quiet street in Livadia in an apartment up a flight of stone steps, Zaineb, who arrived in Greece from Syria is making her new home with her three young children.

She stands while a small group of journalists and support staff from the UNHCR and European Commission crowd into her living room.

The Kurdish flag hangs vertically down one wall, surrounded with tiny fairy lights.

Through a translator, the very softly spoken Zaineb says she left Aleppo because of the war and destruction and also because she had divorced her husband. She is a Kurd and also a member of the minority Yazidi community, which the UN has said has been subjected to genocide in Syria in Iraq by the Islamic State terror group, through murder, rape, sexual slavery and torture.

She does not remember the day she left Syria and says she forgets some things about her journey to Greece. “In this period I was a little bit sick so I could not know,” she says.

She is seeking family reunification with her brother in Germany. Almost all her family are now living there and were granted asylum about 2½ years ago.

Asked if her children had any problems with other children in Greece who are from different backgrounds in Syria, she says, yes, but “they are kids, so they adapt”. “There are some difficulties, but they interact,” she says.

Zaineb says the €400 monthly cash assistance she has been given as part of the programme is not enough to live on. The rent on the apartment is paid through the Estia programme.

“I buy food, I buy medicines, I buy some clothes for my family but this is not enough money,” the young woman says.

The allowance is pegged to the Greek emergency social safety net and is distributed to each household proportionate to the family’s size. It ranges from €90 for an individual to €550 for a family of seven or more.

* Elaine Edwards’s visit to Greece was funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

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