About a year ago, Project ELPIDA e.V. was in Athens for the first time as part of a fundraising campaign. Much has changed since then. As we kick off the Athens 2023 fundraising campaign, we look back at developments for refugees in the Greek capital.
Athens is by far the largest city in Greece. Slightly less than half of the total population lives here. Its unique location between the mountains and the sea, its thousands of years of history and the Mediterranean climate make it a popular holiday destination, especially in the summer months, often combined with a visit to the Greek islands. What often remains hidden from most tourists are the darker sides of the city. For refugees, Athens is usually the second stop after arriving in Europe and registering on the Greek islands.
Homelessness as a system
The years of financial crisis since 2008 have led to an increase in homelessness across the country, but in Athens in particular. In 2018, the number of people without a shelter was estimated at 40,000, about half of them in the Attica region, where Athens is located. This also affects people who have been displaced from their homes. In February 2022, the Greek government said it would phase out the EU- and UNHCR-funded ESTIA program in December of the same year. Launched in 2015, the program provided accommodation in the city for more than 10,000 asylum seekers until the end. Now many of them had to return to the camps outside Athens or to the streets. The apartments in the city had the advantage of social inclusion, as they made it possible for children to attend school and receive social assistance, for example from NGOs. The camps on the mainland are increasingly reminiscent of those on the islands, with modern surveillance technology and little presence of humanitarian aid agencies. The fact that the Greek government allowed the ESTIA programme to expire, even though external funding from the EU and UNHCR was secured until 2027, suggests that it is a calculated decision.
The abstinence of a government housing program further complicates integration into Greek society. While there are limited opportunities on the islands due to the weak professional infrastructure and the transient nature of people’s stay, on the mainland the need for this type of support is greater, as many displaced people spend significant amounts of time there. . The HELIOS program is one of the few state programs that provides jobs and housing for people with recognised refugee status. The catch is that to participate in this program, one must already be living in state provided accommodation . The interlocking of ESTIA and HELIOS offered this possibility, but after the expiry of ESTIA, HELIOS is also much more difficult to take advantage of.
At the same time, it has become much more difficult to find work, as the remote location of the camps means long distances to and from potential jobs in the city. The need to support oneself financially coupled with the lack of accommodation available to people means that there are limited opportunities for people in the asylum procedure to work legally; especially when living in the camps they often work for low wages in agriculture in the Athens countryside.
Isolation and persecution
The only camp with good public transport connections to Athens was Eleona's camp. Here, too, the living conditions were far from exemplary, yet it offered the possibility of social participation. After the residents of the camp demonstrated against the closure in the summer, Prime Minister Mitsotakis handed the site back to the city of Athens in a ceremony in December. Now a park with sports facilities is to be built here. The efforts to expel refugees from the cityscape in the context of an out-of-mind, out-of-sight strategy are not new. On the islands, this was already exemplified with the opening of the closed camps, and Operation Σκούπα (broom) was also created with this intention. This is targeted racial profiling by the police to temporarily detain undocumented refugees in order to deport them afterwards. Since deportations are rarely authorised and taking place,this appears to be a targeted form of deterrence, which leads to many undocumented refugees having to avoid spending time outside in the streets.
State hurdles in a two-tier system
In the past year, not only in Athens but throughout Greece, the asylum system has been further digitalised; while the first steps were previously done via Skype appointments, there is now an online application. In theory, this is a simplification, but for months refugees and NGOs have been reporting that the system is unreliable, frequently crashes and thus drags out the already slow process. At the same time, the EU agency EASO (European Asylum Support Office) also withdrew significantly from its tasks, which included providing translators for official appointments in the asylum process. This led to a further backlog in these processes, which primarily impacts refugees, as
After the outbreak of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, Greece quickly agreed to take in Ukrainian refugees. Around 70,000 came to Greece and, as in many other EU states, unbureaucratic solutions were quickly found, for example with regard to the right to stay or accommodation. Officials also welcomed them as "true refugees". This discrepancy in offers of support reinforces the position of the ruling party Nea Dimokratia, which has designated Turkey as a safe third country for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and Syria.
All in all, a pattern is emerging over the past year. The phasing out of housing projects and the eviction of squatted houses reinforce the issue of homelessness and social isolation of refugees in the Greek capital. The closure of Eleonas, as the only camp in the city, leads to further exclusion; a pattern already observed on the islands. For us as Project ELPIDA, these developments reinforce that support is still more than urgently needed.