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News from Athens

Greece's capital, Athens, is not only the largest city in the country but also a transit point for many displaced people who find their way to Europe via the Aegean Islands. Here’s an update from the ancient metropolis.

Strolling through the streets away from the tourist districts, it quickly becomes apparent that Athens has always been a multicultural city. There are Indian, Pakistani, Arab, Persian, Congolese, Albanian, and many other cultures with diasporas that have left their mark on the city's landscape. Especially in the central neighborhoods, you’ll find rows of Arab and Indian or Mediterranean eateries. Long before the "refugee crisis," Greece was a country where people from other parts of the world settled.

Despite this, the situation for many people could not be more different from that of the long-established owners of snack bars or barber shops. A large portion of the refugees coming from the islands to Athens arrive as so-called transfers. This means they are still in the asylum process and are transferred to one of the camps in Attica, the region where Athens is located. These camps offer similar living conditions to those on the islands: inadequate food and hygiene supplies or poor access to medical care. The camps are all located outside the urban center and are hardly accessible by public transportation. Almost a year ago, the buses connecting the camps to the city were discontinued. This practice is part of an effort to drive refugees out of the cityscape and isolate them in distant camps – a tactic that is by no means new.

Due to the high number of new arrivals in the past year, these camps quickly became overcrowded, further worsening the conditions. Because of the geographical distance, there is little NGO support available at the camps. Additionally, since the beginning of 2023, organizations are only allowed to enter the camps if they register with the national NGO register. This registration involves significant financial and institutional effort, which is unfeasible for most grassroots organizations.

However, the situation is difficult not only in the camps in Ritsona, Malakasa, Thiva, and others near Athens. People who have been rejected face particularly tough circumstances. If they lose their appeal, they become "undocumented." This status means they have no access to the public health system, social institutions, or the legal job and housing market. These individuals are especially vulnerable and at high risk of becoming homeless or exploited, and they rely on NGO support. But even a positive decision can lead to homelessness. Once a decision is received, people must leave the camp within a month. Often, this time is not enough to find a place to sleep, let alone sufficient housing.

The situation for NGOs is currently challenging. An unprecedented wave of NGO closures or service reductions is underway, making it increasingly difficult for the remaining organizations to provide the right services for their clients. This comes at a time when more people are arriving in Greece than in previous years. For instance, a year ago there were several free shops, but now there is only one left in Athens. Essential services such as psychosocial support, housing projects, and case management have significantly diminished over the past two years.

Life for refugees in Athens is not only burdened by the dwindling NGO support, but also by the ever-tightening legal framework. Recently, a new law was enacted which makes it even more difficult for recognized refugees to access the public health system. Repression – especially against undocumented people with a refugee background – is another tool the government uses to maintain a climate of deterrence. Currently, since there are hardly any deportations, this form of deterrence means that many undocumented refugees are afraid to venture out for fear of being arrested.

All in all, it seems that the policies of recent years which focus on isolation and repression are still in full effect. People are forced to live in distant camps outside urban centers, access to the city center is hindered, and repression – particularly against undocumented refugees – persists. Additionally, many NGOs have to reduce or close their services, directly impacting the lives of many refugees. Again, it is the undocumented who are most affected, as they have no access to state institutions. Civil society housing projects are scarce and have long waiting lists, and after the closure of the state housing project ESTIA, there are few options left for displaced populations. These developments reinforce our commitment at Project ELPIDA that support is still urgently needed.

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