Often forgotten behind the Greek islands and the capital, is the Northern mainland of Greece. Spanning between Greece’s Western border with Albania to its Eastern border with Turkiye, Northern Greece boasts a combination of mountains, lakes, and coast, as well as Greece’s second largest city of Thessaloniki. Woven within its natural beauty is a starker reality of homelessness and temporary accommodation for many. People on the move navigate asylum systems that either leave them with no stable residence or in temporary government-controlled structures. Those who reside in Northern Greece often end up here following transfers from the islands or register here as their first stop in Europe having made their way by land.
Thousands of people have been reaching Europe’s shores and borders for years, yet for the first time since Europe saw its largest number of arrivals in 2015 and 2016, the number of people arriving at the European External Border is projected to reach the same levels. The higher number of people arriving on the shore of Greece in the last few weeks is not only due to more people forced to leave their homes but also more people surviving the perilous trip. Since the tragic shipwreck that killed approximately 700 people near Pylos (and many other tragic incidents this year), there have been recent reports of the Greek Coast Guard saving boats in distress instead of pushing them back.
More people arriving on the Greek islands of Samos on Lesvos via the Mediterranean Sea ultimately also means higher populations of displaced people on the mainland, as the government transfers groups, particularly vulnerable individuals, to camps on the mainland.
Nasty Political Climate
At the doorsteps of Europe, their realities are harsh and during plights for safety, acceptance, and integration, people on the move find themselves entangled in a nasty political climate, as we see many people being met with resistance and hate from right-wing actors and parties. This was exemplified through the recent attacks from alt-right radical groups threatening, capturing, and abusing people on the move during the already harrowing forest fires in the Evros region, directly on the border to Turkey.
Within this persistently challenging environment, people on the move and those who work to support them, are presented with innumerable obstacles, as many actors, systems and procedures, actively work to obstruct the attainment of stability, safety, and the human rights of displaced people.
Challenges faced by People on the Move
For a long time, the situation on the Aegean islands has taken center stage in European media with little known about what is happening on the mainland, particularly in Northeastern Greece.
The open camp structures on the mainland, managed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and supported by UNHCR, arguably provided better living conditions than overcrowded enclosed camps on Samos and Lesvos and often served as a refuge for particularly vulnerable people. Recently however, the situation in Northern Greece has been deteriorating at an alarming speed, leaving people on the move in desperate situations. This can be traced back to several factors.
Dysfunctional Asylum System
It has become increasingly difficult to access asylum, not only due to claims being rejected, but due to the difficulty of people expressing their desire to apply for asylum and accessing the asylum system. In November 2021, the Greek government abandoned the Skype procedure, through which people were previously able to register and get an appointment for a first interview. For months it was simply not possible for people arriving to register their claim to asylum and access some form of legal documentation. Frequent technical issues or deliberate restrictions persist until today, and the asylum system often remains dysfunctional for months. (Mobile Info Team has reported extensively on this.)
This has increased the vulnerability of people on the move, as those seeking international protection are left in limbo, without documentation protecting them from police checks and arbitrary arrest. The most recent UNHCR protection report found that 25% of those interviewed felt in danger of abuse by authorities in the last year.
Due to the high hurdles to access asylum, including also a lack of interpreters and of general information, more and more people remain undocumented. Without access to any services, including shelter, people on the move in Northeastern Greece find themselves in dangerous situations and are at serious risk of being detained. In Thessaloniki, undocumented people are often targeted by police raids upon which they may be detained or directly pushed back to Turkey. Detention of people on the move has become a standard practice in the Greek asylum system, but is also carried out arbitrarily. We wrote about this in a previous blog post. Read it here.
For those who remain undocumented, access to housing is extremely difficult, but beneficiaries of international protection are at great risk of homelessness and destitution. This is largely related to the recent regulation (IPA 2020), ruling that people who receive refugee status must leave the refugee camp (or other accommodation) within 30 days of receiving their decision. This is hardly enough time to navigate the many administrative hurdles of the rental maket, overcome language barriers and find a job to cover increasing rental prices. Support programs like the Helios program offering rental subsidies, still hold legal and financial barriers at every turn. This has resulted in widespread homelessness in Thessaloniki, Athens, and across Greece.
In addition, the ESTIA (Emergency Support to Integration Accommodation) program, designed to support vulnerable asylum seekers, was closed at the end of last year, and program beneficiaries were transferred back to refugee camps, with many having to interrupt training programs, schooling or medical treatment.
Lack of Medical care and food Insecurity
NGOs working in camps across Greece have recently reported a huge increase in requests for medical support. Many people arriving in camps on the mainland are considered to belong to vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women or persons in need of medical treatment, including mental health support. Previously, the IOM was responsible for protection services. Since the beginning of the year, the organization has significantly downsized its operations (60% of its staff were laid off), resulting in a huge gap in support for vulnerable cases. Moreover, access to medical care is highly arbitrary and often depends on the capacity of the local public medical services. While Asylum seekers should have access to basic medical care, they are often denied access to services due to lack of capacity and pointed to private doctors, where they face financial challenges.
Challenges faced by NGOs
With the needs of people on the move growing rapidly, NGOs across Northern Greece, alongside the rest of the country, are facing higher demand for very basic services like food and medical care. This is attributed to the tightening political context, and international actors slowly retrieving and ceding control to the government. As a result, NGOs are left to fill the gaps in the provision of services, to ensure human rights are met across the region.
Many NGOs have found themselves in the challenging position of supporting a growing population of people on the move, including an increased number of vulnerable cases, with high demands for clothing or hygiene items, food provision or medical costs and assistance.
As this is territory previously not tread, many organizations have only recently learned to navigate these new challenges and pressures to support their participants with the services and provisions they need. However, to adapt and/or expand services requires significant funding, which is becoming increasingly difficult to access. As a result, many NGOs are having to diversify their fundraising efforts, often channeling limited time, resources and energy. As discussed in our previous blog post, the financial pressure on NGOs is immense and avenues to renewed funding are scarce.
Since the move of the Greek government to take control over asylum and migration, international organisations slowly moving out of the country, ceding control to national authorities. Therefore, less and less infrastructure is available to ensure that human rights are met and the most vulnerable have access to protection. At the same time, those who arrived in Greece years ago are still struggling to overcome the huge administrative barriers to integration. With little to no support, many are left homeless and at risk of detention. NGOs are scrambling to support on all fronts, but there are too many fronts to cover and funding is in short supply. Despite these challenges, we see NGOs continuing to persevere, and deciding every day to fill more gaps than they should have to.