Sangeetha Iengar writes blog post “Greece: Dispossession through the guise of protection”

News

Whilst the flow of asylum seekers onto Greek shores has slowed in the last year, another crisis is emerging in its wake – the systematic dispossession and forced destitution of the most vulnerable refugees in mainland Greece.

In response to the one million plus asylum seekers who arrived in Greece between 2015-2016 the UNHCR[1]established “ESTIA” (Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation Programme)[2]in July 2017, a programme mandated to (i) provide urban accommodation to the most vulnerable asylum seekers and (i) a cash assistance scheme for eligible asylum seekers and refugees.  UNHCR describes the programme as ‘premised on Greece’s “out of camps” policy, ESTIA is designed to alleviate migrant suffering, expedite integration and relieve the burden from overpopulated camps.’[3]

Greece has no system of subsidised or social housing in place whatsoever – either for Greeks or non-nationals.  In practice ESTIA’s urban accommodation programme serves to fill this void by relieving the Greek government of some of the financial strain of housing asylum seekers and refugees.  It also eases the capacity on overburdened refugee camps by identifying the most vulnerable migrants on the mainland and removing them from the deplorable conditions of the camps[4]and into ‘everyday accommodation.’[5]  Interestingly, ESTIA has been able to source and provide this housing by reviving the numerous empty apartments that were abandoned by Greeks following the financial crisis.[6]  

UNHCR’s website boasts that as of 16thApril 2019 the ESTIA accommodation programme had created 25,614 places for vulnerable migrants, with 22, 321 places occupied.[7]  Whilst this is sizeable, UNHCR pits the refugee population of Greece in 2018 at around 60,000[8], though cross-reference with other statistical tools[9]could suggest that the true figure of the migrant population of Greece is significantly higher.  ESTIA therefore has, at best, the capacity to house 1/3 of the migrant population in Greece.

It is an imperfect system.  Admission into ESTIA accommodation is dependent on being identified and accepted as ‘vulnerable’ by UNHCR, a term broadly defined by the EU Directive on reception standards for applicants of international protection[10], but more narrowly and arbitrarily defined by UNHCR case workers on the ground.  For example whilst the Directive at Article 21 rightly accepts that ‘persons with mental disorders and persons who have beensubjected to torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence’are vulnerable and as such have ‘special reception needs’(Article 22), in reality scores of rape victims with complicated mental health problems remain in refugee camps, or in insecure informal housing such as squats, having not been recognised as ‘vulnerableenough’to be admissible into the relatively small numbers of ESTIA accommodation.  There is no accommodation provided by the State, the EU or UNHCR for destitute migrants who do not qualify for ESTIA.

For those asylum-seekers fortunate enough to have been initially identified and housed under the ESTIA programme, having survived the months-long time frame to become admissible, they have been able to remain in their homes after being granted refugee status. Officially however, the ESTIA mandate was only to house asylum seekers and did not extend to those granted refugee status.  

As a result, in early February 2019 the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy announced the gradual termination of accommodation for those granted refugee protection.  The first wave of evictions would affect those granted refugee status before July 2017.  This heralded the evictions of recognised refugees both fromESTIA housing and from government-run refugee camps.  

March 2019 has seen the beginning of the evictions in action.  Refugees were given short notice to quit their homes[11], and provided with no alternative access to support or housing.  Challenges are being brought to the lawfulness of these first evictions as NGOs question whether Greek civil codes for eviction were adhered to[12].   Those refugees not identified as ‘vulnerable enough’ for ESTIA housing and who had remained in squalid camps, also face eviction from those camps. 

These refugees in the first wave of evictions have had no access to integration programmes, to language learning or to job seekers support that would have equipped them with the necessary tools to live autonomously.  They have been handicapped from being able to seek and find employment, self-sustain and be economically and socially active in their communities.  And now, the evictions have forced the most vulnerable refugees into destitution and street homelessness.  All this through the actions and myopic mandate of an entity tasked with the protection of refugees.

Running in parallel to the evictions of vulnerable refugees from formal ESTIA housing and Government-run camps, Athens has, in the last two weeks, seen the early morning evictions of migrant squats by heavily armed military police.  This cruel and aggressively policed eviction policy pushes refugees further towards homelessness, insecurity, destitution and despair.

Self-organised squats borne from abandoned Athenian buildings serve as the only alternative source of accommodation to Greece’s government-run refugee camps that teeter around the edges of the city in their over-run, squalid, dangerous conditions.  Many of the squats are managed through participatory processes, where horizontal structures allow all refugee occupants agency and some autonomy.  They have been powerful centres of solidarity and self-organisation in the anti-racist anti-exclusionary struggle.

Of the dozen or so squats in Athens, four have been violently and forcibly evicted in the last fortnight.  This leaves recognised refugees, rape victims, victims of torture and those with complicated mental health problems with no access to formal, or informal housing.  Refugees are forced to spend cold nights in the street, and this in turn perpetuates a third and inexplicably cruel turn of injustice.  Those who are not registered with official accommodation are not eligible for UNHCR’s cash assistance programme.  

Recognised refugees are therefore left without access to cash support, without access to safe formal independent housing, without access to the camps outside of the urban centres and without access to self-organised squats that breathe life into abandoned Athenian buildings and provide some safety and autonomy.  No measures have been put in place to bridge support for refugees who have been subjected to these three-pronged, comprehensive policies of eviction and expulsion.

Whilst proponents of the eviction policies might argue that refugees who were granted protection two years ago have had ample time to prepare, integrate and find alternative independent ways of living, there are four key reasons preventing them from doing so. 

In order for refugees to be able to live autonomously and rent their own homes, they need practical access to the employment market.  In the four years since the start of the ‘crisis’, and the millions of Euros that have been discharged by the EU and member states for humanitarian support, Greece still does not have a funded integration policy[13]in place.  Refugees are heavily reliant on the charity and compassion of NGOs to find pathways into employment.

Secondly, the evictions were announced by the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy in February 2019, to take effect from March 2019. The short announcement period has meant that refugees, charities and NGOs have not had time to prepare for and manage the volume of those rendered immediately homeless by the policy.

Thirdly, those initially identified as ‘vulnerable enough’ for assistance under ESTIA, still remain vulnerable.  Their identified special needs and the absence of adequate and continuous psychosocial support[14]inevitably precludes them from being able to access the labour market and to integrate and care for themselves.  No transitional provisions have been put in place to support the highly vulnerable.

Finally, those who are able to fund private rentals are prevented from doing so due to the practical barriers of the Greek housing market.  In order to secure a lease, recognised refugees have to present an AFM and AMKA number, bureaucratic documents which can take months to secure.  Without an AFM number, one cannot rent a flat.  However, in order to obtain an AFM number, one has to have an official address.  This coupled with rising rent prices in Athens and the general hostile environment of landlords makes it impossible even for the best placed refugees to move into the private rental market and avoid homelessness.

The eviction policies of recent weeks have demonstrated that even the most vulnerable recognised refugees are subject to systematic dispossession, exclusion and destitution in Greece.


[1]United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

[2]http://estia.unhcr.gr/en/

[3]http://estia.unhcr.gr/en/estia-spells-home-for-refugees-in-greece/

[4]MSS v Belgium and Greece Application No 30696/09 IHRL 153 (ECHR 2011) https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22dmdocnumber%22:[%22880339%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-103050%22] on the deplorable reception conditions in Greece breaching Article 3 ECHR rights

[5]http://estia.unhcr.gr/en/estia-spells-home-for-refugees-in-greece/

[6]Lefteris Papagiannakis, Athens mayor, notes there being over 100,000 empty apartments in the Athens region alone

[7]http://estia.unhcr.gr/en/estia-accommodation-capacity-weekly-update-16-april-2019/

[8]https://www.unhcr.org/greece.html

[9]https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179

[10]https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/public/Dve-2013-33-Reception-conditions.pdf

[11]NGOs have noted that notice periods vary between one week and a maximum of two and a half months

[12]https://rsaegean.org/en/evictions-of-recognized-refugees-from-accommodation-will-lead-to-homelessness-and-destitution/

[13]The National Integration Policy was announced in January 2019 but lacks detail on budget, timeline and precise goals.  HELIOS 2 is due to be introduced in June 2019 but those who have been granted asylum before 2018 will not be eligible for support under HELIOS. 

[14]The Council of Europe published a report in April 2018 noting the inadequacy of mental health facilities in Greece, noting waitlists of up to 6 months for torture survivors to access NGO support services (https://rm.coe.int/1680930c9a)