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Greece: Asylum-seekers moved back into refugee camps

February 7, 2023

Asylum-seekers in Greece have had to leave their apartments and move back into refugee camps. Athens says that standards in the camps are high, but migration experts say it is an attempt to deter others.

Diavata Reception and Identification Center near Thessaloniki in northern Greece, January 24, 2023
Camps in mainland Greece have been surrounded by high concrete walls and monitored by surveillance cameras since 2021Image: Florian Schmitz/DW

Rana is 20 years of age and lives in a refugee camp somewhere in mainland Greece. She does not want to give her real name or her exact location as she fears the negative impact it could have on her asylum application.

Rana and her family fled Afghanistan in 2018 and travelled to Greece via Turkey. Her father has a heart condition, and her brother suffers from epilepsy, which means the family of five is considered particularly vulnerable and was able to claim an apartment as part of the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program.

Three young migrants in Thessaloniki, January 24, 2023
Some experts feel the Greek state is determined to keep refugees apart from the rest of societyImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

This program, which is funded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the European Union, was set up in 2015 to fund urban accommodation for the most vulnerable asylum-seekers. The hope was it would facilitate their integration into the host society.

Greek government ended ESTIA program

In December 2022, the Greek government phased out the ESTIA program, which meant that Rana and her family had to move back into a refugee camp.

"I used to go to school in Greece with my sister," she told DW, her eyes repeatedly filling with tears. "When we arrived at the camp, we were told there was no space for us at the school there." They were told they could go to school in the next town. But the school was so far away from the camp that, with a heavy heart, they decided against it.

Living in an empty container

The family had to leave behind the life it had built for itself in the city. "When we arrived at the camp, our container was completely empty. There weren't even any mattresses," recalled Rana. The family slept on the floor for two days and then went back to their old apartment in the city to get the mattresses.

Migrant accommodation in camps, Thessaloniki, Greece, January 24, 2023
Since the phasing out of the ESTIA program, asylum-seekers have had to leave their apartments and move back into refugee campsImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

That was two months ago. To this day, their names are not on the list of those entitled to get meals. "They give us whatever is left over when everyone else in the camp has been given their food," said Rana. In the meantime, they have got their own cooker and can now prepare their own meals.

Changed situation in Afghanistan

The family's asylum application has already been rejected twice. But that was before the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021. Since then, there has been no more talk of Afghanistan being a safe country of origin.

Now the family is waiting for the Greek authorities to review its application. Because both Brussels and Athens consider Turkey to be a safe third country, Rana is afraid the family's asylum application will once again be rejected, and the family could be sent to Turkey.

Huge psychological strain on migrants

The endless wait and uncertainty are an immense psychological burden on migrants. The basic idea behind the ESTIA program was to create dignified living conditions within society in order to ease people's suffering. Initially, the intention was that about 20,000 places would be provided.

Christina Svana, Thessaloniki, January 24, 2023
Lawyer Christina Svana considers the termination of the ESTIA program a mistakeImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

In February 2022, the Greek government announced that ESTIA would be terminated by the end of the year. The Greek Migration Ministry says that at that time, 12,648 people were in apartments provided by ESTIA and since then, many of them have been told whether they have been granted asylum or not.

In response to an inquiry by DW, the ministry said that ultimately, less than 500 people have had to leave their apartments because nobody had been admitted to the program in recent months. 

Experts feel isolation is being used as a deterrent

Lawyer Christina Svana considers the termination of the ESTIA program a mistake and points to the fact that many asylum-seekers are still in need. Svana works for FENIX, an NGO that helps refugees by providing them with legal assistance and advice.

Since Athens announced it was winding down the ESTIA program, she has been inundated with calls from desperate clients: "We've seen how tough the implementation of this decision was. In many cases, they only gave people one or two days' notice that they had to leave." This, she says, was very difficult for the people involved because many of them had already settled in.

A Greek national flag is painted on a border fence, built to prevent migrant crossings, Evros, Greece, January 21, 2023
Experts say Greek authorities are isolating migrants in an attempt to deter others from entering GreeceImage: Alexandros Avramidis/REUTERS

Svana sees the termination of the ESTIA program as part of the government's policy of deterring asylum-seekers: "Ever since the government came to power in 2019, we have seen a dramatic decline in the benefits for or the rights of refugees. Enclosed centers have been built on the islands and walled camps that are under surveillance on the mainland." She says that the Greek state is determined to keep refugees apart from the rest of society.

Was the decision to end ESTIA political?

Svana's colleague Ines Avelas, head of Advocacy and Strategy at FENIX, feels the termination of the ESTIA program is politically motivated.

Avelas says the head of the EU Task Force Migration Management in Brussels, told FENIX in writing that the Greek authorities had decided to phase out the project because of the "significant drop in arrivals and the reduced utilization of capacity in the reception centers," and that funding from the EU's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) was guaranteed until 2027.

Death along the Balkan route

"As far as we can tell," she said, "the end of the program was a decision of the Greek government and there was no budgetary reason for it."

Greek government: 'No further means available'

The Greek government rejects this claim. The Migration Ministry told DW that while the ESTIA program could be financed through the AMIF Fund, "no further means had been made available."

In response to an inquiry by DW, the European Commission said: "Ultimately, it is a choice of Greece how to offer reception and how to use the funding put at its disposal within the legal base obligations of the EU Directives and Regulations."

Only asylum-seekers affected

The Migration Ministry said in a written statement that those affected by the phasing out of ESTIA had been given an alternative in residential facilities "that are fully in line with international and European legal requirements" and these facilities offered residents "safety, food and appropriate living conditions."

Lefteris Papagiannakis, Thessaloniki, Greece, January 24, 2023
Lefteris Papagiannakis of the NGO Greek Council for Refugees says the Greek government is hostile to refugees and migrantsImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

The ministry also said the only people affected were those who were still in the asylum process. According to the ministry, "most asylum-seekers were notified of the outcome of their asylum application before the end of the program. In the event of a negative outcome, they were deported; in the event of a positive outcome, they were offered accommodation and financial assistance through the HELIOS integration program."

HELIOS is a program for people who have already been granted asylum in Greece. It is also funded by the EU. Lefteris Papagiannakis of the NGO Greek Council for Refugees, says the HELIOS program is good in that it provides one year's support for those seeking a job and accommodation. "The problem is that you have to have accommodation to get into the program in the first place," he said, adding that things get difficult when assistance ends after a year.

Papagiannakis points out that many people who have been granted asylum have ended up on the streets or had to return to the refugee camps. He doubts Greece is serious about integration: "This government is hostile to refugees and migrants," he added.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece