What the ESTIA evictions mean for dignified humanitarian aid

The 31st of March 2019 is the deadline for recognised refugees that received their status before 31st of July 2017 to leave their accommodation. This applies to both camps and ESTIA apartments, an accommodation program funded by UNHCR hosting almost 23,000 asylum seekers and refugees.

Ever since that announcement, refugees, citizen-led organisations, INGOs and aid workers have expressed their fear that many refugees will find themselves homeless because of this decision.

How many people will be affected?

  • All camps across Greece are affected, including camps in the islands. It is unclear how many recognised refugees having received their status by 31st of July 2017 are in camps.

  • According to estimates shared in coordination meetings, about 1700 received their asylum before August 2017.

  • As of December 2018 about 4,500 recognised refugees live in ESTIA accommodation.

    • 287 cases were submitted for vulnerability to be excluded from removal (cases can include whole families),

      • 165 cases have been granted extensions on the basis of being too vulnerable to be removed, advanced pregnancy, children attending local schools, inability to access bank accounts or AFM numbers (tax registration numbers needed to open bank accounts and rent flats).

      • 121 cases have been asked to leave.

While the number might seems small, this is a first wave of removals. There are no exact estimate for how many of the 23,000 in ESTIA flats, or when, how or who goes first. Anyone receiving asylum after January 2019 will receive 6 months of support so expect some of those evictions/departures to also become visible by June 2019.

Why is this a challenge?

While almost 2 years as a recognised refugee might seem like a long time to prepare, this is why this move could still hurt a lot of people:

  • No path to integration:

Ultimately, it all ties back to one core problem: being able to make rent in the long term.

Recognised refugees may find a home but it does not matters if they cannot sustain their own rent. Creating a solid revenue stream to support themselves is directly dependant on integrating society and getting a job.

  • 4 years since the start of the “crisis”, 3 years on from the EU-Turkey deal, and €722.9 millions disbursed for emergency support and integration, Greece still does not have an integration policy in action. Refugees can only rely on individual programs by NGOs and citizen initiatives.

  • The National Integration policy was unveiled in January 2019. The limited open consultation resulted in multiple comments and notes from non-governmental organisations about its lack of exact goals, timeline or a precise budget.

  • HELIOS 2 is an integration program now being introduced but…

    • It was announced for a June 2019 start, and there are no plans for that “in-between period” of April-June.

    • Those having received asylum before 2018 will not be eligible. That represents a large number of people that will be made homeless in 2019.

  • Short term announcement: the decision was announced mid-February 2019 and confirmed 2 weeks before the deadline. That’s 90 days at best for hundreds of people to find new accommodation.

  • Vulnerable cases are still vulnerable cases: Those living in ESTIA accommodation were given ESTIA flats because of how vulnerable they are. Cases include long-term medical conditions, special needs, severe psychological trauma and other conditions that would make it almost impossible for them to find a job, integrate or care for themselves if they had to leave the flats. No provisions are being made for these cases.

  • Finding another home will prove an impossible task.

    • Greek bureaucracy: Recognised refugees need to secure AFM and AMKA numbers. Without those, they cannot rent a flat, access healthcare or open a bank account. There have been countless reports of people waiting for months for these to be issued.

    • The endless loop: if you don’t have an AFM number you cannot rent a flat. And you cannot get a flat if you do not have an AFM number.

    • Hostile landlords: The Greek society response to refugee arrivals has been mixed and it is very visible when it comes to rentals, with landlords refusing to rent flats to migrants and refugees.

    • Rising prices in Athens rentals: Athens has also been seeing rising rental prices, especially in the city center, mostly due to the meteoric rise of AirBnB.

Why can’t the smaller organisations just host everyone?

Housing projects have been multiplying over the past year, mostly created by citizen-led organisations. But they face struggles to establish themselves or offer accommodation to key groups of people, as it was shared in our Smart Aid Gathering by Melissa Network and Mazi Housing Project.

  • Greek permits and bureaucracy: Identifying and securing the correct permits takes a long time, especially for some specific very vulnerable populations.

  • The challenge of reaching scale: While a small project may establish a successful pilot project, it is difficult to expand quickly due to the high and long term costs associated with renting, bills, etc.

What can independent and citizen projects do?

  • Rent assistance: Organisations and individuals can sponsor the rent of individuals and families (check with your accountant for details on how to do this). Consider phasing out out your support once people secure a job to enhance the sense of empowerment instead of perpetual charity.

  • Let’s make space: There is a pressing need for more organisations to launch their own efforts in housing. If you are considering funding or launching a new initiative, note that housing is a pressing need. You can read more about housing practices by organisations in Athens in the summary of our Smart Aid Gathering on Housing.

  • Building scale: Finally, it’s crucial to invest time and funding social housing for all. Housing can combine both the basic right to a safe living environment and opportunities for integration. These projects are also more likely to reach scale as they will not be focused on a single group.

Citizen initiatives have proven they can develop effective and dignified housing focused on empowerment and integration. What they cannot do is work within a legal framework that block their actions. What they cannot do is absorb the growing number of people in need of housing by themselves--and they should not have to.

The need for housing and growing homelessness will affect everyone in the coming months, from refugees to organisations to local communities, only making the topic of migration more divisive. But it is only a symptom of badly designed or implemented policies.