What About Urban Refugees?

Let the numbers and facts speak for themselves. Currently:

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  • over 60,000 refugees are stranded in Greece

  • More than 40 camps are dotted across the country

  • Borders are closed

  • Relocation and asylum procedures take over 6 months

  • Winter is coming.

What will happen to the 60,000 people across the country in the next few months?

Looking at the conditions in camps, they are nowhere near great and vary from camp to camp. Ultimately though, it boils down to one thing: most refugees do not want to be in camps, especially when they happen to be in the middle of some mountain or island with little access to nearby towns or asylum offices.

This is not just the case in Greece.

Refugee camps became the norm in the Cold War, as a temporary solution for the movement of large populations across rural areas. But now official UNHCR figures indicate that over 60% of refugees choose to live in urban environments. In Turkey only 450,000 of its 2 million Syrian refugees are actually in camps. It is the era of the “urban refugee”.


  • On the one hand, camps offer access to services. But they are not always on offer or they can be of very low quality.

  • On the other hand, living in an urban area means being closer to the asylum services office rather than waiting on aid workers to visit a camp. It means choosing where to live instead of depending on NGOs to provide tents. It means choosing what and when to eat instead of waiting for catering services. Ultimately, it is about regaining dignity, a measure of control and empowerment.

What would a shopkeeper from Aleppo do on the slopes of Mount Olympus anyway?

CITY OR CAMP: The importance of support

But moving into the city comes with risk: there is no guarantee that they will be able to rent a flat or have an income to afford food and healthcare. The reason why refugees might hesitate to move out of a camp is that, despite the lack of consistency of services or low quality of life, a camp still guarantees some support.

Which is why projects such as RefuComm, SOLE Greece or Khora are so important. Set in the heart of the city, they provide legal support, education and access to information. They offer a balance between the normalcy of living in the city and the specialised support a refugee needs during the month-long asylum application procedure and the first stages of integration. They are a key ingredient needed for urban refugees to have a dignified standard of living.


Another thing that is need for refugees to leave camp is of course access to accommodation. Currently, we estimate that roughly 2,000–3,000 refugees are staying around Athens. Their choices are limited. NGO-sponsored accommodation is usually only for those preparing for relocation or for vulnerable cases (single mothers, families or unaccompanied minors). The other option is for refugees to stay in hotels or rent flats which drains on their resources.

Right now, refugees staying in Athens and Thessaloniki usually go to one place: squats. Squats are abandoned buildings taken over by activists to offer free shelter. Most are in the area of Exarcheia, a location with a rich anti-establishment history and multiple occupied buildings. Most refugee squats are self-managed and rely mostly on donations from locals or independent volunteers. One example is City Plaza which has one of the most ingenious fundraising pages we have seen in a while!

The lack of urban accommodation is a very real problem. If we are going to move towards the urban refugee mode, we need to be doing more!


Here are two other examples of urban accommodation for refugees.

One is the Refugees Welcome initiative, currently running in 13 countries and have matched 800+ refugees to hosts across the world. Similar “AirBnB for refugees” type of projects have appeared across Europe. Although not a long-term solution, it can definitely solve the problem for refugees passing through a city for asylum interviews or hospital visits.

Another option in Athens is Orange House. It is a rented building that provide services and class and can incorporate activities from independent volunteers or teams due to its legal standing as an NGO.

While these are great projects, they lack the scale that is needed to house large numbers. Squats are currently full and the time needed for a project like Orange House or Refugees Welcome to find accommodation is quite long. With winter looming and many refugees wanting to move to Athens or Thessaloniki, more urban places are needed.

Collaboration between housing projects and support services projects will also be key. One small organisation cannot always cover all needs and multiple teams providing different services can be the key to ensure refugees get access to the right support.

Whatever smart solutions by grassroots teams and volunteers grow from that pressing need, they have the potential to be new role models for how to house and support urban refugees with dignity.