Recognised but unprotected: The situation of refugees in Victoria Square

Over the summer, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) has documented the cases of several vulnerable families (42 persons including 22 children) from Afghanistan granted international protection on Lesvos, who were informed they had to leave the Moria hotspot and subsequently ended up homeless in Victoria Square, Athens. Among those were three new-born babies, women in advanced pregnancy, victims of torture, a child with autism, a child with a rare genetic disorder and a child suffering from cancer. Their stories, involving destitution, police violence, transfers to and poor living conditions in reception and detention facilities, starkly illustrate the severe impact of Greece’s decision to evict refugees from its reception system without any concrete plan to enable them to exercise their rights as protection holders.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greek government announced the eviction of over 11,000 recognised refugees from reception places they occupied during their asylum procedures. Evictions would start as of 1 June 2020 based on the enforcement of recent legislation foreseeing an obligation on international protection holders to leave their accommodation in camps, apartments and hotels within one month of receiving status.

Refugees were informed they had to leave their reception places and to autonomously integrate in the host society under conditions equal to Greek citizens. The move, however, has been imposed without any measures to mitigate longstanding obstacles faced by status holders in obtaining the necessary documentation for access to key rights in Greece.

Specifically, persons seeking to rent property and to open a bank account need a Tax Identification Number (Αριθμός Φορολογικού Μητρώου, AFM). To obtain it, they need to provide a certified residence address to the tax authorities. Beneficiaries of international protection who do not hold a residence certificate and/or are homeless are unable to receive an AFM.

The only official integration programme for beneficiaries of international protection in Greece, HELIOS, offers support including rental subsidies to assist people in covering running housing expenses, provided they already hold a rental contract and a bank account; both are dependent upon AFM and involve expenses. Still, finding accommodation itself remains extremely difficult for most due to high rent prices, scarcity of spare flats, lack of language knowledge, and discrimination in the housing market.

The Greek authorities’ stance towards recognised refugees, however, appears to be primarily geared towards decongesting the hotspots on the Eastern Aegean islands. The government has consistently declared that status holders can and should seek assistance through HELIOS, without acknowledging the limitations of the programme. An analysis made by RSA and PRO ASYL in June 2020 showed that less than 4% of people granted status in Greece since the beginning of 2018 had been able to access rental subsidies under HELIOS. By the end of June 2020, a total of 2,484 status holders had accessed rental subsidies through the programme. This is far below the 11,000 beneficiaries requested to leave their accommodation that month, while more people continue to be granted international protection.

1. From Moria to Victoria

Prior to their arrival in Athens, the families interviewed by RSA described how they had to stay for months in tents outside and inside Moria hotspot, exposed to a life among garbage and sewage water and high levels of violence. Most of them had witnessed death or severe injuries and reported to be traumatised since then. They also spoke about the insufficient number of sanitary facilities and the difficulties they faced in accessing medical care.

The vast majority of the families interviewed arrived on Lesvos in early 2020. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the Asylum Service accepted many asylum applications and in May 2020, people were handed positive decisions and received the ‘blue stamp’ on their asylum cards stating that the issuance of their residence permit was pending. They were also informed by the authorities that they would have to leave the camp following their recognition within a month; pregnant women with their families within two months after the birth of their children. Interviewees also stated that information sheets were pinned publicly in the camp and handed to individuals who received international protection. Several said that they received a small note, inviting them to visit the UN cash office where they were told that their monthly allowance would be cut. Others reported that police representatives had also announced, during the repeated protests held in that period by recognised refugees, that they had to leave state housing.

People stated that they were advised to register with the HELIOS programme and travel to Athens, where they could get an AFM and open a bank account. The majority of families registered electronically with HELIOS prior to leaving the island of Lesvos and travelled to Athens in search of opportunities for integration, given the absence of alternatives on the island.

Following the information that their accommodation would end, hundreds of refugees left and are leaving still for Athens. Information provided by the Director of Moria hotspot on Lesvos states that over 1,215 beneficiaries left the hotspot in the course of June 2020. All families interviewed by RSA initially ended up homeless in Victoria Square.

“I gave birth in Mytilene [the main city on Lesvos island] and returned to our tent with my baby, who ever since is suffering from frequent fevers… we were informed our money will be cut and we had to leave Moria camp and go to Athens. Now we are homeless for more than a week.”

(Hawa*, mother of three, including a new-born)

Upon arrival in Athens, those interviewed were exposed to very poor conditions in Victoria Square. Two of the new-borns had to be transferred to the hospital for treatment during their stay with their families in the square. In early July 2020, when RSA visited the square, around 200 beneficiaries of international protection were sleeping rough on grey blankets. The refugees were spending their days under the sun and tried to move around in order to keep under the shadow and protect themselves from the high temperatures. Their blankets were spread next to big plastic bags where the rest of their belongings were packed.

“My child’s condition is very serious. He cannot be in noisy places, under stress. Any extra tension worsens his psychology and health. Since we [found ourselves] in the streets of Athens, he seems to [suffer from] severe headaches. He holds his head often, he presses it and he beats it. Our biggest problem is that we have no home, no safe place, no protection… We are ill, and we are getting more ill. We are stressed out and we get more stressed out. I feel a deep fear inside me….”

(Abdul*, torture survivor and father of a child that suffers from autism)

2. Out of sight, out of mind: Forcible removal out of Victoria

The arrival and stay of hundreds of refugees from the islands to Victoria Square was met with displeasure and repeated forcible removals of those that found shelter there. A statement reflective of the government’s response was made by the Minister for Migration and Asylum on 3 July 2020: “This year, 16,000 migrants left from our islands, unfortunately 100 individuals are in Victoria square. There is a support programme to find housing and work, they must ‘stand on their feet’, we cannot give them privileges for life.”

In an effort to mitigate persisting administrative barriers, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum issued once homelessness certificates to some refugees staying in Victoria Square in the period of RSA’s research, with a view to allowing them to obtain AFM. However, in all cases known to RSA, tax authorities did not accept those certificates as proof of residence. The Noori* family was told by four different Tax Offices (Διεύθυνση Οικονομικών Υποθέσεων, DOY) in Athens that they could not be issued AFM based on the certificate issued by the Ministry, as it lacked an address and indicated that they were homeless.

The lives of these desperate refugees became more difficult when on 9 July 2020, Athens Municipality staff removed the benches from the square. According to news articles, the removal took place after requests from local residents for people not to gather in the square. Ever since, people are forced to sit on the floor of the square.

The forcible removals of the hundreds of refugees that had found shelter in Victoria Square took place under heavy police involvement. Those interviewed described being subjected to threats and intimidation in order to board the police buses that would transfer them temporarily to various camps in Athens and in the nearby areas (Elaionas, Skaramangas and Schisto), in Thiva, in the remote camp of Kleidi in Serres, Northern Greece, and even in the Amygdaleza pre-removal detention centre.

According to testimonies of refugees interviewed by RSA, corroborated by media articles, one particular police operation that happened near midnight on 4 July 2020 was marred by police violence against the refugees who were in the square and solidarians assisting them. The allegations are accompanied by widely published videos where one can hear the distressed screams of refugee women during the police operation to forcibly remove them to Amygdaleza pre-removal detention centre. 22 individuals including solidarians and some refugees, were transferred to a local police station and four of them were arrested that day.

“When the police attacked, we got very scared and we sought refuge to a friend’s house. We could not be with our disabled boy in the middle of violence. They started beating. When they threw (tear gas) we ran. My wife hugged our child. The children were crying… But the next day, we had to leave the house…

(Noori*, father of a child with a rare genetic disorder).

Three female refugees, including one in advanced pregnancy, and a male refugee described how they were ill-treated that night. Amira* who was in the late stages of her pregnancy, Mohammad* and their small toddler described the fear and the violence they experienced that night. They said that Amira was kicked and pushed by police and tear gas was thrown in her direction which made her vomit. Following this incident, she is repeatedly experiencing numbness in one of her limbs, which doctors have diagnosed as a seemingly psychological symptom. Mohammad said: “We stayed one week in Victoria sleeping on a dirty blanket in the heat without any toilets or bathrooms… Then the police attacked us… We were scared they would force us to go to prison [Amygdaleza] like it had happened to the others before…”

Arezo* described how she was hurt on her arms and beaten by police with a baton on her head when she resisted entering the police bus. Bismillah*, father of a family with a 14-year-old son and survivor of torture, described how he was punched by police and lost consciousness while he was trying to protect a solidarian from being arrested and had to be hospitalised for a night. He said: “I escaped from violence and I found myself again as a victim of violence in Greece.”

One of the refugee women transferred to the police station and released without charges described how she was beaten on her back and legs and how she had to leave her minor children alone in the square because of her apprehension.

3. An invisible population in reception and detention facilities

The forcible removal operations in Victoria Square resulted in hundreds of recognised refugees becoming unofficial residents in camps for asylum seekers near Athens. Most of those camps already have a substantial unregistered population, reaching 1,052 people in Malakasa, 433 in Elaionas, 348 in Skaramangas and 109 in Thiva.

RSA has been informed that the status holders transported from Victoria Square to Elaionas on 15 June 2020 slept outside the camp for few days and then were placed in tents inside the camp. Interviewed refugees reported being informed by the camp management that their stay there was temporary and permitted for the purpose of obtaining the address certificate necessary to proceed with finding housing under the HELIOS programme. The camp management issued residence certificate (βεβαιώσεις διαμονής) attesting the beneficiaries’ residence in reception facilities “for humanitarian reasons”. Such certificates were explicitly “granted for the issuance of AFM, the opening of a bank account and enrolment on the HELIOS programme”. In certain cases, such certificates were even issued to people who had not been placed in Elaionas even temporarily.

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“I was recognised as vulnerable in Moria. I have a disability due to an injury on my arm. All of us carry a huge rock on our shoulders. With the decision to give us protection in Greece we belong here, we are all humans and yet we have no food, no toilet, no home. We only got a paper that says we are temporarily hosted in Elaionas, which we were not, in order to get a tax number and open a bank account. We were told to subscribe for HELIOS, to bring a house contract. I don’t know if we’ll get any help at any time…” (Bismillah*)
“We cannot get AFM without an address. We cannot open a bank account because we have no ID. A few nights ago, police wanted to take us to the Amygdaleza. We couldn’t go because our baby is in the hospital… the children’s hospital intervened, and we received a certificate stating that we temporarily live in Elaionas camp. But this is only on paper, so we can apply for HELIOS. In reality, we are still homeless in the park. We were given protection in Greece, but we can only choose between the streets and a prison…” (Hawa*)

Refugees arriving spontaneously to Elaionas and camping outside were forcibly turned away, with many of them instructed to return after several days to collect a residence certificate. On 22 June 2020, around 30 of the individuals transferred to Elaionas were transported to the Kleidi camp in Northern Greece. Upon arrival, the refugees refused to get off the bus. They had to pay their own fare to return back to Athens.

A group of over 100 people was transferred from Victoria Square to the pre-removal detention centre of Amygdaleza on 19 June 2020. The families interviewed said, that they were placed in abhorrent living conditions in dirty, often burnt containers, had no access to medical treatment and sanitary items, and were offered food only once a day. People were not allowed to freely enter and exit the facility – they were asked to choose between confinement or the streets. They were also informed they could not get any form of support for their HELIOS enrolment, as the pre-removal detention centre is under the responsibility of the police. Some even reported they lost appointments with the Tax Office they had made to obtain an AFM for their HELIOS enrolment. After a few days of desperation, refugees collectively left Amygdaleza to return to Victoria Square:

“My family was told to stay in a container that was burned. We could barely breathe. Our baby had diarrhoea and no doctor checked it. We asked for a doctor, we asked for pampers, but nothing. Then I went to the gate of the camp which was locked. Only the police had keys and could open or lock. I asked to exit in order to buy pampers and medicines, but they said I could not go out and come back. They said this camp is under the responsibility of the police. There was a fence and in the other sections near to us were men detained… We got only once a day food. Some of the detained men shared their food with us because we were hungry. In the end, Victoria square is surely the better choice. After four days in prison, we found ourselves again homeless.” (Abdullah*, father of a family of five, including a new-born)

In early July 2020, the authorities started carrying out transfers to other reception facilities such as Schisto, Skaramangas and Thiva. In Schisto, the families interviewed said that they were placed under a metal shed in the middle of the camp. They described how they slept on blankets on the sand as they were not provided tents, and received food for the entire day in one set, without being able to protect food from the heat. They were informed that camp management was not responsible of them as they were not regular residents.

In Skaramangas, the authorities placed status holders in two metal storage buildings, one of which has no air conditioning. Those interviewed described how they slept on the floor amid filth and worms. These conditions were unbearable for the child of the Rahimi* family, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder. They said that the camp manager told them she could not help with the child’s illness. The family left the camp, fearing a deterioration of their child’s health, and slept rough on the streets once again. “After one night there we were again homeless. We went to a camp, but there it was worse than in Victoria square. We don’t know where to go now. We need medical treatment for our child”, stated Noori*, the father of the family.

More than 100 people were transported to the Thiva camp, where they were placed inside a building in small tents.

RSA was informed that some highly vulnerable beneficiaries of international protection were eventually placed in prefabs inside some of the open camps, but only as a transitional solution.

Nonetheless, following the transfer to Thiva, no further transfers to open reception facilities have taken place by the authorities for several weeks. Newly arriving beneficiaries told to leave Lesvos island remain again homeless in Victoria Square, exposed to the heat, the lack of access to a sanitary infrastructure and repeated forcible removals by the police, while remaining unable to complete their enrolment on HELIOS. Among them are beneficiaries told to leave the hotspot of Moria, the Kara Tepe camp and ESTIA flats on the island.

* All names have been changed to protect privacy and security

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