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Refugees in Greece experience third month of humanitarian crisis and hunger​

Refugees in Greece experience third month of humanitarian crisis and hunger

Despite constant appeals from humanitarian organisations and dozens of media reports regarding the economic impasse faced by thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece in recent months, the problem has not been solved. The Ministry of Migration and Asylum has not yet fulfilled its commitment to disburse the monthly financial allowance to asylum seekers through bank cards under an EU-funded programme. For the hundreds of others who are not entitled to the allowance and have no other means of subsistence, food in the camps has been cut off. Humanitarian organisations and solidarity groups, as well as refugees helping each other, are trying to fill the gaps in terms of food provision and beyond.

Asylum seekers are entitled to “material reception conditions” guaranteeing an adequate standard of living until the examination of their asylum application is completed, based on European and Greek legislation. Such conditions include shelter, food, clothing and financial assistance to cover daily needs. Greece provides such financial assistance to asylum seekers through a programme funded by the European Union.

However, due to delays occurring since the transition of the cash assistance programme from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the Greek government on 1 October 2021, an estimated 36,000 people have not received the benefit. 

Following complaints, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum had assured in mid-October that the financial assistance would be disbursed at the end of the same month, and from then on it would be paid on an accrual basis. Today, two months later, people have still not received the financial allowance. The fact that refugees are not receiving the allowance during this period has also had an impact on the local markets from which they were buying goods.

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) is in contact with dozens of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees who are now forced to live in extreme poverty without the ability to meet their basic living needs. In December, the organisation provided supermarket vouchers to its beneficiaries and to vulnerable families living in ESTIA apartments facing serious health problems and now hunger. Among them are people who depend on special diets as they suffer from chronic diseases, as well as many young children.

Asylum seekers in the camps complain about the quality of food

Asylum seekers in the camps complain about the quality of food

We do not eat the meals they distribute to us. But we have no choice. Whether we eat it or we don’t, our stomach hurts

Due to the temporary suspension of the allowance to which they are entitled, asylum seekers are now receiving pre-cooked meals in the camps, which –  according to information available to organisations and asylum seekers – are often of poor quality food and not fully cooked. However, people who are not entitled to material reception conditions either because they are not yet registered, or because their asylum claim has been rejected or they have been granted international protection, are excluded from provision of food in the camps.

Over the last months, refugees have protested against this state of affairs. Refugees in the Elaionas camp point out that their children cry at night from hunger and mothers cannot buy baby milk, instead they mash biscuits in water. In the Ritsona camp, people report that they cannot go to hospitals and struggle to cover expenses for medicines due to the lack of allowances.

“We do not eat the meals they distribute to us. But we have no choice. Whether we eat it or we don’t, our stomach hurts,” says a mother of a large family who also has a baby and lives in the Malakasa camp. We don’t even have money for the train ticket to go to Athens to search for food in the  weekly markets or at different humanitarian organisations. We try to help each other here in the camp, to borrow money from relatives abroad… but until when? In the beginning we could live with the little money we had. Now there are nights our children go to sleep with empty stomachs and tears in their eyes. All we can do is tell them: It doesn’t matter. It will pass.” A father in the Elaionas camp with a four-year-old boy says he cannot complete the visa application process for family reunification with his wife in Germany as he lacks the money the embassy requires for the fees. “We only take the water from the catering. The food is not edible. I borrow money to feed my boy. And now I can’t even complete the visa application to reunite with the mother of my child.”

Inside ESTIA apartments without food

Inside ESTIA apartments without food

At the same time, at the end of November there were around 14,500 cases of very vulnerable living in apartments under ESTIA, a programme also taken over by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum since last year. These people could not even access food distribution as it only applies to camps. Asylum seekers hosted by the programme have been reportedly informed by their host organisations that they will receive the assistance at the beginning of the new year. Staff of various organisations implementing the housing programme are faced with frequent and desperate questions from their beneficiaries about the roll-out of the financial allowance. In some cases, some gave out addresses of other humanitarian organisations where people might be able to find food, while others gave one-off small food packages. In most cases, however, asylum seekers were reportedly left helpless.

The case of a single-parent family with three children living in an ESTIA apartment is illustrative. The mother has multiple health problems and cannot even afford the medication prescribed by her psychiatrist. “My son is six years old. He started kindergarten this year. He cries when I want to take him there. We don’t have money so I can’t give him food for school. Nor can I buy school supplies. And if I don’t take him to school, they ask me why I don’t take him,” the woman says. A family with six children who also live in an ESTIA apartment describes the situation they are in as follows: “Our daughter has suffered serious injuries in a traffic accident that happened to her in Greece. The doctors tell us that she is very weak now. We have had no money for two months now, since they stopped giving the cash benefit. We don’t have money for food or for school. A lady donated some notebooks to us. Our children shared them. At school they use the same notebook for different classes. We don’t have diapers. Our children don’t have warm clothes.”

Recognised refugees and rejected asylum seekers in a dire situation

Recognised refugees and rejected asylum seekers in a dire situation

I run in my wheelchair from one church to another, from one humanitarian organisation to another to collect food and diapers

At the same time, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum states that “those migrants who have received final negative decisions are required to leave the country. Alternatively, they may be taken to pre-removal detention centres by order of the Hellenic Police”. Among those who have been rejected are many refugees from Syria and Afghanistan whose applications were rejected on the ground that Turkey is a “safe third country” for them. However, Turkey has not accepted any readmission from Greece from March 2020 to date, so these people end up in a legal limbo with no rights and no support.

For recognised refugees still living in camps, the Ministry refers to the right to access the HELIOS integration programme which provides support for independent housing for 6-12 months from the granting of status, among other things. It also refers to the possibility to find a job and to benefits people can apply for. In order to access the HELIOS programme, however, refugees have to overcome significant difficulties, namely to rent an apartment on their own means since a rental contract is a pre-requisite for rental subsidies. Recognised refugees who have no other option but to informally stay in the camps in order to avoid becoming homeless on the streets now make up the largest share of approximately 3,000 informal residents in the camps.

A family of five from Afghanistan, which was granted asylum in 2019 when they were living in the Moria (Lesvos) hotspot, has been living for a year and a half in tents and makeshift shelters inside the Elaionas camp. They recently moved into a container that had been abandoned by its previous residents: “In the first months here in the camp we were provided with some food. Our cash card was cut off long ago. We had registered for the HELIOS programme when we were still in Moria but nothing progressed. When we asked again to register again here in Elaionas, we were told that it was too late to register us. My husband collects cartons for 5-10 euros a day so we can buy some food. Sometimes we are hungry but we just don’t have anything to eat,” says the mother.

As 28 civil society organisations have already pointed out in a joint statement in mid-October, 60% of people living in camps on the mainland do not receive food. Among them are pregnant women, single-parent families, children, chronically ill persons and patients with special medical and nutritional needs. In some areas, food is not even provided to those placed in quarantine due to COVID-19, according to the organisations.  In her response in early December to a joint letter from civil society organisations, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, stressed inter alia that she has repeatedly raised the issue of the interruption of material reception conditions with the Greek authorities. She also stressed the need to implement sustainable integration systems that will facilitate the transition of recognised refugees to independent living and their access to social benefits on equal terms with Greek citizens.

Around 2,500 recognised refugees were living in ESTIA apartments at the end of November. However, the number of those who continue to stay there after being informed that their accommodation period has ended, one month after the positive decision on their asylum application, is unknown. These people in many cases are experience hunger for longer periods, since their allowance has been cut off earlier upon receipt of a positive asylum decision. “We were homeless for months while I was pregnant because I could not manage to register an asylum claim via Skype,” says a disabled mother of a one-year-old infant. “As soon as we got asylum our benefit was cut off again and they started to pressure us to leave the apartment we had been given only a few months before. We are very scared because on the one hand we have nowhere else to find accommodation, on the other hand we have seen friends receiving eviction notices who are now being threatened with court action. Our situation in Greece is tragic once again. Again we have no money to eat. Where can we find the money to rent a house for HELIOS? I run in my wheelchair from one church to another, from one humanitarian organisation to another to collect food and diapers.”

These last weeks, solidarity initiatives have launched appeals on social media to collect essentials for affected people. However, the items collected are not sufficient meet the needs. 

In view of the above, Refugee Support in the Aegean (RSA) urges for the immediate continuation of the provision of cash assistance to asylum seekers to comply with the State’s obligation to provide material reception conditions.

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