A step backwards for protection and integration:
On the termination of the ESTIA II housing programme for asylum applicants
A step backwards for protection and integration:
On the termination of the ESTIA II housing programme for asylum applicants
It’s Christmas time and hundreds of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees in Greece have counted their last days in their temporary homes and neighbourhoods. The Greek government insisted on closing down the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA II) scheme for vulnerable asylum seekers as announced earlier this year,despite the willingness of the European Commission to continue the funding. Civil society organizations, teachers and refugees alike have expressed their concerns about this backward step for protection and integration and call for a continuation of the housing programme.
Hundreds of families of asylum seekers have already been transferred from their flats back to refugee camps or await their transfer thereto within the next days. Furthermore, some thousands of people have been affected by evictions or transfers to camps since the government’s initial announcement of the closure of ESTIA in February 2022, when the programme still accommodated about 12,500 residents.
Beneficiaries of the housing programme report that the employees of the implementing partners of ESTIA II only orally informed them on short notice of their transfer to camps, often without specifying the place of transfer. Suddenly, children had to leave their schools, hobbies and friends, adults their language and vocational classes, persons with (mental) health problems had to interrupt their treatment. Those who had found occasional work moved far away from their small job opportunities.
The government’s decision to terminate ESTIA II can be understood as a part of a broader migration policy aimed at restricting asylum seekers to controlled and secluded camps. It followed the termination of the FILOXENIA accommodation programme in hotels, the phasing out of alternative accommodation to camps on the islands, and the closure of camps near urban areas such as Skaramangas and Eleonas in the Attica region.
Consequently, state support is now available only to asylum seekers residing in camps, hidden behind three-meter concrete walls and barbed wire. Since the introduction of a “HYPERION”, a controversial surveillance system currently under review by the Greek Data Protection Authority, camp gates are controlled by private security guards, cameras have been installed and the residents have to identify themselves in order to enter. Camps previously known as “Open Temporary Reception Facilities” are since 2021 officially titled “Controlled Temporary Accommodation Facilities for Asylum Seekers” (Ελεγχόμενες Δομές Προσωρινής Φιλοξενίας αιτούντων άσυλο). These camps have seemingly become the sole reception form for asylum seekers receiving reception conditions until the completion of their asylum procedure.
Meanwhile, at the end of November, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) informed their employees that it will be firing 60% of their staff working in the camps under the “Harmonizing Protection Practices in Greece” (HARP) programme until end of 2022, thus drastically decreasing the support offered to the most vulnerable. This has led to protests and strikes of the affected employees. According to the affected employees, the announcement came as a surprise. They fear that the decision to downsize services inside camps does not consider the needs and the best interests of the significant number of residents. They furthermore denounce the lack of any transition plan, including case management and referrals, until services are handed over to the government. As a result, those residing in the camps will be left suddenly with fewer legal, social and psychological services.
In early December 2022, ten civil rights organisations, including Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), wrote to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum to voice their deep concerns about the termination of ESTIA II and the transfer of the vulnerable asylum seekers to the camps. The organisations highlighted severe concerns previously expressed by the Ombudsman and demanded from the state to refrain from closing down ESTIA II.
The Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, stated on December 16th: “We are closing the ESTIA program, because the accommodation facilities are sufficient for the shelter needs.”Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) spokesperson in Greece, Stella Nanou, emphasised in a recent statement that “it is logical that the capacity of accommodation places should be adapted to the population of asylum seekers in the country”, however, “a number of apartments should be maintained within the urban network” as a “necessary type of shelter for extremely vulnerable cases of asylum seeker and their families, so that they can live under safe conditions and with easier access to the necessary services.” The promotion of housing alternatives to camps has been a major UNHCR priority since 2014.R
Ritsona Camp, Dec 2022
RSA collected the testimonies of four affected vulnerable asylum applicants and their families. These are their voices:
Salim*, single father of three young daughters
“When my daughters hear the word ‘camp’, fear and terror conquers their eyes. We spent eight months in the ‘jungle’ of Moria on Lesvos when we arrived in Greece. We had to be careful all day and all night to not get injured in a fight.” Salim* and his three young daughters (aged 5, 12 and 14) come from Afghanistan. The family has arrived in Greece since 2019 and after several months in Moria they were transferred in an ESTIA flat due to their vulnerability. The father has been a victim of bomb explosion in the past and still suffers from these injuries, while the younger daughter suffers from serious hearing impairment and is in need of regular medical follow ups. The family awaits their family reunification with their wife and mother. After spending almost two years in a flat of the ESTIA housing programme, they were recently informed that they will be transferred again to a camp within a week. “My daughters were going to public school in our neighbourhood. During this time, they made friends and created bonds. They visit afternoon language classes and sports clubs. My younger daughter has to undergo regular medical check-ups. I seek jobs in Athens. Now we are supposed to move to a camp far from the city. We don’t even know which camp we’ll go to. Friends who have already been transferred to a camp told us they live in a container now and around them are walls and fences. How can my children move into such a cage now? As their father I feel hopeless to not be able to do anything to remain here where they feel free. I fear they’ll get depressed in the camp. I fear being far from hospitals. I fear facing the insecurity of life in the camp once more. I have suffered injuries that highly limit my abilities before coming to Greece. I cannot lift heavy weights or walk long distances. How will we manage in a place far from the city? How will we pay for the transportation costs to the hospitals?”
Adellard*, 21-year-old survivor of gender-based violence
“When I was transferred to the camp one month ago, I felt I had been dumped there. Around the camp there is nothing. To enter and exit you need to show your papers. There are walls around the camp. I feel imprisoned even though I am allowed to go out. My doctors advised me to go for walks and meet people to socialise. They said if I talked more about my problems I’d feel better. But this is not possible here. It is hard for me to trust strangers. I’ve had very bad experience with people in the camps before. I am scared to go places alone where there is no one around and I am scared of crowds. This place reminds me of horrible things.” 21-year-old Adellard* from the Democratic Republic of Congo has suffered serious gender-based violence in the past both in his country of origin as well as in Greece and is in psychological care. He suffers from multiple traumas and is in need of regular follows up. Due to his mental health condition, he was hardly able to narrate his life events during his asylum interview. He spent one and half years in Lesvos, several months of which in the infamous Moria camp, where he had been a victim of a serious assault. Only after that he was transferred to Athens in an ESTIA flat. The time he spent in the flat in Athens had given him a feeling of safety. “I miss my flat. I feel lonely and terrified here. In Athens I have my partner, I have my doctors and my lawyer, I had a safe place. To go to Athens from here I have to walk 30 minutes to the nearest bus station and then ride a bus for more than one hour. I have to pay 6.10 euros for each ride. The busses don’t go to Athens often. I receive a 70€ allowance per month, so going to Athens is a luxury I cannot often afford and it is likewise hard for my partner to visit me here. I have many doctor’s appointments in Athens, sometimes three a week and is really hard to attend them. I have also enrolled on Greek classes in Athens but I cannot go there anymore. In the camp I went three times to find classes but there was nobody there. As I have almost no possibility to go anywhere, I am forced to stay most of the time in the camp and far from my friends. Since I’ve been in the camp, I keep thinking all the time. My psychological situation is worse.” By Adellard’s* transfer back to a camp he does not only face inappropriate reception conditions far from the medical treatment he needs but he is also re traumatized once again, The young man was moved from his flat back to a container in a camp outside Athens where he lives among hundreds of other refugees from different nationalities. When he arrived there, nothing was ready, he says: “The container was dirty and there were not enough beds inside. The heating wasn’t working properly and it was very cold. The first day we arrived the cold was unbearable. They gave us only beddings and no blankets in the beginning. It took us many days to clean the container properly. The food we get is barely edible. I often suffer from stomach pain.”
Parwan*, single father of an 12-year-old girl
“We were told we have to leave the house we have lived in for four years. Only one week before the transfer to the camp were we told the exact location. It is not just a step backwards for my daughter and me, it's like uprooting a young tree that just found some strength to grow. The house was our home and the only place where my daughter felt safe. She was going to school there for three years. She was seeing her psychologist for weekly sessions in central Athens. Also, our lawyer was close to our place. We only knew we had no choice and that from now on we'd be far from our home, our neighbourhood, our friends and any place where we had finally found some support. We were pulled away from any chance to heal and integrate”, says Parwan*, a single father of an 12-year-old girl from Afghanistan who is awaiting his family reunification with his wife and two minor children in Germany. It’s been four years since the small family arrived in Greece. Since one month they have lived in a refugee camp at a one-hour drive from Athens. “We spend most of the time inside the container; inside the fenced camp area. We have to spend around 10€ per person for one train trip to Athens and back. Since we receive food inside the camp, our money will be reduced, I heard. I feel trapped here. Day by day, more people are brought to the camp. Now we share one container with another family. We start to queue for washing machines, for food, for doctors and social workers. These queues remind me of our first days in Greece.”
Shabnam*, mother of two girls aged 3 and 7
“We lived in the flat in Athens for around two years. Then we were suddenly informed we had to be transferred to a camp within two days. They told us we had no choice. Now we are in the camp. We have to start from zero again.” Shabnam* from Afghanistan is a mother of two girls aged three and seven. She arrived in Greece four years ago together with her husband and children. After a final rejection of their asylum case, the family submitted a subsequent application. The family originally arrived on Samos island where they spent five months living in a tent in the so-called ‘jungle’ of the camp. From there they were transferred to three different hotels where they spent a total of one and half years before eventually being transferred to an ESTIA flat in Athens. “When we got the flat in Athens it was a good feeling. We felt that we could settle. We had our own home. Our eldest daughter started her school life there. She made friends. I enrolled on language classes. My husband also occasionally found work.” As a resident of a camp, her husband is mostly worried about the distance to hospitals. “It takes hours for an ambulance to arrive here if there is an emergency. For any doctor appointments we have to pay the expenses for the public transportation by ourselves and we go without any translator. A doctor appointment without a translator is like no appointment.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the persons concerned
- The Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) programme implemented since November 2015, provided decentralized housing to vulnerable asylum applicants in Greece through rental of property. The programme was fully handed over by UNHCR to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum in January 2021. ↑
- Ministry of Migration and Asylum, ‘Ολοκληρώνεται το πρόγραμμα στέγασης “ΕSΤΙΑ ΙΙ” το 2022’, 22 February 2022, available here ↑
- Fenix, ‘Closure of ESTIA II: a political choice behind its closure’, 6 December 2022, available here ↑
- Greek Refugee Council (GCR), ‘Εξώσεις, αστεγία και πισωγύρισμα στην ένταξη’, 30 Νοεμβρίου 2022, available here ↑
- InfoMigrants, ‘Police violently disperse protest at Athens’ Eleonas camp during eviction operation’, 19 August 2022, available here ↑
- Fenix, ‘Closure of ESTIA II: thousands of extremely vulnerable asylum seekers to be left without humane and adequate accommodation and proper care’, 31 October 2022, available here ↑
- Ministry of Migration and Asylum, ‘ESΤΙΑ 2021 FACTSHEET Δεκέμβριος 2021- Ιανουάριος/Φεβρουάριος 2022, 28 February 2022’, available here ↑
- FILOXENIA was a housing programme implemented by IOM for the temporary accommodation of vulnerable migrants in emergency hotel facilities. It was completed in the end of April 2021.Source: https://greece.iom.int/temporary-shelter-and-protection-most-vulnerable-migrants-greece-filoxeniaSee also:Ekathimerini, ‘Filoxenia program for refugees comes to an end’, 8 January 2021, available here ↑
- For more information on the development of the Greek reception system, see: Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), ‘New Malakasa: Inhuman subsistence nine months on’, 17 December 2020, available hereRefugee Support Aegean (RSA), ‘Reception crisis in Northern Greece: three years of emergency solutions’, May 2019’, available here. Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), ‘Reception Crisis in Greece: The Malignancy of Atticas’ Refugee Camps’, 13 August 2018, available hereRSPA / PRO ASYL ‘Vulnerable Lives on Hold. Refugees are hardly surviving the mass camps in the Athens Region’, 2016, available here ↑
- According to a new framework of 1 July 2021, cash assistance is provided to those eligible, as long as it can be certified that they continue to reside in the facilities designated by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum (i.e. facilities of the reception system). The Ministry of Migration and Asylum first announced this step through Press Releases issued in April and May 2021 respectively. It was introduced in ministerial decisions in July and September. See: MoMA, “The financial assistance to international protection applicants that are not accommodated in facilities under the responsibility of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum or MoMA partners is abolished from 1/7/21”, 15 April 2021, available here and “Pre-requisites for the disbursement of financial assistance to international protection applicants”, 25 May 2021, available hereMinisterial Decision 115202/2021 and JMD 2857/2021 amending JMD 2089/16-07-2021 on a “Common Framework for Managing Programmes that are assigned to the Special Secretariat for the Coordination and Management of Programmes under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund and other resources and are nor financed through National Programmes” (Β’ 3120), Gov. Gazette 4496/29-09-2021. ↑
- HYPERION (Greek: ΥΠΕΡΙΩΝ– Σχεδιασμός, Υλοποίηση, εγκατάσταση και λειτουργία συστήματος ελέγχου πρόσβασης και παρακολούθησης παροχών των προσφύγων και μεταναστών που διαμένουν στις Δομές Προσωρινής Υποδοχής και Φιλοξενίας) is a surveillance system directed at asylum seekers monitoring movement in and out of state-run asylum camps.Available here ↑
- For more information on the criticism on HYPERION and other asylum seekers’ surveillance systems implemented in Greece as well as the employment of private security companies in the migration context see:BIRN, ‘Asylum Surveillance Systems Launched in Greece without Data Safeguards’, 9 September 2022, available hereHellenic Parliament, Reply to parliamentary question, 14 December 2022. Protocol Number:66, available hereNeos Kosmos, ‘UN calls on Greece to monitor private security used in migrant camps and at sea’, 18 December 2022, available here ↑
- Article 8(4) L 4375/2016, as amended by Article 28 L 4285/2021. ↑
- Harmonizing Protection Practices in Greece (HARP) project is running out by the end of December 2022. Through the HARP project, IOM “in close collaboration with a wide array of partners, supports the National authorities in improving the quality of humanitarian response and protection assistance to migrants hosted within the Greek Reception system. Particular focus is given to beneficiaries being in a situation of vulnerability. The project is funded by the Directorate General Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission (DG HOME). See: https://greece.iom.int/harmonizing-protection-practices-greece ↑
- Similar transition problems occurred for example during the government’s takeover of the cash assistance programme for asylum seekers, when the provision of the allowances was interrupted for several weeks after September 2021 and hundreds suffered hunger. See: Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), ‘Refugee in Greece experience third month of humanitarian crisis and hunger’, 23 December 2021, available here ↑
- Samos24gr, ‘ΔΟΜ: Απολύσεις στο 60% του προσωπικού του προγράμματος HARP καταγγέλλουν οι εργαζόμενοι’, 8 December 2022, available here ↑
- Efimerida ton Syntakton, ‘Η Κομισιόν αδειάζει το υπ. Μετανάστευσης για το ESTIA’, 12 December 2022, available here ↑
- Ministry of Migration and Asylum, ‘Μηταράκης: Η δουλειά μας στο μεταναστευτικό, βοηθά στα εθνικά θέματα’, 16 December 2022, available here ↑
- Ecopress: ESTIA: τελειώνει το πρόγραμμα, ξενοικιάζονται χιλιάδες ακίνητα, 17 November 2022, available here ↑
- Refworld, ‘Policy on alternatives to Camps’, 2014, available here. The UNHCR had pointed out back in 2014, that “enabling refugees to reside in communities lawfully, peacefully and without harassment, whether in urban or in rural areas, supports their ability to take responsibility for their lives and for their families and communities. Refugees bring personal skills and assets, as well as the qualities of perseverance, flexibility and adaptability demonstrated through their flight and survival. Refugees who have maintained their independence, retained their skills and developed sustainable livelihoods will be more resilient and better able to overcome future challenges than if they had spent years dependent on humanitarian assistance, whatever solutions are eventually available to them.” ↑
- Interviewed on 15 December 2022. ↑
- Interviewed on 8 December 2022 ↑
- Interviewed on 30 November 2022 ↑
- Interviewed on 30 November 2022 ↑