- Rory O'Keeffe
Refugee evictions to begin in Greece
HUNDREDS of men, women and children in Greece are to be removed from their homes by the end of March.
Thousands more are expected to follow later this year, in measures which have been demanded by the Greek Ministry of Migration and risk increasing the homelessness crisis already taking place in the country’s major towns and cities.
Those targeted for eviction are men, women and children who are part of the UNHCR ESTIA scheme, under which refug
ees are provided with shelter as well as money for essentials including food, water and clothing. In some cases, the shelter is in houses or apartments, though many others covered by the scheme are still in refugee camps around the country.
The scheme, including the cash payments, is funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General of Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME) and has seen money come into Greece, which is spent by UNHCR on rents to building and apartment landlords, and by refugees in local stores.
There are 22,811 refugees in the 4,506 apartments and 19 buildings UNHCR rents under the scheme, but more than 63,051 people receive ESTIA-provided cash.
Of those, 600, who were recognised as refugees by the Greek government on or before 31 July 2017, will be removed from their apartments – or from their places in refugee camps, where they have been living for at least 19 months in temporary buildings – by 31 March.
They have been informed by UNHCR that if they agree to leave, their cash payments will end three months later. If they refuse, the payments will also end on 31 March, meaning that the refugees now face a choice: attempt to keep a roof over their heads, but be left without money to survive, or leave their homes, and continue to have money for food and water until 30 June.
Nor will this be the end of the process.
UNHCR has confirmed that roughly a quarter of all the people currently included in the scheme – roughly 15,750 men, women and children – have so far been officially recognised as refugees by the Greek state, meaning that they can stay in Greece (the other 47,288 are at various stages in the application process).
But this also means that these 15,750 people will also face eviction from their homes or container boxes.
We understand that the next ‘wave’ of refugees to be evicted will be those who received official recognition as refugees on or before 30 November 2017. They would be forced to leave by 30 June this year. This eviction process is set to continue indefinitely, until the programme ends.
In a statement to us in response to our enquiries about the impending evictions, UNHCR Greece spokesman Boris Cheshirkov confirmed that the decision on this matter lay with the Greek government, and made clear that the international refugee agency has some significant reservations about the plan.
He said: ‘Asylum-seekers who are recognised as refugees while in ESTIA are given a six-month grace period, after which they need to exit the programme. Until now, the grace period was continuously extended. The Greek government has recently taken a decision to stop extending the grace period, starting with recognised refugees who have been in the programme for over 19 months.
‘It will take time for all refugees to become self-reliant and fully integrate in Greece. The ongoing economic hardship for many Greeks and the still nascent economic recovery create additional difficulties. UNHCR continues to call on the Greek government to strengthen safety nets for refugees and speed up the adoption of integration measures, including meaningful access to the labour market and to the national social solidarity schemes.
‘We also urge Greece to accelerate the implementation of critical national programmes outlined in the 2018 National Integration Strategy which promote the self-reliance and integration of recognised refugees, including Greek language classes, vocational training and access to gainful employment.’
There will be some people who were recognised as refugees by the Greek government before 1 August 2017 who will not be immediately removed, specifically those considered ‘vulnerable by the Greek government, including those who are facing serious health difficulties, women in the later (though no other) stages of pregnancy and new mothers.
Families with children at Greek schools will also not have to leave until the school year ends in the summer, though almost 25 per cent of children in the ESTIA scheme have still not been able to start school, so they and their families will be evicted.
Despite our requests, the Greek Ministry of Migration has so far – after more than a week – failed to respond to our questions, but it is understood that it petitioned DG HOME for the changes to be made.
In a statement it did make, to Refugee Info, it argued that it did so because ‘Greece is still facing high numbers of new arrivals, the islands are overcrowded, and there are not enough places in camps and UNHCR accommodation to meet the needs of asylum-seekers.’
All of this is certainly true, but is an uncomfortable reminder that the refugee situation in Greece has been ongoing for almost three years since the EU/Turkey agreement was signed, and that according to the Hellenic Valuation Institute there are more than 500,000 empty buildings in Greece: nobody could seriously argue that Greece – and the EU as a whole – have not had the time or the capacity to deal with this matter without making people homeless.
Simultaneously, few people in the humanitarian sector are convinced that the Ministry’s decision is likely – in the short- or medium-term – to solve the undeniable and shocking overcrowding and inhumane conditions in the island detention centres, such as at Samos, where there are currently more than six times as many men, women and children as the maximum safe number of detainees set by the government itself.
Equally, because the Greek government regards the changes as ‘regularisation’ it does not appear to have consulted with many – if any – of those who will be affected.
A spokeswoman for the Greek Council for Refugees, a body which provides legal support and advice to refugees in Greece, confirmed that it had not been consulted on the decision, but pledged to offer: ‘legal and social help to people who are being accommodated in the plan, in order to help integrate them in Greece.’
Stratos Paradias, a Greek Supreme Court Lawyer, and President of POMIDA-UIPI, the Greek federation of landlords and property owners, was also critical of the decision.
He said: ‘We were absolutely not consulted on this decision. ESTIA is a beneficial program for both refugees and landlords, but now Many of our members will find themselves at the end of March with tenants who may not be willing to give up the house they live, without paying the rent and utilities, not to mention water and energy bills. It will be a very difficult situation for both landlords and tenants.’
From the perspective of tenants, indeed, the potential next steps are extraordinarily-limited. Greece offers no social housing scheme, meaning that people who lose their homes on 31 March will enter April needing to privately rent an apartment.
But without income for rent, this will be impossible. Greek unemployment is already at 20 per cent, meaning jobs are extraordinarily difficult to find, especially as none of the ESTIA beneficiaries speak Greek as their first language.
Though the social security system does provide money for housing, this is often too little to cover the rental cost for apartments.
One woman, Eleni (name changed at her request) who we spoke to at Aristotle Square, Thessaloniki, explained: ‘I had a home, with my husband. But he became sick and died. I lost my job because of the economic crisis and I sold things to pay my rent, but then the money ran out. The state gives me money but it’s not enough to pay for somewhere to live. Some nights I stay at the shelter (in the south-west of the city), sometimes I can sleep at a friend’s house. Mostly, I sleep outside. There is nowhere else.’
Refugee Info also advises that: ‘Accessing the national social welfare system in Greece is also difficult, even for vulnerable Greeks who need help supporting their families, due to Greek bureaucracy and strict eligibility criteria.’
At present, then, there are 600 people facing eviction from their homes, in a state which already has a serious problem with homelessness, does not provide enough money to cover the cost of renting accommodation, and appears absolutely unready to prevent these people from becoming homeless. Several thousand more will follow in the next 6-12 months.
UNHCR Greece’s Mr Cheshirkov commented: ‘We call on the Greek authorities to ensure that obstacles are removed, in law or practice, for the inclusion of recognised refugees in social solidarity programs such as the Social Solidarity Income and the Housing Allowance.
‘Regulatory texts should be urgently amended which outline documents -- such as requirements for specific identity documents and proof of residence in Greece (owned or rented) -- to take into account the specific circumstances and legal status for refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries in Greece.’
 The scheme provides a minimum of €90 per month for an individual, to a maximum of €550 per month for a family of seven.
 We asked the Ministry:
What does the Ministry of Migration – and the Greek government – feel about the removal of refugees from the ESTIA scheme, (under which refugees were provided with accommodation and a monthly income) which is scheduled to happen (to the first group) by 31 March 2019?
Did the Ministry of Migration request this removal?
If so, why?
Does the Ministry of Migration fear that removing refugees from their accommodation and ending their incomes will lead to a homelessness crisis in Greek cities? Particularly considering the levels of homelessness which already exist in these cities?
What has been done/is being done to ensure this homelessness crisis does not happen?
What is in place to assist these refugees and their families? Will they enter the social security system? Have they already done so?
Can they enter the social security system if they have no address?
What will happen if refugees do not leave their accommodation by the date set?
The Municipalities of Thessaloniki and Ioannina have also not yet responded to our questions.