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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

The end of ESTIA II: ethnic cleansing in Greece

The ESTIA II programme, funded by the EU and run by UNHCR, benefitted absolutely every part of Greek society, using money paid into Greece’s economy from outside. It is impossible to conclude that its deliberate destruction by the Greek government was motivated by anything other than a desire to ‘whiten’ the country.

In other words, it was ethnic cleansing in action.

The end of the ESTIA II housing scheme, under which EU money paid the rent and some other expenses of refugees and people applying for asylum in Greece, has left thousands of men, women and children at risk of – and in many cases actually experiencing – homelessness at the coldest time of the year.

Kathimerini (Greece) reported in January from Athens, where people who had previously been in accommodation provided under the scheme are now on the streets, noting that ESTIA, which had provided apartments to people who required them while awaiting the outcomes of their asylum applications, as well as those who had been granted the right to live, learn and work in Greece, benefitted everyone involved.

What it does not note – which we have previously – is that ESTIA was deliberately and consciously wrecked by the Greek government, first when it claimed to the EU – absolutely incorrectly – in 2019 that it could operate it for less money than UNHCR, which was then in charge.

This led to the predictable exit of UNHCR from the scheme, and the equally predictable, and far more catastrophic, deliberate failure of the Greek government to run the scheme for less money.

Although Kathimerini claims in its article that the Greek government announced the closure of ESTIA II ‘when fewer than 10,000 people’ were part of the scheme, in fact the government first announced it would shut in December 2021. At that point – December 2021 – it actually provided accommodation to 23,253 men, women and children, itself 5,247 fewer than when UNHCR and the organisations it worked with left the scheme.

It then extended the programme until April 2022, saying it would cut the places available to 10,000. This was either an admission of its lie to the EU or – sadly more likely – a central component of its effort to entirely dismantle it altogether, particularly as it said some people would be moved back into camps (the danger to the mental and physical health of people trapped in camps for long periods had been a specific motivator to setting up ESTIA in the first place, which I know because I made many of the arguments the SYRIZA government and UNHCR had accepted to start it).

It spent the next eight months failing to pay landlords and the municipalities in which the properties were sited, until closing ESTIA altogether in December 2022.

We have to note here that this closure has benefitted absolutely nobody.

The people already living in camps have had their lives made worse (and those working there have found it harder to meet the needs of everyone living in them) by the increase in populations in camps never designed for long-term residence.

The landlords of properties all over Greece have lost income which never came at any moment from Greek taxpayers or the Greek government, but from the EU: the money, which flooded into the Greek economy, was all from outside Greece, and the country is poorer as a result of the government closing it down.

Those landlords have consistently opposed the closure of the scheme, pointing out that the people within those apartments were never ‘taking accommodation from Greek people’, not least because there have, since 2015 at the latest, been 500,000 empty apartments in Greece, enough to give every person in the asylum system, every recognised refugee, and every homeless person in Greece, including children, each their own apartment, and leave 200,000 apartments still empty.

Indeed, Greek Reporter (US) noted on Wednesday 28 December 2022 that this number had in fact increased by 50 per cent: research institute Eteron now records 750,000 empty apartments in Greece.

The Greek government’s plan, then, did not ‘free up’ apartments for Greek people (as if that would in any case have been good reason to make others homeless), has made Greece noticeably poorer, has taken money from landlords, local shops and factories, thus increasing unemployment, has harmed people already in camps and those who work there, and this is without even considering the trauma experienced by people who had begun to build lives for themselves and their families – including gaining jobs and securing school places for children – only to be torn from their homes and at ‘best’ forced hundreds of miles away into temporary shelters, at worst thrown onto the streets.

The Kathimerini piece introduces ‘Marie’ a mother who had had a job, and looks after her two-year-old son, ‘Marco’.

Both are now sleeping on Athens’ streets, in the middle of winter, and are reliant on hand-outs even to eat enough food to survive.

The organisation Solidarity With Migrants highlights the situation of ‘C’ a mother of four from DRC, who was told on Wednesday 28 December, three days after Christmas, that she must leave her and her children’s home and move them to a camp outside of Athens, in the next two days. She is now begging in order to try to find an alternative which will allow her and her children to live, learn and work in peace and safety.

We must also mention that ending the ESTIA II programme is not just harming innocent men, women and children who would otherwise directly benefit their new communities. It is also fuelling terror and trouble in Greece’s near future.

Because by forcing people onto the streets, the government risks either actually driving them into the ‘black’ economy, because people will do what they must to keep themselves and their families alive, which will in turn make Greek people associate ‘foreigners’ with crime and violence, or at best will make Greek people suspect that this is what is happening, and make those associations anyway.

In either case, the result will be increasing suspicion and antagonism between Greek people and those who have come here wishing to live, learn and work in safety. The likeliest outcome of this is catastrophic violence and public disorder, perhaps even the collapse of the state.

These are the seeds the government is sowing.

Once again, this was a very rare example – indeed almost unique in a capitalist society – of a ‘virtuous circle’:

  • Money entered Greece from outside, boosting its economy

  • Camps became slightly less congested, meaning those who were forced to live there had a slightly less awful time, and those who worked there were better able to provide services and opportunities to them

  • Landlords who had received no incomes from empty property gained an income from apartments which were now used, enabling amongst other things renovations and repairs to be made to deteriorating buildings

  • Local economies benefitted, meaning shops, factories and cafes could employ more people, adding again to local economic well-being

  • Men, women and children were able to live, learn and work in safety and security, contributing to their wider communities and beginning to build the decent lives it is their right to expect and desire

One is entitled to ask why the government would end such an overwhelmingly positive initiative, particularly when the alternatives are far, far worse, including for Greece and its natives.

There is no comfortable answer.

The simplest and likely most accurate is that the Greek government wants to make life so hard for people who need safe places to live, learn and work that they will leave Greece and go somewhere else, and tell other people not to come. That this is illegal, monstrous and very unlikely to work is of little interest to a government driven by ‘racial purity’, and it is precisely what the last Nea Dimokratia government(s, including those in which it was in coalition) did in Greece in 2004-12.

A second, which certainly has some grains of truth to it is that the Greek government absolutely does wish Greek people to be more suspicious of and less welcoming to people in need of assistance. It has, after all, spent the last seven and a half years – four of them in opposition, promoting a message that refugees and other travelling people pose a threat to Greek lifestyles (the ‘cultural’ threat), livelihoods (the ‘economic’ threat) and lives (the ‘security/terror’ threat). That none of these is remotely accurate or reasonable means very little when the vast majority of the national broadcast, online and print media is so solidly behind, and willing to repeat without question the words of, Nea Dimokratia itself. That it is likely to lead in the medium- to long-term to widespread chaos and potential catastrophe means nothing when the government’s members expect to be able to watch the crisis from the comfort of their own country estates.

Kathimerini notes that Notis Mitarachis, the government’s Migration Minister, claimed that closing ESTIA II would ‘reduce costs and decongest Athens’.

But with 750,000 empty apartments, making 10,000 people homeless is likely to have zero effect on rental or purchase prices in Greece, while Athens has more than four million residents, making the same policy equally likely to ‘decongest’ the city to absolutely no discernible extent.

We are left with little choice but to conclude that the sole real ‘driver’ of the ‘policy’ is the clearance of people with darker skins than Mitarachis and his colleagues, not just from Athens, but from Greece. Whether this is done by freezing them to death, starving them out, or making them flee an increasingly angry – and wildly misled, by ND itself – Greek population, there is really only one term for this.

The end goal of destroying ESTIA II, a scheme which benefitted everyone in Greece without exception, is ethnic cleansing.


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