While receding from the headlines over the last two years, the human and political costs of the refugee crisis in Greece have only risen. This summer, thousands of people in Chios and Samos island encampments remain exposed to disease, violence, mental deterioration as well as searing heat. Athens is suffering from growing homelessness, abuse and trafficking problems as people’s asylum or relocation claims are rejected or they avoid registration in fear of deportation to Turkey. Charities working on the ground including Medecins sans Frontieres refer to conditions as ‘dire’ and ‘inhumane’.
Yet the humanitarian response in Greece beginning in 2015 is considered one of the most expensive in history. One investigation puts aid at $803 million – around 90 per cent of which came from the European Commission. As EU states again fail to agree on relocating refugees from ‘frontline states’ and Italy threatens to close its ports to ships of rescued asylum seekers in protest, it’s worth asking how so much aid has added up to so little in Greece and how approaches need to change.
Aid, which flowed chiefly to the UN and international NGOs, has been subject to administrative losses and profiteering, encouraged by the ‘implementing partner’ system of contracting coupled with government bureaucracy. In addition, the lack of trust and coordination between the larger humanitarian agencies, and the volunteer movements which had developed valuable networks of assistance from the outset has led to expensive duplication.
All of this was compounded by the consequences of a devastating economic downturn - and a policy vacuum. Greece still has no policy to manage either additional pressures as a transit state or to prepare for longer term integration.
The number one priority remains for EU states to fulfil their relocation pledges and to work towards common asylum rules for the longer term. But in the meantime, relief efforts can and must contribute to Greece’s longer-term social and economic stability. Failure to do so will only worsen conditions for both Greeks and those taking refuge.
Hope in the city
The government estimates that 20–25,000 of the current 62,000 seeking refuge may remain long term. In order to contribute to Greek society, these people will need to learn Greek and access accommodation and opportunities for employment. There are few humane forms of accommodation in urban areas and many live in illegal squats in Athens, without access to health or legal services. For this group, a two-step transitional approach to accommodation may be appropriate.
Successful models of humane housing have been pioneered by NGOs Lesvos Solidarity (Pikpa), HOME and Elpida. People’s resourcefulness, when allowed to flourish, also saves money - food for example has proven cheaper and more nutritious than the large-scale army run distribution, where people are allowed to cook for themselves. In addition to the basics that humanitarian agencies normally provide, residents receive tools for living in Greece such as language-learning and information on access to services and training for work.
Athens offers scope to scale up this model. The value of rents in the city has fallen by some 50 per cent since 2007 and landlords must continue to pay property tax even if their properties are uninhabited. A leasehold contract which enables upgrading, alteration and renovation of properties to provide appropriate living facilities could offer to return the property in better condition to the landlord. This housing could be designed to connect with ‘community centres’ that would cluster services (medical, psycho-social, legal, language learning, etc.), reducing duplication and making it easier to serve those that would otherwise slip through the net.
Some local NGOs are already taking advantage of the low rents to provide small livelihood projects. The migrant women’s network Melissa plans to set up pop-up shops for crafts and cooking, thereby helping to rejuvenate the area around Victoria Square while providing income for the refugees it works with.
Islands of sustainability
On the islands, local governments are desperate to turn around a situation that has hit tourism badly. Makeshift responses to unplanned migration have also taken a heavy toll on public services from energy to waste disposal.
Lesvos has a population of 90,000 and the capital, Mytiline, 30,000. There are two main camps near Mytiline: Moria, a hotspot under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Migration and, Kara Tepe, under a municipality-appointed site manager. Mytiline suffers from frequent electricity cuts, due to an ageing grid and increased demands by the two camps, which at times host up to 6,000 people. The capital depends on electricity from fossil fuels provided by cargo ship, docking at the island on a weekly basis. This is an inefficient and expensive solution.
The Moving Energy Initiative of which Chatham House is part makes the case for investment in energy and water services in humanitarian situations where it can contribute to host community sustainability and in turn greater social cohesion. Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos is one of the few refugee camps in the world taking this approach.
Since 2015, when Kara Tepe opened, the management worked with a volunteer-based Dutch NGO, Movement on the Ground (MoTG) to decrease dependence on the grid and increase energy self-reliance. In 2016 they installed solar panels to provide hot water for showers and lighting and a charging station for each of the UNHCR-provided housing units. As UNHCR replaces these units with isoboxes, containing electric heating and cooling devices, more electricity supply will be needed. The system which MoTG installed is appropriate for this as it can be powered by solar, wind, diesel generators or connected to the grid. The objective is to make Kara Tepe a ‘green village’ that provides enough energy for its 1,500 guests without overloading the grid and increasing running costs for the camp administration.
As several Middle Eastern countries affected by the Syria crisis are finding, only by taking the long view can host governments and municipalities make sure that some of the aid leaves a legacy. In this sense, Greece has an opportunity: to regenerate mainland urban areas and to turn some islands into beacons of sustainability as first points of reception. After all, with conflicts to the east and south and the onset of climate change, this will not be the last wave of migration to Greek shores.
This comment draws on discussions at a workshop held in Athens in November 2016.
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