ATHENS – The end of a program funded by the European Union and United Nations to provide apartments for the most vulnerable refugees in Greece has seen them being sent back to camps despite their conditions.
The German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) pointed to one case, that of a 20-year-old woman named Rana who fled Afghanistan with her family in 2018 and came to Greece via Turkey, the most common route for refugees.
Her father has a heart condition, and her brother suffers from epilepsy, which means the family of five is considered particularly vulnerable and was able to claim an apartment as part of the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program.
That was established in 2015 to put the most desperate refugees and migrants, awaiting asylum hopes, in apartments to help facilitate their integration into society at some point.
But the New Democracy government, which is frantically trying to keep out refugees and migrants, most coming through Turkey after leaving their homelands in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa primarily, phased that out.
An anti-refugee wall on the border with Turkey is being extended and patrols in the Aegean are being stepped out to keep people from reaching islands near Turkey’s coast, with Greece denying accusations of pushing them back.
The end of ESTIA meant that Rana and her family had to move back into a refugee camp. “I used to go to school in Greece with my sister,” she told DW, her eyes repeatedly filling with tears.
“When we arrived at the camp, we were told there was no space for us at the school there.” They were told they could go to school in the next town. But the school was so far away from the camp that, with a heavy heart, they decided against it, the report said.
There are many others in the same situation, leaving life in the city to be sent back to camps that are supposed to be an open style and newer ones built but which activists and human rights groups still complain about.
“When we arrived at the camp, our container was completely empty. There weren’t even any mattresses,” recalled Rana. The family slept on the floor for two days and then went back to their old apartment in the city to get the mattresses.
She said they’re not on a list to get meals and depend on others to keep them scraps but it wasn’t said if that was confirmed or verified or based on her word. She said their asylum applications have been rejected twice in five years.
With both Greece and the EU now declaring Turkey is a safe place for refugees – without explaining why more than a million who went there got out as fast as they could – Rana said she fears her family will be sent there.
Under an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, Turkey is supposed to take back those denied asylum but has accepted only a relative handful and hasn’t been sanctioned for letting human traffickers send more to Greek islands and across the land border before it was sealed.
The basic idea behind the ESTIA program was to create dignified living conditions within society in order to ease people’s suffering. Initially, the intention was that about 20,000 places would be provided, noted DW.
In February 2022, the Greek government said it finish at the end of the year and that 12,648 people were in apartments, many not knowing about asylum hopes.
The ministry told DW that fewer than 500 people have had to leave their apartments because nobody had been admitted to the program in recent months but refugee groups said they’re getting calls from others being ousted.
Ines Avelas, head of Advocacy and Strategy at FENIX, said she believed ending ESTIA was a political and not an economic decision as the government wants to deter refugees and migrants.
The Migration Ministry told DW that while the ESTIA program could be financed through the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) that, “No further means had been made available.”
The ministry said those who will have to leave their apartments were given an alternative in residential facilities “that are fully in line with international and European legal requirements” and these facilities offered residents “safety, food and appropriate living conditions.”
The ministry added that, “Most asylum seekers were notified of the outcome of their asylum application before the end of the program. In the event of a negative outcome, they were deported; in the event of a positive outcome, they were offered accommodation and financial assistance through the HELIOS integration program,” funded by the EU, for those granted asylum.
Lefteris Papagiannakis of the NGO Greek Council for Refugees, told DW that the program provides a year’s support for those seeking a job and accommodation – but they must have an accommodation first.
He said that has resulted in many people who have been granted asylum ending up on the streets or going back to refugee camps. “This government is hostile to refugees and migrants,” he added of their plight.