ATHENS — Refugees and migrants in Greek detention centers and camps, especially on five islands near Turkey, complained that asylum applications could take two years to review but now some who were granted sanctuary or designated refugee status aren’t so happy because they have no place to stay.
A new law adopted in March 2020 reduces the grace period for recognized refugees from six months to 30 days to transition from organized accommodation and essential support to independent living.
The United Nations’ refugee arm, the UNHCR urged Greece to increase the national reception capacity at sites, apartments, hotels and provide cash for shelter as droves were being put onto the streets and stripped of benefits with few work prospects.
The New Democracy government said that thousands of people who have secured asylum had to leave the state-funded accommodations and make it on their own during the still-running COVID-19 pandemic that has put many businesses in peril.
In a feature on their plight, The Guardian’s Helena Smith detailed how many have found themselves on the streets of Athens or huddling in makeshift shelters in parks and other public spaces, some booted by police but still with shelter as summer’s heat has hit.
One of them, Sarah Husseini, 22, spent two years in the notorious Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, a facility the BBC called “the worst in the world,” but where there was at least a roof over her head and that of her husband Ali and their two toddler daughters.
She said the whole family was put on a ferry to the port of Piraeus on Athens’ southern coast and left there to fend for themselves, given asylum but told to find work during the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen businesses shut during a long lockdown now easing.
“The UN told us ‘The government wants you to leave, you have papers now, you can’t stay here any more’,” she told the paper, explaining why she has ended up semi-destitute in central Athens, joining others with asylum living in the decrepit Victoria Square.
That had been a chosen spot in 2015 for migrants and refugees trying to find their way in Greece and awaiting asylum after the European Union closed its borders to them and reneged on pledges to send some of the overload to other countries.
They are, the report said, “The victims of plans to relieve overcrowded island camps and other reception centers across Greece,” opening doors to some by closing them on others who were removed.
Some 11,000 men, women and children granted recognized refugee status by Greek asylum authorities will be “evicted” from shelters to non-assisted living facilities under a New Democracy plan telling them to make it on their own.
“These are people who have gained refugee status and should be fending for themselves,” the migration ministry’s Secretary -General, Manos Logothetis, tells the Guardian. “If they are pampered, how are they going to ever find a job and become part of society? There has to be a limit,” he said.
THE LONG DILEMMA
He didn’t explain how or where they would find work in a Greek society where unemployment could again soar as high as 22 percent with businesses closing over the lockdown and those reopening trying to operate under strict health protocols limiting customers and holding down profits and the need for workers.
In the camp, Husseini trained as a hairdresser, eventually working in a beauty salon set up in a container in the camp. When she reached Athens, she searched for other women who could help, found a fellow Afghan, granted housing in the capital on account of having diabetic children, who gave her and her daughters a place to sleep at night.
But their days are still spent in Victoria Square in boiling heat, trying to find shade under a few trees around the cement while her husband tries to find a place for them to stay and work to bring the income to do it.
“No civilized state can be proud of this,” Lazaros Petromilidis, a founding member of the Greek Forum of Refugees told the paper. “And this is just the beginning. Soon we could be seeing these shameful scenes in every square up and down the country,” he added.
Greek police moved out some migrants and refugees from Victoria Square to state facilities at Elaionas and Amygdaleza, but it remained unclear what their fate would be or if such police operations will continue, said Kathimerini.
The departures from centers and subsidized hotels started earlier this month but was progressing slowly until it picked up this month when more than 800 refugees have left facilities on the islands, chiefly from Lesbos' overcrowded Moria camp.
Local residents said families and children were sleeping in tents and on benches before the police cleared them out while volunteers working in Moria said refugees given asylum were being forced out.
With Greece moving out of accommodations refugees given asylum or designated refugee status to make way for others seeking it, Turkey's pro-government newspaper The Daily Sabah said they are being dumped on the streets of Athens.
They had been sent to Greek islands by human traffickers that Turkey lets operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU. Turkey is holding some 5.5 million who had fled war and strife in their homelands, as well as economic migrants.
Others who have also been told to make the transition are hosted in facilities, including hotels, on the mainland, while at least 4,000 are accommodated in EU-subsidized apartments under another UN scheme in conjunction with local authorities and NGOs.
Minister of Migration and Asylum Policy, Notis Mitarachis, said 60 of the 93 hotels hosting asylum seekers will close amid fears it could happen as they are being ousted before being given “effective access” to employment and social welfare schemes to which, under Greek law, they are entitled.
“All of this highlights the lack of emphasis placed on integration,” said Stella Nanou, of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Athens. “With a little bit of help, a little push, refugees could really give back to the community but it’s a two-way process. Efforts need to be made to support refugees and that hasn’t happened when authorities have had to focus on bolstering reception facilities and the process of asylum claims.”