Greek mayors attending a landmark conference this week in Athens referred to their positive experiences as participants in the UNHCR-run refugee accommodation programme while seeking ways to ensure its continuation beyond 2018.
The European Commission-funded programme, which has benefitted almost 40,000 people over the past two years, will continue into next year, but its future after that is currently uncertain and the mayors of 13 participating towns and cities (Athens, Chania, Heraklion, Kalamaria, Karditsa, Larissa, Livadeia, Neapoli – Sykies, New Philadelphia – New Chalkidona, Rethymnon, Sitia, Thessaloniki and Trikala) said they hoped it could become a sustainable project under municipal control.
They gathered at Monday’s conference organized by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the first of its kind for municipalities implementing the ESTIA accommodation programme, to share experiences on hosting refugees and asylum seekers, discuss best practices and exchange concerns and hopes about the future of the programme. All speakers stressed support for continuation of the programme beyond 2018.
The daylong meeting also looked at possible links with other programmes that promote social cohesion and integration at national and local levels, as well as possibilities of access to sustainable funding by local authorities, in cooperation with the government and the European Commission.
The mayors highlighted the key role that municipalities can play in the reception of refugees and asylum-seekers. They also flagged the need to create a national framework to facilitate implementation of the programme and regulate access to funding.
The need for municipalities in the programme to create paths of communication was stressed and the Mayors of Athens, Yiorgos Kaminis, and Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, announced their intention to establish a network among all municipalities that host refugees. Mayors described the benefits for local communities at economic and cultural levels. Working group discussions focused on partnerships and initiatives to promote inclusion and integration of refugees, transition towards self-reliance and job opportunities.
The conference was opened by UNHCR Representative in Greece Philippe Leclerc and other senior participants included Minister for Migration Policy Ioannis Mouzalas, the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos, Minister of Health Andreas Xanthos and Alternate Minister of Labour, Social Security and Social Solidarity Theano Fotiou.
The accommodation programme, which has been developed by UNHCR with funding by the European Commission and in cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy, is part of the ESTIA programme (Emergency Support To Integration & Accommodation) and is implemented by Municipalities and NGOs throughout Greece since January 2016. ESTIA provides urban accommodation, support services and cash assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece with the support of European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid.