In an interview to ANA-MPA, the UNHCR Representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, reveals that the European Commission has provided assurances that funding for the accommodation programme of asylum seekers in apartments (ESTIA) will continue also in 2019.
Mr. Leclerc says that there are “guarantees” and “very solid reassurances” from the European Commission that funding will continue. Nevertheless, funding won’t come from ECHO, as was the case till now, as ECHO has said that it would step out from Greece at the end of 2018, but from other funding sources, that have not been defined yet (probably from DG HOME). The Head of UNHCR asks that European funding be “stabilized and become part of the national budget, so that municipalities can feel more confident to implement a programme which has shown very good results both for asylum seekers and the local communities”.
Mr. Leclerc notes that “this funding for 2019 is important but what is key is to see what happens after 2019”. With this development, the transition plan to local authorities for managing the apartments will be deferred to 2020, thus “there is more time to go ahead with institutional arrangements in relations between ministries and municipalities, so as to have access to funds, either directly to municipalities or through national authorities”. This way “national actors will be enabled to fully undertake the implementation of the accommodation programme”.
In this transitional phase, the role of UNHCR is not fully defined yet, however, as Mr. Leclerc notes “we hope that gradually our role will change in this transitional phase” and “UNHCR’s aim is to gradually ensure that some of the contracts will be signed through the Municipalities or through the government but we are not there yet”. After 2019, the aim is that “the programme is more and more fully implemented by the state budget and through arrangements with the municipalities”. UNHCR may maintain more of a “monitoring role”, even though Mr. Leclerc does not exclude the possibility that the agency “will continue to play a coordination role as well”, clarifying that “this remains to be defined”.
According to UNHCR’s weekly data, ESTIA programme provides today 23,374 accommodation places in apartments, building and hotels all over Greece, where 19,331 refugees and asylum seekers are hosted. Seven NGOs and the Municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki, along with neighbouring municipalities, Larissa, Trikala, Karditsa, Livadia, Filadelfia-Chalkidona, as well as the four big municipalities of Crete (Heraklion, Chania, Rethymno, Agios Nikolaso) participate in the programme. The most recent agreement is the one signed with the Municipality of Tripoli, in the Peloponnese.
Several of the mayors participating in the programme ask that the responsibility is shared among all municipalities in Greece. The Head of UNHCR does not think this is necessary. “We have seen several times that when something is imposed from the top, then it does not materialize. That is why the programme’s philosophy right from the beginning was that the municipalities will come in on a voluntary basis and this contributed to the programme’s success”, says Mr. Leclerc, adding that “consent constitutes a basic element of the programme”. However, he adds that “nobody wants ghettoization”, that is why “our aim is that the programme spreads to as many regions as possible”. He also notes that the model of mandatory reception of refugees in all municipalities may have functioned in other countries “but these are mainly countries with a federal system, such as Germany, which have better planning and way to calculate the impact of each activity”.
The big test for Mr. Leclerc in 2018 and 2019 is social inclusion in local communities. He stresses that “all those involved in the programme, we have to see how we can help refugees become more independent and self-sufficient, so that they take responsibility for their lives; this is something difficult given that the crisis continues in Greece and employment opportunities are limited”. However, he adds that this is something that “the municipalities are best placed to implement, because they know very well their own communities, they know best how to consult and support, they see what are the possibilities in the labour market”. In this context, the role of the State is also important, as “it has already announced programmes for the profiling of the skills of asylum seekers, as well as Greek language programmes” ; but “what we should all think in a better and more creative way is what possibilities we have to establish programmes facilitating access to the labour market”.
However, the situation on the islands that continue to receive refugees remains the biggest challenge. There, UNHCR manages 1,319 places in apartments and an additional 376 temporary places in hotels just for the winter period. Mr. Leclerc says that that the situation on the islands is “very fragile and this is because of the difficult implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement” and he refers to the overcrowding and the tensions in the hotspots. “We have to be careful in developing programmes in such an environment, that is why we cannot set targets as to the number of accommodation places on the islands as long as the EU-Turkey Statement, which defines in reality the framework, is in effect”, he says. Whatever we do, he adds, “this is done in very close cooperation and consultation with local municipalities and in full transparency with the locals”.
What is his comment for the response of the Ministry of Migration Policy (referring to “anonymous experiences”) following UNHCR’s report about the high risk of SGBV for refugee women and children on the islands? He explains that “the announcement is not an accusation towards the authorities but just a reminder that we should all make efforts continuously so as to ensure that the most vulnerable amongst asylum-seekers, i.e. women and children, are in a safe environment”. He concludes saying that “in my view it is not a scientific report that is needed, because those dealing with SGBV talk often about the fear survivors feel: fear in view of their particularly vulnerable situation, fear of the authorities, fear of the perpetrator; that is why they are often reluctant to lodge a complaint. We based this announcement on testimonies we collected from colleagues on a daily basis and through the relations of trust we have built with asylum-seekers on the islands”.
Unofficial translation of original interview with Athens-Macedonia News Agency