Athens, 15 July 2020 – The Ministry of Migration and Asylum, the European Commission and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, signed today in Athens a Grant Agreement on the implementation of ESTIA II rental accommodation scheme for asylum-seekers. The agreement affirms the transition of the accommodation component of ESTIA, currently managed by UNHCR, to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum within 2020, starting with the transition of 12,000 places – nearly half the entire project – on 1 September 2020.
“We welcome the Greek Government’s efforts and commitment to assume the management of ESTIA accommodation this year”, said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece. “We also appreciate the assurances received by both the Greek Government and the European Commission that it is a policy priority to maintain ESTIA accommodation programme, with no disruption for the people eligible for the programme, who are currently hosted in apartments and buildings in 21 cities and towns all over Greece”, he added.
UNHCR has worked closely with the Greek authorities to build their capacity to take over the EU-funded ESTIA accommodation scheme, which UNHCR runs at the Government’s request since the end of 2015 in partnership with municipalities and NGOs. At the time, UNHCR had stepped in to cover the urgent accommodation needs for thousands of asylum-seekers in Greece, but the ultimate goal has been for the Greek State to take over this responsibility, in line with its obligations as an EU Member State.
“Greece’s reception capacity must be strengthened and ESTIA, a programme which has helped almost 70,000 vulnerable people to live in safe and dignified conditions in apartments during the last five years, should be sustained as the preferred type of accommodation in non-emergency situations”, said Leclerc. “Ensuring the viability, efficiency and quality of this exemplary programme, should be our common goal, as it has proven to enable a successful ‘living together’ between refugees and local communities across Greece”.
UNHCR also appreciates the continuous contribution by the EU to ensure that resources are available for the smooth continuation and transition of ESTIA as an essential pillar of Greece’s reception system for asylum-seekers.
The Greek government has committed to UNHCR, the EC and ESTIA partners that they plan to assume – through existing or new partners – all contracts of UNHCR’s existing apartments along an agreed transition calendar. The timely and predictable process of apartment takeover will ensure a smooth cost-efficient transition. UNHCR trusts that the Greek authorities will fulfill their commitment and is working with partners to sustain the running of all the apartments based on these assurances.
“At a time when Greece needs a solid and strong reception capacity, and with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, the country cannot afford risking to lose accommodation places and potentially be faced with thousands of vulnerable asylum-seekers being left without accommodation and services”, said Leclerc.
UNHCR also notes the Government’s recent revision of certain terms and requirements for the implementation of ESTIA II. While some of these revisions do aim to facilitate a timely transition without risking to close down accommodation places, UNHCR is concerned that the significant reduction in the funding of the new programme may have an impact both on the quality of the services provided but also on the ability of the partners to correspond to and fulfill the prescribed requirements.
The ESTIA programme has been unique in its acceptance and appreciation by the range of the Greek society, with positive and tangible outcomes for local communities and asylum-seekers. It has shown in practice that peaceful co-existence and interaction between locals and refugees can work and benefit social cohesion. It has also managed to strike a balance between cost-efficiency and quality, while serving as a first bridge to integration. It is UNHCR’s hope that this model programme continues to be a success and sustained as an essential component of Greece’s reception system.