During a two-day visit to Heraklion, Crete, the Deputy Representative of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Greece, Jason Hepps, commended the local authorities, partners, and communities for their unwavering support and vital work towards facilitating refugee integration and creating inclusive societies. The visit marks the completion of a successful cooperation between UNHCR, Region of Crete, Municipalities in Crete, and local partners for the implementation of ESTIA accommodation programme, from 2017 to 2020. During these years, more than 2,300 vulnerable asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine found a new safe and dignified home in the towns of Heraklion, Chania, Siteia, and Gazi and received support that enabled them to maintain their hopes and dreams for the future. A number of them are now actively contributing and participating in their local community. The ESTIA accommodation programme has now been transitioned to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
The Regional Governor of Crete, Stavros Arnaoutakis, expressed his satisfaction over the successful implementation of ESTIA programme at regional level stating: “It is with great pleasure, that we, the Region of Crete, welcome on our island the Deputy Representative of UNHCR in Greece, Jason Hepps, and the UNHCR officer responsible for integration, Petros Mastakas. We would like to note how satisfied we are with the operational efficiency of the actors participating in the programme, the municipalities and Heraklion Development Agency, as well as with its successful course until today. It is indeed an endeavour that demonstrates human values and ideals during a critical period for the wider Mediterranean region and the whole world. On behalf of the Region of Crete, we would like to thank everyone that participated in the programme, as well as the local society that showed remarkable maturity, as we all contribute to the effective management of migration at regional level.”
The Mayor of Heraklion, Vassilis Lamprinos, warmly thanked UNHCR, the local implementing actors, the municipal council of Heraklion, and all its citizens who in their majority have welcomed refugees with open arms and minds. According to Mr Lamprinos “true civilization is seen where all people recognize for others every right that they claim for themselves. Therefore, we would not honour the history and civilization of our land, Crete, if we did not respect and help people forced to leave their home while seeking a better future.”
On the part of the Municipality of Chania, Panagiotis Simandirakis, stated: “In recent years the whole of Europe was called to face a huge humanitarian crisis. The arrival of refugees to all European countries created a new reality and at the same time a great challenge for local societies. The goal of Chania Municipality was since the beginning the integration of asylum seekers, without prerequisites and clauses. A meaningful integration in the society with respect, acceptance, and equality. With diversity being one more tile in the timeless interculturalism mosaic which characterizes our society, with the active participation and acceptance of everyone. We are daily faced with this challenge as municipality and we would like to be part of the solution and not the problem, in an organized and efficient way.”
On the same note, the Mayor of Malevizi, Menelaos Bokeas, stated: “In 2017, when ESTIA programme started in Crete, local communities, including in our own municipality, showed more maturity than ever and rose to the occasion in the face of the big humanitarian issue that our country and Europe has been dealing with for years now. They showed their humanism and solidarity and embraced refugees, without creating problems like in other regions. As a municipality, we will continue, through our cooperation with Heraklion Development Agency and Ploigos, to assist with all our strength activities and actions in support of refugees’ integration, something that will reinforce social cohesion to the fullest.”
Manolis Kokosalis, the president of Herakelion Development Agency, on the part of the local implementing actors, expressed his sincere thanks to UNHCR about the exemplary cooperation and meaningful support from the beginning of 2017 until today. He further stated: “This Programme for the Accommodation of Asylum Seekers in Crete was, and continues to be, extremely challenging for us. First and foremost, we considered our duty to contribute with all our forces in the national effort to manage such a sensitive issue that has particularly complex implications for Greece and Europe. At the same time, though, we requested and managed to ensure accommodation conditions that respect the needs and vulnerabilities of the hosted population, as well as the smooth coexistence with the local society hosting them.”
In parallel, the visit of UNHCR in Crete marks the transition to a new era of cooperation between the UN Refugee Agency in Greece and local administration authorities, focusing on empowering refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection to build close bonds with their host communities, become self-reliant and contribute further to the economy and society hosting them. Through the provision of experts, UNHCR supports municipalities to pioneer inclusive approaches under their municipal operations plan, local integration action plan, and task forces, as well as to access resources for financing innovative integration actions and lead coordination at local level.