On a warm August evening last year, villagers from Choudetsi, a small town in Crete, gathered in the local elementary schoolyard for a night of music, food, and camaraderie. The festivities and convivial atmosphere were enjoyed by a multiethnic audience: local populations and their new refugee neighbours. The colourful feast featured traditional Greek dishes as well as cuisine from Iran, Palestine, and Syria. Student musicians playing melodies from all over the world as small children played various cultural games in the garden. As night fell, partygoers, including local mayors, moseyed to a nearby concert, where music from Iran, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan could be heard into early hours of the morning.
Many of the refugees in attendance have been able to both embrace and be embraced by local communities thanks to the Emergency Support to Integrate and Accommodation System (ESTIA). Through ESTIA, an acronym that means “home” in Greek, more than 100 migrants in the event’s nearby town of Haraklion have received cash card support and housing in completely subsidised apartments.
Started in July 2017, the multilateral initiative, ESTIA, has a dual mandate: to provide refugees and their families with urban accommodation, as well as cash assistance. Launched and funded by the European Union, the project is supported by the UN Refugee Agency and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in partnership with Greek municipal governments. Premised on Greece’s “out of camps” policy, ESTIA is designed to alleviate migrant suffering, expedite integration, and relieve the burden from overpopulated camps.
Christos Stylianides, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, underscored the importance of providing refugees with a sense of normalcy: “The aim of these new projects is to get refugees out of the camps and into everyday accommodation and help them have more secure and normal lives.”
The programme has already helped thousands of asylum seekers who arrived in Greece, one of the hardest hit frontline countries in Europe’s migration crisis. In early April the European Commission pledged 180 million euros to continue funding Greece’s migrant aid projects, a significant portion of which was earmarked to scale-up the flagship ESTIA programme.
Though last month marked the two-year anniversary since the adoption of the EU-Turkey deal, Greece still feels significant financial and social strain from the 45,000 migrants stranded within its borders. A country that struggled in its own right after the steep downturn of its economy during the financial crisis, Greece received as many as 10,000 new arrivals per day during the peak of Mediterranean crossings.
However, the overlapping financial and migration crises have generated an unlikely silver lining. While island refugee camps and detention centres were — and continue to be — overcrowded and under-resourced, many Greek apartments have been sitting vacant for years. Athens mayor Lefteris Papagiannakis Athens pointed out how the symptoms of Greek economic downturn spelled opportunity for incoming migrants: “We have more than 100,000 empty apartments in the region and you have to do something with them.”
ESTIA partners have been capitalising on the abandoned structures. The system is imperfect, however. Settled refugees cannot remain in the completely subsidised housing for more than a year. Papagiannakis explains that there is no social housing in Greece and “in order to house recognised refugees, you need to offer social housing to everyone” – including local poor populations – “or it’s a disaster.”
Despite such complications and its nascence as a formal project, ESTIA has produced immediate, remarkable impact. 42,000 refugees and asylum seekers have benefitted from monthly cash assistance, and individuals and families have found residence in nearly 24,000 accommodations across 15 municipalities in Greece.
The largest EU aid initiative in Greece, roughly two-thirds of ESTIA’s budget goes to UNHCR’s large-scale rental housing project; more than shelter and autonomy, urban accommodation allows better access education and proximity to health services. The remaining one-third creates a social safety net in the form of cash card allowances, renewable each month to provide migrants with food, medical services, transport, and most crucially, dignity. Best of all, that money goes back into the local economies, spurring growth the country needs.
Last December, mayors from participating municipalities convened in Athens at an inaugural summit called by the UNHCR to celebrate ESTIA’s resettlement scheme. UNHCR Representative to Greece, Philippe Leclerc, noted that ESTIA owed much of its success to a doctrine of opt-in participation: “We have seen several times that when something is imposed from the top, then it does not materialise. That is why the programme’s philosophy right from the beginning was that the municipalities will come in on a voluntary basis.”
The new 2018 funding from the European Commission will allow ESTIA to establish 27,000 accommodations by the end of the year. “Our humanitarian programmes for refugees in Greece are a clear and loud signal of European solidarity…” notes Stylianides, “I pay special tribute to the Greek citizens and mayors who have welcomed refugees in their municipalities with great empathy and care.” While ESTIA owes its success to a variety of key players, the willingness and generosity of local communities are ultimately what makes refugee resettlement and integration possible.