Is there room in Thessaloniki for refugees and asylum seekers?

23112011317Over the last few months, Symβiosis has been providing humanitarian assistance to the dwellers of the Thessaloniki Reception Centre for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, including food, clothes, toys and educational material for the children, cleaning materials, first aid and care for the newly born and babies. Yet, “it is only obvious that volunteerism and philanthropy cannot solve the fundamental problems that put at severe risk the livelihood of the seventy people that rely on the Shelter for their existence”, as Fazli Mouhtar, an asylum seeker who repairs the plumbing and other damages there in his free time, says. Under the current increasing crisis, the central and local governments as well as several organisations seem to ignore such protection structures left to ravage, while collective and individual fundamental rights disappear in the twilight.

All over Greece, about 50,000 asylum seekers are waiting for the examination of their claim, often pending for over ten years, while the recognition rate of refugees has been until recently the lowest in the entire EU, almost close to zero. This is striking in light of the high volume of entries by nationals from countries identified as major sources of refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), such as Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and Palestine, as almost 90% of the migration flows entering Europe, try to cross through its south eastern border, that is Greece. The backlog of asylum applications in the country only continues to increase as time passes. There is a severe lack of adequate reception conditions for asylum seekers and refugees, while in the main urban centres the Shelters for Refugees and Asylum seekers are almost abandoned by the state, and are collapsing by the day. Living conditions are atrocious; buildings are dilapidated, while in practice there are scarce provisions for legal aid and social care. Coupled with the economic crisis, the situation in Greece is close to the breaking point. Due to the EU’s asylum policy and the so-called ‘Dublin System’, according to which the first state through which an asylum-seeking person has first entered the common EU territory is the one responsible for examining the refugee’s claim, these people are trapped in Greece, a country that presently is itself trapped in the middle of a most difficult political, social and economic crisis, and where living standards of ordinary citizens are also falling rapidly.

The Reception centre - four floors, basement and cellars, a total of about 18-20 hosting rooms - is home to mostly families of refugees and asylum seekers with about thirty children. They live without social care and protection – no heating, food, hygiene, medical and legal provision. Most are Afghanis; there are also Palestinians, Moroccans, Kurds and Somalis. A large official sign with the insignia and names of the European Union and the Greek state decorate the entrance of the old building in the city centre, not far from the ancient Roman agora and monuments from the city’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim past. The sign clearly states that the Centre operates with support from the EU Directorate of Justice and Home Affairs and the Greek Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity, yet it is a left over also from the past. The Thessaloniki Reception Centre for Refugees and Asylum Seekers was established in August 2000, in a ceremony attended by the then Thessaloniki Mayor and authorities. Yet, in February 2010 it has been abandoned completely, when the NGO Social Solidarity, who from the start undertook the responsibility as well as the funding for the operation, withdrew without applying for further funds and without securing any continuation. The absence on the part of the Greek state of consistent and concise policies and practices, respecting international and European law regulating the rights relevant to asylum, as well as the reliance on chains of haphazard funding opportunities and little supervised and controlled non-state actors, is amply demonstrated here.

Since February 2010, residents, citizens and the Anti-Racist initiative have strived to maintain the Centre, which they euphemistically call the Shelter, managing it themselves and relying on humanitarian assistance. Yet already in October 2004, Theodora Tsovili and Eftyhia Voutira, from the University of Macedonia, in a report commissioned by the UNHCR Representation in Greece noted that “Most of the problems encountered in the centre were related to lack of resources; the administration had, at the time of the research, the capacity to employ specialised personnel through EU funds but the sustainability of this funding remained uncertain”. In April 2008, according to another report for the UNHCR by Georgia Dimitropoulou and Ioannis Papageorgiou “the Centre employed 17 persons, as managers, psychologists, social workers, technicians, etc., for the Program”.

Meantime, refugees and asylum seekers continue struggling23112011331, working whenever and whatever they can, sending their children to school, cooking in rotation, cleaning their home, taking care of their families, most praying, all making plans to survive. Youssef, a civil servant for ten years in Afghanistan and a refugee for fifteen, who for the last two years collects iron bits in the rubbish bins which he then sells on for twenty euros a week, points out that "I feel humiliated because there is no dignity in such a life, I feel happy only because of my four children, and I worry about their pampers, wipes and meals." Clearly these people have been surviving for many years in the conditions that many of the Greek people will probably live in the coming years. It is difficult though to maintain one’s dignity in the long-term under such horrid everyday living conditions.

23112011320There are solutions, provided proper division of responsibilities is made between the competent authorities and agencies, which until now shirk their responsibility to protect refugees and asylum seekers, the neighbourhood and the city. Funding is also possible, given the possibility for Greek authorities to apply to the European Refugee Fund. Immediate priorities are, indicatively, to finalise the allocation of the building by the municipality of Thermi, even if for a specified period, to ensure the functioning of the Shelter. With regard to water and electricity, there is considerable debt to the water and electricity public companies. Already the water company proceeded to stop water supply on 13/11/2011, and only after interventions by the city’s Migrants’ Integration Council and the Greek Ombudsman were the water meters reconnected. Until March 2011 the Municipality of Thessaloniki took care to provide and distribute petrol for heating the water, as there are boilers in the basement. Decent heating of the building though requires brave repairs such as maintenance of the old building and restoration of full operation. Would it be possible that a technical crew of one of the municipalities in the city’s agglomeration undertakes the repair of the multiple damages (heaters that do not work, inadequate lighting, and plumbing)? Could the provision of one meal a day by the Thessaloniki Municipality soup kitchen become certain?

After years of neglect, there is lack of clothes, sheets, blankets, footwear, towels. Many people, however, assist, doctors from the Social Medical centre visit, young students help the children of the shelter in their lessons.

Since though processes are slow, the existing centres are not suitable for human beings and people in the cities are at risk of racist attacks and xenophobia , what happens to all those who pass the border and stay in towns until proper reception centres are established? Housing facilities are urgently needed: shelters for asylum seekers and those with a status of tolerance (such as abandoned municipalities’ buildings and property of the Church) self-managed by the communities with the supervision and cooperation of the UN High Commission for Refugees / Greek Council for Refugees and other NGOs, the health ministry and municipalities. Financial resources are there from the EU funds required to be absorbed by Greece for this single purpose. Regarding work, time exchanges could be organised between residents of the shelters and people living outside, special markets’ places for vendors from the various immigrant communities, and recruitment to jobs that Greeks do not undertake and sectors with cumulative benefits to be developed, e.g. recycling, waste treatment, etc.

Furthermore, adults attend language courses in informal NGOs 23112011327schools in the city. Legal assistance, help in finding work, on health issues, integration and housing, and interpreters, would all contribute. A solution towards a dignified, humane and effective management of the Shelter, with consistency and cooperation, so that security for all and integration for the residents of the hostel is safeguarded, means involving the refugees and asylum seekers themselves in finding solutions, making decisions, and being integrated in the city, not as a burden but as an asset. At the same time, assuming that the proper organisation of the initial reception and the asylum system provided by the law.3907/2011 is put into practice, the grey zone of legality of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece will be addressed. A significant proportion of applicants who will be recognised as refugees will be able to move to other EU countries legally and in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1951 on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. In this respect, it is vital that the state addresses the current delay in issuing travel documents for refugees recognised by the police, as well as the integration into Greek legislation of the Directive 2003/109/EC of the Council of Europe extending the scope of provisions for long-term residents (i.e. the right to travel and work across Schengen countries) to the beneficiaries of international protection.