Rana is 20 years old and lives in a refugee camp somewhere on the Greek mainland. Since she fears negative consequences for her ongoing asylum application, she does not want to reveal her real name or her exact whereabouts. In 2018 she fled with her family from Afghanistan to Greece via Turkey. Her father has heart disease and her brother has epilepsy. As a result, the family of five was considered particularly vulnerable and eligible for housing under the ESTIA scheme.

ESTIA stands for Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation. This program, financed by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the EU, was created in 2015 with the aim of financing an apartment for particularly vulnerable asylum seekers. This should also promote their integration into the host society.

In December 2022, the Greek government phased out the program and Rana had to move back to a camp with her family.

When she spoke to Deutsche Welle, she kept crying: “I went to school with my sister in Greece. When we arrived at the camp, we were told that there was no more room for us in the camp school,” she says. She was told she can go to school in town. But the way there is much too far, and so she decided against it with a heavy heart.

The family had to leave their whole life in the city. “When we arrived at the camp, our accommodation container was completely empty. There weren’t even mattresses,” Rana recalls. The family would have slept on the floor for two days and then got their mattresses from their old apartment in the city. That was two months ago. To this day they are not on the meal list. “They give us leftovers when everyone else in the camp has had their food,” says Rana. In any case, the meals are hardly edible. At least they now have a stove and can cook for themselves.

The family’s asylum application has already been rejected twice. But that was before the Taliban took Kabul in August 2021. Since then, the theory of the EU states that Afghanistan is a safe country of origin has fallen silent. Now the family is waiting for a new decision from the Greek authorities. Since Brussels and Athens classify Turkey as a safe third country, Rana fears that this attempt will also be unsuccessful and the family could be sent to Turkey.

The endless waiting and the insecurity are an immense psychological burden for the migrants. The basic idea of ​​the ESTIA program was actually to create dignified living conditions in the midst of society in order to alleviate the suffering of the people. In Greece, around 20,000 places were initially provided for this.

In February 2022, the Greek government announced the end of ESTIA by the end of the year. According to the Ministry of Migration, 12,648 people were being accommodated through the program at the time. Most of them were rejected and had to leave Greece. Others were recognized as refugees. When asked by DW, it was said that in the end fewer than 500 people had to be evacuated because no more people had been admitted to the program in recent months.

Lawyer Christina Svana considers the termination of the ESTIA program to be a mistake and points to the continuing need of many asylum seekers. She works for FENIX, a non-governmental organization that provides legal advice and assistance to refugees. Since Athens announced the end of ESTIA, they have received many desperate reports from clients: “We have seen how hard this decision was implemented. In many cases, they only informed people a day or two in advance that they had to move out.” That was very difficult for those affected, who had often already settled in.

Svana sees the ESTIA adjustment as part of the government’s agenda to deter asylum seekers: “Since the government came to power in 2019, we have seen a dramatic decline in terms of benefits or rights for people fleeing. In the meantime, closed centers have emerged on the islands and controlled, walled-in camps on the mainland.” The Greek state aims to separate fleeing people from the rest of society.

Now refugees who are particularly dependent on help have to go back to the camp, explains Svana; the same people the Ministry actually wanted to protect. Savana’s colleague, Ines Avelas, head of advocacy and strategy at FENIX, believes the termination of the ESTIA program is politically motivated.

The head of the EU task force on migration management in Brussels wrote to FENIX that the Greek authorities had decided to phase out the project due to the “significant decrease in arrivals and the reduced utilization in the reception centres”. Funding from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) is guaranteed until 2027.

“We understand that the end of the program was a decision of the Greek government and had no budgetary reasons,” says Avelas.

The Greek government rejects this. The responsible migration ministry informed DW that the ESTIA program could be financed via the AMIF fund, but “no further funds had been made available.” the Greek authorities, how to offer admission [of refugees] and how to use the budget provided on the legal basis of EU regulations.”

Athens sees no problems for those affected by the end of the ESTIA program. They would have been given an alternative in residential facilities “which are fully compatible with international and European legal requirements,” the Ministry of Migration said in writing. These facilities would “provide security, food and decent living conditions” for residents.

In addition, it would only be about people who are in the asylum process. According to the ministry, “Most asylum seekers received a decision before the end of the program and were deported if the decision was negative, or offered housing and financial help through the HELIOS integration program if the decision was positive.”

HELIOS is an EU-funded integration program for people who have already received asylum in Greece. The program itself is good, says Lefteris Papagiannakis from the Greek non-governmental organization Greek Council for Refugees. For up to a year there is help in finding work and an apartment.

“The problem is that you have to already have a home to even get into the program,” Papagiannakis said. It becomes difficult when the aid runs out after a year and then it doesn’t go any further.

“So something is built up that is then lost,” he criticizes. Many people with a positive asylum decision are on the streets or have to go back to the camps. Papagiannakis doubts that Greece is serious about integration efforts: “This government is hostile to refugees and migrants.”

Autor: Florian Schmitz

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The original of this post “Deterrence through isolation: Greece bans asylum seekers from the cities” comes from Deutsche Welle.