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Alternative Housing Strategies for Asylum Seekers in Greece

Info: 8225 words (33 pages) Dissertation
Published: 13th Dec 2019

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Tagged: HousingHuman RightsSocial Policy

Here to stay:Finding a sustainable alternative housing strategy for asylum seekers and refugees in Greece

1. Introduction

Over 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers are currently stranded in Greece as a result of the closed northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the building of fences, and the introduction of the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016. Prior a transit country, as of April 2017, approximately 34,000 people were living in official and informal sites in mainland Greece and 13,000 on the islands. Due to the restrictions of the EU-Turkey deal, camps in in the islands are operating at 150% capacity, a situation prolonged from poor capacity to deal with the sheer volume of applications. (UNHCR, 2017)

To support the management of the refugee crisis in Greece, the European Commission approved an 80 million EUR programme, run by UNHCR, to provide 20,000 additional reception places for asylum seekers and relocation candidates in Greece and to support the establishment of some 7,000 places in the hotspot areas. (ECHO, 2016) In April 2017, approximately 15,000 asylum seekers eligible for relocation were living in UNHCR funded alternative accommodation, such as apartments and hotels.  While the EU pledged a total of 66,400 asylum seekers to be relocated from Greece to EU member states until September 2017, as of today only 17% have been resettled. This has important implications for the accommodation scheme, which was established on the premise that as people relocated, empty units would be re-filled with people from the camps.

As the country is struggling with the sheer volume of application, causing delays in the process which might take up to a year to reach completion, asylum seekers continue to live in the 45 camps around mainland Greece. (UNHCR, 2017)  While the situation in camps has substantially improved in the past years, conditions as reported by various local and international NGOs, volunteers and occupants, remain substandard. (Action aid et al., 2016) Despite efforts from the Greek government to improve reception conditions, the government’s capacity to provide basic services to the refugees is limited as it faces an extreme domestic economic crisis with 25% unemployment rates and more than 2.5 million of its own citizens living under the poverty line. The lack of existing domestic infrastructure on social housing and refugee accommodation reveals a shelter gap in need.

This policy paper contributes to the Greek debate over alternative accommodation by evaluating existing housing schemes to understand what organisational and institutional factors inhibit or facilitate the provision of such alternative shelter. Drawing from best practices in the country and abroad and considering the relative affordability and availability of private housing in the country, it will make recommendations for a strategy to scale up housing in vacant apartments equally distributed by municipality. It should be noted that at the time of writing this policy paper, the UNHCR funded accommodation in private apartments was deemed to be a success and was extended for 2017. In April 2017, Minister for Migration Policy Giannis Mouzalas announced the government’s commitment to close 22 of the 45 camps currently operating in Greece and transfer asylum seekers to private apartments through the extension of the UNHCR scheme. (Naftemporiki, 2017) With additional funds guaranteed from the EU, the UNHCR committed to find another 20,000 places until by the end of 2018.

The structure of the policy is as follows: section 2 describes the methodology, section 3 gives a background of the reception system and camp living in Greece, section 4 evaluates existing housing strategies in Greece and abroad through selected case studies; section 5 analyses the Greek housing market, section 6 highlights key lessons learned and section 7 concludes and makes recommendations for a longer term housing strategy for asylum seekers.

2. Methodology

This policy paper synthesizes information gathered through an analysis of the current housing opportunities for asylum seekers in Greece. Data was collected through a variety of sources, such as the UNHCR, the Ministry of Migration, the Municipality of Athens and the Hellenic Statistical Authority. Information on existing housing projects in Greece and Athens was collected through face-to-face and phone interviews with stakeholders from relevant organisations and desk research. A couple of site visits were also conducted to refugee camps in the Attika region, namely Elaionas and Elliniko.

Recognised as a tool in many social science studies, a case study research method was selected as an appropriate tool to examine housing strategies at the micro level and provide better insights into the detailed behaviours of the subjects of interest, i.e. asylum seekers, local population and relevant stakeholders from NGOs and local government. This study investigates a selection of 6 case studies representing different alternative accommodation schemes and evaluates their strengths and weaknesses. A SWOT analysis is employed to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the proposed policy recommendation. 

 A total of four interviews were undertaken. The following organisational representatives were interviewed as part of the case study research:

  • Antigone Kotanids, Advisor for International Relations and Migration Policy at the Mayor’s Office
  • Alexandra Zavvos, Programme Officer at Solidarity Now
  • Amalia Zeppou, Vice Mayor for Civil Society and Municipality Decentralisation
  • Panayotis Tzannetakis, Programme Officer Khora Athens

Limitations of research

This study was limited by the lack of household data, background and relocation prospects of beneficiaries of the alternative accommodation projects. Due to the restricted access to the internal database of the UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation project, the analysis could not include exact figures of accommodation in hotels, apartments, or host families per municipality or region, nor could it include a spatial distribution of the housing.  Last but not least, there are several disadvantages in using a case study approach, most importantly that though useful as an exploratory tool, depending on the variation between the cases selected, a systematic analysis may be limited. Furthermore, it is difficult to reach a generalising conclusion (Zainal, 2007).

3. Background

3.1 The Greek Reception System

Long criticised as inadequate, not least since the M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece ruling of the ECtHR, the large-scale arrivals of refugees put further pressure on the Greek Reception System. (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

In response to the refugee crisis, in April 2016, law 4375/2016 created a single Ministry of Migration Policy and provided the legal basis for the establishment of different accommodation facilities. (Law 4375/2016) To address the accommodation needs of the thousands of refugees stranded in Greece following the closure of borders, the Hellenic army, with the help of EU funds, created a number of temporary camps. The National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA) is the authority for the management of the official reception system and also responsible for the placement of applicants to reception facilities. While demand for accommodation increased 264% between 2015 and 2016, reception places under EKKA only increased 49%. (Greek Council for Refugees, 2017)

While other countries in Western Europe make use of their social housing agencies and properties to house refugees and asylum seekers, Greece has no public-rented housing, neither at the central nor at the local government level. Until 2012, the public sector Workers Housing Organisation (WHO or in Greek, OEK) would offer a few dwellings for poor workers and families and was the main state housing policy instrument of the country. (European Parliament, 1996) It was abolished under measures of “structural reforms” resulting from the memorandum signed by the Greek Parliament. (Law 4046/12)

As a result, since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the UNHCR, NGOs and civil society organisations stepped in through various ways to close this shelter gap. The various housing projects will be discussed in detail in section 4. 

3.2 Camp living in Greece

The majority of asylum seekers, approximately 47,000, are living in official and informal sites, state-run facilities, NGO accommodation or have self-settled in mainland Greece and the islands. (UNHCR, 2017) A map indicating capacity and occupancy of sites can be found in the Appendix.  There are currently 45 refugee camps around Greece and while some like Elaionas in the Attika region have upgraded into container type accommodation, others like Chersos in Northern Greece still have tent accommodation. A survey carried out by the RRDB from camps around Athens, squats and communities found that 80% of their respondents were unsatisfied with their living conditions. (Refugee Rights Data Project [RRDP], 2017) With reports of women feeling unsafe, dirty toilets and roofs that leak, there is significant evidence that the right to dignity in shelter does not meet required standards.[1] The poor capacity of the camps to provide adequate living conditions is exacerbated during extreme weather conditions such as harsh winters and blistering hot summers. While situations vary greatly between camps, the pressures on family dynamics, the substandard conditions and the temporary nature of camp living all strengthen the argument for providing alternative accommodation. 

Inevitably, the housing conditions of refugees and asylum seekers play an important role in their sense of security and belonging, and affect their access to healthcare, education and employment  (Phillips, 2004). Moreover, housing conditions are likely to have an impact on community relations and integration prospects of refugees. International and voluntary organisations, the EU and recently the government have recognised the importance of a policy driven approach for refugees’ accommodation. In October 2016, a coalition of national and international NGOs called for a move to longer-term arrangements for accommodation that will allow people to “live in dignity, have greater control over their lives, positively engage with the host community and contribute to the local economy. (Action aid et al., 2016)

4. Alternative housing

To identify strategies that can overcome the challenges faced by local government, NGOs and civil society in providing alternative shelter for asylum seekers and refugees in Greece, it is useful to provide a description of the current accommodation schemes in place. The following section is separated into two parts: first it provides an analysis of the various types of alternative accommodation of the UNHCR project and second, it highlights innovative housing initiatives from Greece and abroad that can provide inspiration for stakeholders involved in such projects.

4.1 UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation Project

UNHCR is the leading agency in charge of refugee accommodation outside the camp with the Accommodation for Relocation project. To achieve the goal of finding 20,000 reception places for asylum seekers eligible for relocation, UNHCR funds its partners to find reception places through various types of accommodation, such as hotels, apartments and host families. UNHCR partners include several local NGOs, such as Praksis, Solidarity Now, Iliaktida, and currently three municipalities, Athens, Thessaloniki and Livadia. As of April 2107, the UNHCR has 18,058 places through its Accommodation Scheme with an overall occupancy rate of 80%. (UNHCR 2017) 64% of those places are in apartments, 17% in hotels, 14% in buildings or sites, 4% are places for unaccompanied minors and 1% are in host families. To monitor the accommodation for relocation scheme and facilitate communication between the partners, UNHCR has established an internal database collecting information on type of accommodation, location and beneficiaries’ characteristics. A report updating the targets for places found is published weekly, an example can be found in the Appendix. Ordered from most commonly used to least, the following section analyses selected case studies of accommodation for asylum seekers in Greece and evaluates strengths and weaknesses of each case.

4.1.1 Private apartments – Municipality of Athens

How does it work?

As part of the UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation Projects, partners find places in apartments through the private market. As of April 2017, there are 11,699 places for beneficiaries in 1,876 apartments around Greece.  The Municipality of Athens, through the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency (ADDMA) took on the implementation of the accommodation scheme to rent 200 apartments to refugees, a number that was extended to 280. Providing up to 6 tenants per apartments, rent per apartment is not to exceed 400 euros. Vacant apartments are found in collaboration with local boroughs with care to ensure the social cohesion of the city. While the majority of the apartments are found in the centre (6th borough), where there is greater supply of cheap properties, places are scattered around the various boroughs of the municipality. As the boroughs of the municipality are all relatively close to the centre and have good public transport links, beneficiaries have good access to services.

The scheme by the Municipality operates under a triplet management and each apartment has a caseworker, an interpreter and an apartment manager, hired exclusively for the purposes of this project and paid by EU funds. The apartment manager finds the apartments, takes care of the bills but is also there to monitor the transition of the families in the buildings. A municipality official highlighted an example where the apartment manager was able to successfully smooth the concerns of neighbours who did not want refugees living in their building.

Pros and Cons

The biggest strength of the private apartment scheme is that it offers a solution for accommodation with a high degree of social mix between refugees and locals. In addition, money pours into to the local economy, not only through rents and electricity bills, but also as beneficiaries are given cash cards for food and hygiene products that they spend on local stores and supermarkets. Moreover, the implementation of the programme enhanced the administrative capacity of the Municipality and the acquired know-how can have positive effects for future projects.

However, while the great degree of support beneficiaries receive ensures the smooth transition of their living situation, it is also not sustainable in the long-run as it is dependent on external funding that is set for one year. There are also questions regarding whether other Municipalities in the country could easily replicate such a scheme. While the Municipality of Athens benefits from assigning the management of the scheme to the ADDMA, which is private and has greater degree of autonomy and flexibility, other Municipalities do not have such agencies. Moreover, the Municipality of Athens has the advantage of being geographically small and having good transport links, something that ensures a good access to services for beneficiaries.

4.1.2. Hotel – Hotel Rovies in Evia

How does it work?

Accommodation in hotels for asylum seekers is acquired either through a direct lease from UNHCR or through providing hotel vouchers to programme participants. As of March 2017, there were 2,990 places for beneficiaries, in 39 hotels around Greece. A positive example of hotel accommodation is the seaside Hotel Rovies in Evia, which hosted 88 asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other countries. Matched with a willing hotelier, the owner of Hotel Rovies also took it upon himself to create a welcoming and learning environment for the refugees that were hosted in his hotel. Language, swimming and theatre classes were available and there was an effort to engage with the locals. For example, during the Ramadan of June 2016, refugees provided Syrian food to local residents and refugee children decorated a school in the local village. (Al Arabiya, 2016) Though Hotel Rovies is an inspiring example of hotel accommodation for refugees, not all hoteliers or communities were equally accepting and willing to go the extra mile.

Pros’ and Cons’

A benefit of accommodation of asylum seekers in hotels is that it is substantial upgrade in living conditions from camps.  At the same time, leasing entire hotel structures has the advantage of being able to house high numbers of asylum seekers. During the harsh winter of 2016, UNHCR leased hotels proved to be a great escape for refugees living in poorly winterised camps. Moreover hotel living can maintain a sense of community and avoid the isolation that might result from apartment living.

However, there are also several weaknesses in hotel accommodation, most notably that it presents a temporary solution, due to the higher cost and the expected tensions with hotel-owners and locals as the tourist season takes off. At the same time, hotel living does not allow refugees to regain normality in their lives. One of the main issues mentioned by refugees and NGO workers on sites is a lack of kitchen facilities for refugees to cook. Mostly single women and children, hotel living undoes the normal family dynamics, as often the number of children exceeds the number of mothers.[2] Separated from their husbands and subject to the dining schedule set up by catering service women lose a lot of decision making and responsibility.

4.1.3 Hosting – Home for Hope – Solidarity Now

How does it work?

As part of the UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation scheme, the NGO Solidarity Now implements an innovative hospitality programme “Home for Hope” where asylum seekers eligible for relocation are hosted by Greek families in Athens and Thessaloniki.  Solidarity’s “Home for Hope” initiative has benefited 800 asylum seekers, 600 of which had been hosted in Athens. With integration being on everyone’s mind, Solidarity Now advocates that hosting can present an opportunity to create bonds between locals and refugees and fight xenophobia by defeating stereotypes in an exhibition of “solidarity in action”. The Home for Hope initiative pays hosts 75 euros per person and the stay of refugees does not exceed three months. Solidarity Now also implements a cash transfer project for the beneficiaries of its accommodation scheme.

Faced with preconceived ideas of different cultural and gender norms, language and religion, Solidarity Now launched an award winning awareness campaign to touch Greek homes and find willing hosts. The campaign included TV and radio spots transmitted as “social action” messages from local channels, advertisements in print and online media, posters in the Athens metro and bus stations, a social media campaign and even a big building installation on Panepistimiou, a major Athens Street.

Pros’ and Cons’

The biggest strength of the hosting initiative in that it ensures the highest social mix between asylum seekers and locals, leading the way to integration. At the same time, the prepaid card system boosts self-dignity and empowers decision-making among the beneficiaries, contributing to the smooth co-habitation in Greek homes. The short length of stay of “Home for Home” makes it more likely that Greek citizens will be willing to open their homes.

However, the low cost of the programme is based on solidarity and though many Greek citizens have been willing to offer a home for asylum seekers, it is difficult to get many participants. Moreover, while the short length of stay attracts a greater number of hosts and can benefit asylum seekers who already know their relocation date, it does not offer a longer-term solution.

4.1.4 Alternative sites – A suburban complex in Agia Eleni, Epirus

How does it work?

In addition to apartments, hotels and hosting UNHCR is also setting up alternative accommodation sites for relocation and non-relocation candidates. An interesting example is the refurbishment of the out of use Agia Eleni orphanage in Ioannina in Northern Greece that will host approximately 500 asylum seekers currently living in hotels and camps in the area. The building complex is built inside a fenced area of approximately 40 acres, opposite the Ioannina airport. The site has 21 buildings and it used to be an orphanage for vulnerable children. The complex was operational up to 2005, after which the buildings were left vacant. Owned by the state, once agreements were finalised between the local Municipality and Ministry of Interior, the site offered a unique opportunity to explore the establishment of an innovative housing project.

UNHCR issued a call for proposals to refurbish the site, construction began in late 2016 and first refugee families are expected to move in May 2017. Until the refurbishment is complete 50 dwellings have been set up around the site to host approximately 250 asylum seekers. The proposed refurbishment of the site will include accommodation facilities, with separate accommodation for people with disabilities, a kiosk, a communal kitchen and dining space, a sports facilities and even a theatre among others. (UNHCR, 2016) Low down buildings, with common space inside and outside in nature for children to play and residents to socialise, the complex presents an interesting case study of the design of a suburban complex.

Pros and cons

One of the main strengths of this housing project is that the structure will be a more permanent solution that will be put to social use after the asylum seekers are relocated to other countries or more permanent accommodation. The various communal spaces emphasize interaction between residents, while the location in nature allows children to play in a safe environment. Though residents will not have their own kitchen, the communal kitchen can possibly be used by families together or interchangeably at decided times.

However, the isolated location of the complex and the lack of interaction between refugees and locals might lead to a perceived ghettoization of the site. For this reason it is important to accompany each settlement with concrete actions to increase social mix between locals and asylum seekers. 

4.1.5 Analysis of UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation Scheme

By the end of the pilot year, the UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation scheme was deemed to be a success and with additional funds guaranteed from the EU, it committed to find another 20,000 places until by the end of 2018. However, as relocation lagged and NGOs, state and non-state actors competed for housing in the country, several issues regarding the scheme were brought to the forefront.  Some of the issues with the UNHCR scheme that came up from interviews with stakeholders and research from opinion articles and media platforms were that:

a) the eligibility for relocation criteria sometimes distorted the asylum process,

b) the vulnerability definition led to the systematic exclusion of certain groups such as young single men

c) the lack of transparency when it came to the selection of beneficiaries created tensions between asylum seekers, UNHCR and NGOs

d) the cost of the scheme coupled with the delays in relocation of candidates render it not sustainable in the long term. 

In the beginning, the eligibility for relocation criteria led to the exclusion of certain ethnic groups, such as Iraqis. At the same time, it created incentives for asylum seekers to apply for relocation, instead of family reunification. However, as the programme was implemented, the eligibility criteria became more inclusive and flexible; officially called “accommodation for relocation” it also included beneficiaries under family reunification, Afghans and vulnerable asylum seekers.

The UNHCR is responsible for identifying refugees eligible for the relocation programme, carrying out an assessment against its own vulnerability criteria. Resettlement officers select and interview those to be suitable for resettlement, ho are then referred to be part of the scheme. Though vulnerability as defined by UNHCR includes all asylum seekers and refugees, for the purposes of this programme there was a further separation of asylum seekers based on their degree of vulnerability, i.e. single women with children. As families were the main beneficiaries of the accommodation scheme, certain groups such as single men were systematically excluded from the opportunity of being in alternative housing. This created tensions, as male migrants were more likely to seek housing alone from the private market, ending up in the streets, vacant dwellings or overpriced rough accommodations in the Greek cities.

UNHCR partners had no role in the selection of beneficiaries for the programme, which created tensions between asylum seekers, partners and the UNHCR. Often the selection of beneficiaries from camps would lead to a proliferation of rumours and conflict would ensue within communities. Moreover, as the UNHCR pushed on to meet its promises of emptying certain refugee camps and meet its targets, partners would struggle to accommodate the beneficiaries.

Last but not least, though the cost per person of providing housing for asylum seekers outside of camps is lower than accommodation in refugee camps, it is a still a project with substantial costs. Beyond rent, bills and cash cards, the EU funded programme supports caseworkers, interpreters and apartment managers. Though the funding was extended until 2018, relocation still does not meet the required targets and as the situation prolongs there is a need to find alternative sources of funding that could maintain such as scheme in the long run.

4.2  Inspiring initiatives housing initiatives from Greece and abroad

Beyond official state-run facilities, NGOs and the UNHCR Accommodation for Relocation scheme, unknown figures of undocumented migrants live outside of camps or official accommodation sites, such as in squats, the streets or apartments around the city. According to UNHCR assessments, some 2,600 migrants live in squats in Athens and other cities and another 1,100 in city parks or squares. (Kathimerini, 2017) Civil society has shown tremendous innovation and solidarity in helping refugees live with dignity and find a sustainable solution that could work for all. The following section highlights two examples of housing projects that are based on the principles of community engagement, the Citi Plaza squat in Athens and Finding Places, a collaborative project using technology to engage citizens in finding urban housing for refugees in Hamburg.

4.2.1 Squats – City Plaza Athens

How does it work?

City plaza is a self-organised housing project for homeless refugees in the centre of Athens that accommodates 400 people. (Squire, 2016) City Plaza is a 7-floor abandoned hotel that had been unused for 7 years until it was squatted by activists and refugees in late April 2016. Based on principles of self-organisation and autonomy it depends entirely on political and monetary support from within Greece and abroad. It was occupied by activists of the Solidarity Initiative to the Economic and Political Refugees, a coalition of anti racist and leftist groups and individuals, following the introduction of the EU Turkey deal.  Amongst the residents are 22 single parent families and people from disabilities, of various nationalities such as Afghans, Kurds, Syrians, Palestinians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others. Each family lives in a separate room and they are all provided with three meals a day and hygiene products. Based on principles of self-organisation, residents, activists and volunteers form into working groups for cleaning, cooking, security, logistics, education, childcare, medical care, media work and reception among others.

Pros and cons

Unlike the UNHCR accommodation scheme, people at the City Plaza, are not selected on the basis of nationality or vulnerability status. People accommodated on site were not chosen according to whether they qualified for relocation and the grounds for seeking asylum were not scrutinised. With effort placed on ensuring a mix of nationalities, gender balance and combination of religious beliefs, City Plaza placed value in the solidarity exhibited for diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, self-organised management of the accommodation, from decision-making to actual maintenance, proved to be an effective strategy for community building. At the same time, clear rules of engagement fostered respect and further enhanced the feeling of community, paramount for refugees fleeing war.

However, City Plaza is difficult to scale up and even more difficult to be replicated as a model by Government agencies. Selecting asylum seekers based on the established criteria of eligibility for relocation, or vulnerability presents a certain transparency to the system, which City Plaza does not. Nonetheless, considering the many abandoned buildings in Athens and other cities around Greece, there are opportunities to learn lessons to foster collective living similar to City Plaza.

4.2.2 Finding places – Hamburg

How does it work?

In 2015, the city of Hamburg was projected to accept 80,000 refugees by the end of the year and was faced with the challenge of providing decentralised accommodation for asylum seekers that would also lead to successful integration. (Noyman, 2016)  Finding Places is a collaborative project run by the CityScience Lab at Hafencity University and the city of Hamburg in partnership with MIT aiming to find suitable areas for 20,000 places for asylum seekers. By using an array of technological tools (e.g. computer vision, 3D projection mapping) GIS data is used to create LEGO-tized 3D representations of existing urban areas in Hamburg. (Games for Cities, 2017) Capable of running real-time simulations that can show the impact of adding, removing or moving urban services, Finding places provides analog-digital interface that encourages non-expert participation in “prototyping urban interventions”. Hamburg citizens are invited to participate in workshops and search for suitable areas for refugee housing. These workshops are held in cooperation with refugees coordinating staff and the Senate Chancellery of the City of Hamburg. (Finding Places, 2017) Participants are then able to discuss suitable areas in their district and can develop proposals that are then passed on to the city together with comments and the recommendations for the number of places to be created. Following the public discussion of the results, the respective district offices inform citizens and district councils about the specific development proposals for the suggested areas.

Pros and cons

Finding places is an inspiring example of the use of technology in finding innovative solutions for housing. The use of LEGOS to map prospective developments enables anyone to participate in the building of models and is a great tool for community engagement bringing together interested citizens, experts and professional to work together using a common language. The collaborative nature of the project creates a transparency in the decision making process, valuing the input of citizens.

However, in reality after 34 workshops with about 400 citizens and a process that cost several hundred thousand euros, Finding Places was only able to find six areas that could be developed equalling to about 750 places for refugees. (Woldin, 2016)  There were also criticisms, that members of citizens’ initiatives from districts that voted against such developments were excluded from the workshops.

5. An inviting housing market

There is no one size fits all in accommodating refugees in cities. Each city works with its own housing stock, culture and social and political infrastructure. However, the Greek housing market presents a unique opportunity as an “outlier” of the European markets. As seen in graph 1, during the period 2010-2015, the Greek house prices displayed the greater decline among OECD countries. While nominal house prices saw on average an 8% increase across OECD countries, nominal house prices in Greece dropped by 34%. (OECD, 2016)

Graph 1. % Change in Nominal House Price Index.

Source: OECD

Not only are housing prices low and relatively affordable, there is also a big availability of vacant properties. Approximately 35% of dwellings in the country are vacant. (ELSTAT, Census 2011) Only 5% of the vacant dwellings do not have a bathroom in the property, indicating that they though some might need refurbishment, they are suitable for habitation. As seen in table 1, this percentage is more or less the same for every region in the country. This distribution suggests that it would be possible to offer decentralised housing for asylum seekers across mainland Greece.

Table 1. % of vacant dwellings across Greek Regions, 2011

The relative affordability and availability of private property in Greece presents an opportunity for the rental market. The decreased demand for housing brought on by the recession; coupled with the oversupply of vacant properties, present an opportunity for urban accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers. On the one hand the costs for housing will be low and on the other hand, the increased demand can have significant positive impact on the housing market and provide much needed income for Greek homeowners as Greece has one of the highest percentages of home ownership in Europe. Over 70% of Greeks own their house, while less than a quarter rent. (ELSTAT, Census 2011)

6. 10 Lessons Learned

Looking back at the various accommodation types analysed and looking at the Greek housing market, we can infer some policy implications that will be paramount for crucial for developing a housing strategy that can be mutually beneficial for all stakeholders involved such as asylum seekers, local populations, and state and non-state actors.

  1. It is crucial to have a harmonized and transparent system of selection of refugees that receive alternative accommodation.
  2. Housing initiatives need to address the varied expectations and needs of different refugee groups, such as families or singles.
  3. The Greek housing market presents a unique opportunity for refugee accommodation due the relative affordability and availability of private property.
  4. Accommodation through the private market can benefit the local economy though rents, bills and refugee spending on local stores.
  5. The biggest challenge for urban housing is to avoid segregated enclaves of asylum seekers that may lead to tensions with local populations and increased xenophobia.
  6. To address this challenge, organisations implementing housing projects need to have strong ties with the local community and a good understanding of the urban and social typologies.
  7. It is important to foster a sense of community for refugees transitioning from camp living to alternative accommodation and to promote social interaction between locals and refugees.
  8. Cities should take advantage of the expanded role of civil society in providing assistance and exhibiting solidarity to refugees and asylum seekers.
  9. Technology can be a great tool for community engagement in the housing project
  10. There is no one size fits all: civil society organisations, NGOs and local government need to establish a network of collaboration and knowledge sharing to create housing opportunities.

7. Recommendations

Drawing from the best of each case presented and taking into account the lessons learned, this study proposes a scaling up of small scale housing in vacant apartments equally distributed by Municipality.


A SWOT analysis is employed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the internal characteristics of the suggested strategy and the opportunities and limitations presented by external factors.

7.2 Policy implementation

For the implementation of the housing strategy a number of recommendations are given along four themes: a) the Municipalities’ leading role, b) the rational distribution of asylum seekers, c) the role of community engagement, d) the important of social mix for integration.

Leading role of the municipalities in housing refugees and asylum seekers

  • Local government, securing funding from EU sources and the UNHCR, should take the lead in the implementation of the housing project, and aim to gradually find places for all asylum seekers currently living in refugee camps in mainland Greece.
  • The country’s municipalities should join the institutions and the decision-making processes for the management and integration of refugee populations. This is a prerequisite to achieve effective coordination on the basis of mutual trust between the authorities operating at the local, national and regional level.

Rational distribution of refugees across municipalities

  • The distribution of refugees in the municipalities of the country should be rationally agreed between all parties involved and take into account the administrative capacity of the municipalities to undertake effective integration actions.
  • Some indicative criteria for a decentralised distribution include: population statistics, urban typology (urban, semi-rural, rural), financing possibilities, main economic activities and unemployment statistics.
  • Care should be taken to match asylum seeker skills and demographics with the characteristics of the local population and economy.
  • Asylum seekers who have applied for asylum in Greece or who are not eligible for relocation should be placed in housing that could transition into longer term accommodation to improve integration prospects

Community engagement

  • Municipalities should reach out to local civil society organisations, seek advice for the first phases of reception and integration of refugees.
  • To ensure support from local populations, municipalities should engage in an informational campaign that emphasizes the positive contributions to the local economy.
  • Technology and social media can be used by local government, NGOs, and civil society organisations to encourage participatory and transparent decision making.

Integration & Social interaction

  • To safeguard the social cohesion of the community, the municipality should collaborate with civil society organisations to support the needs of the local population
  • To promote integration emphasis should given to provide language learning services, child care, educational activities for youth and vocational training.
  • To promote social interaction, public spaces should be utilised for cross-cultural events

8. Bibliography

  • Action aid et al. (2016). More than six months stranded – What now? A joint policy brief on the situation for displaced persons in Greece. http://reliefweb.int
  • Al Arabiya. (2016, December 11). Greek businessman open his own hotel to suffering refugees. Al Arabiya. www.english.alarabiya.net
  • European Commission, ECHO. (2016). Emergency Support Financing Decision Operational Priorities [ECHO/-EU/BUD/2016/01000].http://ec.europa.eu/echo/sites/echo-site/files/esop.pdf  
  • European Parliament. Directorate General for Research Working Document Social Affairs Series, W 14. (1996) Housing Policy in the EU Member States. Retreived 10 April 2017, from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/workingpapers/soci/w14/text2_en.htm.
  • Finding Places. Hintergrund: Gesucht: Flächen für Flüchtlingsunterkünfte [Background: Wanted: land for refugee housing] . Finding places Hamburg. Retrieved 14 April 2017, from www.findingplaces.hamburg.
  • Games for Cities. Finding Places (2016). Games for Cities. Retrieved 14 April, 2017, from http://gamesforcities.com/database/finding-places/
  • Greek Council for Refugees. Types of Accommodation: Greece. Asylum Information Database. Retrieved 30 March, 2017 from www.asylumineurope.org
  • Hellenic Statistical Authority. 2011 Population-Housing Census: Characteristics of dwellings-households. Retrieved from www.statistics.gr
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  • Kathimerini. (2017, January 21). UNHCR helping migrants living outside state facilities. Kathimerini. www.ekathimerini.com
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9. Appendix

Refugee and asylum seekers site map in Greece

Weekly accommodation & relocation update public report

[1] Only 54% reported that they had their own bed to sleep on, while substantial majorities reported they did not have access to hot water to shower with nor a secure lock in their lodgings.

[2] A hotel in Giannena run by Solidarity Now hosted 25 women and 70 children.

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