Freedom News

Happy Christmas and welcome to the streets

As 2022 draws to a close so does the ESTIA programme in Greece. This year, the eviction of thousands of people from their homes was a very purposeful decision by the Greek government who turned down EU funding which would have seen the programme run until 2027 – a fact they then lied about publicly, leaving as ever, a purposeful air of confusion over the distinction between fact and fiction.

The old apartment block near Agios Panteleimonas church in Athens does not look like it is hosting an EU-funded housing project. The only sign that gives it away is a small ‘Hopeten’ plaque in the uncared for entrance hall. The door onto the street doesn’t seem to close, the building is clearly not cleaned, from the hallway you can see into already evicted flats, the glass in their doors broken, their rooms bare. A woman is coming down the stairs to sell her child’s bed to raise money for a rental, another couple who have received an eviction notice along with their children will simply not leave because they have no place to go. A large proportion of those who have ended up homeless are single mothers with children under five. Welcome to Christmas 2022 in Athens.

Refugee Support Aegean have collected testimonies from several people who have already been evicted. This is the story of Parwan (name changed) who is the single father of a 12-year-old girl. They are Afghani and awaiting reunification to Germany to be with Parwan’s wife, the mother of his daughter, who is there with their other two children.

We were told we have to leave the house we have lived in for four years. Only one week before the transfer to the camp were we told the exact location. It is not just a step backwards for my daughter and me, it’s like uprooting a young tree that just found some strength to grow. The house was our home and the only place where my daughter felt safe. She was going to school there for three years. She was seeing her psychologist for weekly sessions in central Athens. Also, our lawyer was close to our place. We only knew we had no choice and that from now on we’d be far from our home, our neighbourhood, our friends and any place where we had finally found some support. We were pulled away from any chance to heal and integrate.

A month ago, Parwan and his daughter were made to relocate to a camp an hour away from Athens.

We spend most of the time inside the container; inside the fenced camp area. We have to spend around 10€ per person for one train trip to Athens and back. Since we receive food inside the camp, our money will be reduced, I heard. I feel trapped here. Day by day, more people are brought to the camp. Now we share one container with another family. We start to queue for washing machines, for food, for doctors and social workers. These queues remind me of our first days in Greece.

Just over a month ago, the Greek government also completed the clearing and eviction of Eleonas camp, the only refugee camp in Athens. On that day, in a hotel in the centre of the city, a representative of the ministry cheered on the accomplishment, commenting that no one had been left homeless. Sadly, this was a lie. People had been forced out of the camp through pressure, blackmail, threats and violence. Many had been obligated to accept transfers to remote camps all over the region of Attika and beyond, while others had to resort to informal support, or became, indeed, homeless.

Demonstration outside Eleonas camp, September 2022 (Credit: Coordination against evictions)

“No one has been left homeless.” It is important to remember this lie, because we will hear it again over the next days and weeks, as authorities celebrate their latest accomplishment: the eviction of around 4,000 people from their homes, in winter, and away from their schools, jobs and support networks.

ESTIA is (was) a housing programme for ‘vulnerable’ asylum seekers started in 2015 by UNHCR. At the start of 2022 it hosted 12,500 people. While limited in many ways since its inception, it provided an alternative to refugee camps for families and individuals who were considered vulnerable. UNHCR outsourced the management of housing to Greek NGOs, which interacted with the beneficiaries of the programme.

In 2019, the programme was taken over by the Greek Ministry of Asylum and Migration, becoming officially ESTIA II. The right-wing government had just won the elections and stated their intention to expand the programme (ESTIA II), while at the same time adding new controls and limitations, especially affecting the services provided and the budget. Their subsequent running of it has been so poor that in September it was reported that they were in six months arrears with the owners of the flats. Strange, considering the funding comes from the EU.

From the beginning, ESTIA had provided housing to asylum seekers only. This meant that, once people’s international protection application had been processed, they lost their right to housing through the programme. Among the changes introduced with ESTIA II, the grace period afforded for finding new accommodation was reduced from 6 months to 1 month. Furthermore, affiliated NGOs started receiving funding per housed person, and not per flat as it had been up until then. This was meant to pressure NGOs into actively evicting people once they no longer met the criteria of the programme. Following these changes, a number of NGOs pulled out of the programme, others stayed. Among them, Nostos and the newly created (in very dubious circumstances ) Hopeten.

So far, ESTIA spokespeople have avoided using the word ‘eviction’ to describe the closure of the project, instead framing it as a process of offering alternative housing to people living in ESTIA-funded flats. Yet, as of October 31, 2022 — last available statistics — 4,305 people were still housed through ESTIA.

The main issue, is that the ‘offer of alternative housing’ — if this is an offer you are eligible for and you have not received a rejection to your asylum claim ­– is one that people are not in a position to refuse. For asylum seekers, the only other housing alternatives are the ‘closed and controlled’ camps punctuating some of the most isolated areas of the Greek countryside. According to Greek migration laws asylum seekers who refuse alternative housing offered by the government lose their right to access other alternatives. While this refusal cannot (in theory) affect one’s asylum application, in the past we have witnessed many instances of the opposite: strategically motivated mass acceptance or refusal of applications, speeding up of individual cases in order to force people out of particular accommodation structures, etc.

For recognised refugees, in theory the alternative is Project HELIOS, run by IOM and for which it secured €75m. According to this programme, IOM provides reimbursement for the rent of individuals holding a protection status. However, due to its strict criteria, only 20,074 of 41,945 applicants were able to access the programme, less than half. After living in camps for years and having just 30 days after receiving their protection status before being left in the street, people who want to apply to HELIOS must have relevant Greek paperwork including AFM, Taxisnet, a bank account, as well as finding and signing a rental agreement in an openly racist housing market, and be able to advance the money for it.

In conferences over the last month, UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF unofficially requested that up to 500 apartments for extremely vulnerable people remain open which the authorities have privately confirmed though without exact figures. Despite the lack of public commitment, it seems that the government will allow a number of people to carry on living in their apartments, but criteria remain unclear.

Throughout the Nea Demokratia administration ESTIA has been used as a political bargaining chip. After the devastating fires of 2021 the flats were promised to people who had lost their homes. Now the Government says that ending the programme will allow them to solve the Greek housing crisis by offering the apartments to low income Greek families. At every turn they seek to sew division between locals and people seeking asylum.

At the start of 2021 AYS reported on the eviction of the Filxonenia Programme which directly led to families being homeless and sleeping on the streets. As we near the end of 2022, we find ourselves in a cycle of repetition and families, pregnant women and people with other vulnerabilities are once again left out in the cold while volunteers, citizens and activists struggle to find solutions to a situation created by and perpetuated by the Greek government.

We will leave you with the words of Hasan, who was evicted from Hotel Stefania in 2021. Unfortunately, his words hold just as true today as we sit on the brink of 2023. Evictions are traumatising and re-traumatising, bringing back past pain and fresh torture:

What happened reminded me of my country, Syria. When the Assad regime made arrests, they would come when people were asleep. And they would cut off the cell phones, women and children crying. And we couldn’t resist. When I entered this country, I was hopeful that everything would be good, after escaping from war. But I was surprised, worried and scared, especially when my wife and children were crying. I thought: « Is it possible that this is happening to me in a European country, that I expected to be a safe haven for me and my family? »

Giulio D’errico and Emma Musty

This article first appeared in Are You Syrious?

Image: Solidarity with Migrants Against ESTIA evictions, pushbacks and gentrification — demonstration in Athens, 18 December 2022

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