Sleeping Giant: Athens, New City of Migration

February 27th, 2017

athens_kaminis_150Athens Mayor Georgios Kaminis is Interviewed by an international audience for the World Mayor Project 2016

World Mayor invited participants from the 2016 Project to put questions to Athens Mayor Georgio Kaminis, winner of the 2016 World Mayor Commendation for services to refugees. The mayor responds to a representative selection with candour and thoughtfulness.

Athens: A New City of Migration

Question from George F., New York City, USA: In your experience what are the short and long-term challenges of accepting so many refugees and what are you doing to address these issues?

Mayor Kaminis replies: During 2015-2016, Athens was faced with the short-term challenge of finding temporary solutions in order to provide food, shelter and health care to large number of refugees arriving at or passing through the city. This was a tremendous challenge for our city, as it did not have any existing infrastructure to respond to the needs of the newcomers. The municipality quickly took action to fill this gap. Already in August 2015, when the daily inflow of refugees entering Greece started to peak, the municipality provided a piece of land to the Greek government to create a camp where refugees can be temporarily accommodated. The so-called “Elaionas” camp has been expanded, and currently has the capacity to host up to 2,400 people.

In cooperation with the UNHCR, the Athens municipality has also been running a housing program, in the frame of which privately owned apartment are rented out to refugee families waiting to be relocated in an EU country. We also provide medical care and vaccination to the refugees and their children in our municipal clinics. We have significantly benefited from the presence of many INGOs who help us with their expertise. The solidarity exhibited by Athenians has also helped us cope successfully with the situation without negatively affecting the city’s social cohesion.

The long-term challenge still ahead of us though is to promote the successful integration of refugees in the Athens. Learning the language, building a life in a city that was not their intended destination, getting socially active after many months on the move, are all big challenges for the refugee population but also for the local society. The first few steps have been made: children go to school, and Greek and English language lessons are provided through our “Open Schools” program throughout the city. Integration in the labor market is another major challenge, particularly in view of the prolonged economic recession that the Greek economy has experienced from 2009 until 2016.

It must be noted that the Municipality does not have explicit or significant competences on migrant and refugee integration. Nevertheless, we decided to assume an active role and take action. To this end we have also created a new position of Vice Mayor for Refugees and Immigration. We have chosen to work with international partners and with European and private funds to cope with a situation that for us is like “a crisis within the crisis”. We welcome the experience of other European cities, with a longer tradition on migrant integration, and we use their best practices in our long-term integration strategy.

We believe that this challenge can also be seen as an opportunity. Seeing it this way, we have sought to draw from and build on the dormant capacity of the city (inactive population, abandoned buildings, new city needs that cannot be covered by the public sector, and so on) in order to find creative solutions that simultaneously cater to the needs of the Athenian population for a better life in the city overall.

 Neighbourhood Dialogue

Question from Stelios D., Athens: How does the Municipality of Athens, given its budget constraints, keep a balance between providing support to the refugees and assisting the local population mostly affected by the economic crisis?

Mayor Kaminis replies: For the Municipality of Athens (“MoA”), refugees and local population affected by the economic crisis are both considered vulnerable target groups for social programs and services. Municipal structures, such as the Reception and Solidarity Centre and Municipal Clinics do not differentiate locals and refugees when it comes to providing food, clothing and personal hygiene products or primary health care services including medical prescriptions.

Following the same rationale, access to MoA’s Social Housing Network is provided to families on the basis of socioeconomic criteria and independently of their nationality. As already mentioned, refugees are accommodated in rented apartments, in the framework of a project coordinated by the UNHCR, funded by the European Commission and implemented by the Municipality. In this project as well as in others, the aim is to cover refugees’ basic needs and to prepare for their social integration (i.e. language classes). Special care is taken to adequately inform and keep an open channel of dialogue with the neighbourhood in order to prevent discrimination incidents.

 A unique spirit of voluntary engagement

Question, by George F., New York City, USA: How are you engaging with citizens of Athens to encourage them to continue to welcome the refugees and join you in your commitment to helping and integrating the newcomers?

Mayor Kaminis replies: The Athenian population has shown a unique spirit of voluntary engagement in responding to the overwhelming inflow of refugees. More than 90 different initiatives have been mapped in Athens, for the nearly 15,000 refugees who live within the borders of our Municipality. In this spontaneous effort, a large international population of inspired active citizens has come to Athens to join forces to respond to the countless and urgent humanitarian needs.

However, there is a fine line between such formal organizations and the informal activism that flourishes (which is also accounted for in the above numbers). The role of the Municipality has been to strengthen its official ties with the UNHCR and large NGOs who manage a part of this population, without discouraging some of the positive impact of independent unofficial initiatives.

The Municipality of Athens has also created a platform to bring together an increasing number of creative community groups who have been active since the beginning of the crisis in Greece. More than 2,500 activities from 300 different groups are mapped on a platform named “synAthina”, which also empowers these voluntary best practices in various ways. The platform allows independent synergies and networks to develop among those involved in similar activities such as the refugee issue, without patronizing their own committed spirit. But at the same time, it encourages such groups to collaborate and open a constructive dialogue with the Municipality.

In these informal initiatives one finds invaluable impact, inspiration and exemplary citizenship. My role as Mayor of Athens is to incite these active citizens to bring their knowledge forward and build collaborative solutions for the smooth integration of refugees in the city.

I believe that my own initiative “Solidarity Cities” to establish a network of European capitals as host societies and refugee destinations, sends as an empowering message on behalf of like-minded citizens of Europe sharing similar values.

 Economic Revival

Question from Aristea T. and Stelios D., Athens: Do you see the arrival of migrants and refugees mostly as a humanitarian issue or could the newcomers provide Athens with new opportunities?

Mayor Kaminis replies: It is self-evident that the refugee crisis is primarily a humanitarian crisis as large numbers of dislocated people have been fleeing their country mainly because of war. Their situation is different in many respects from that of migrants or immigrants arriving from zones of milder political or economic instability.

Financial Impact.  Beyond tackling the dramatic increase of the numbers of refugees reaching Greece and responding to the humanitarian crisis, the influx of new populations and groups creates new opportunities for Athens. Already, there we can discern a positive financial benefit for residents of our city who can rent their empty apartments to incoming refugees. This is taking place in the frame of the housing program that the Athens municipality has been running in cooperation with the UNHCR to provide temporary accommodation for refugees. This agreement is a very important contribution of the city of Athens to the management of the refugee crisis. Our municipal authority will continue to work to ensure humane living conditions for refugees, while simultaneously ensuring the social cohesion of the city and its residents.

In the frame of our “Relocation Program”, the City of Athens has been implementing the housing and accommodation project that aims at renting more than 260 apartments for 2,000 beneficiaries, and at creating a community center for hosting and promoting the social inclusion of refugees.

The City of Athens “Relocation Program” is funded 100% by the European Union. These funds are allocated to meet the all-around needs of the refugees, which at the end are funneled into the local economy and market. Through the program the local real estate market has benefited by contracting out all these unrented apartments, generating income for their financially vulnerable owners. Every apartment rented has its utility bills paid by the program. Additionally, all of the apartments are renovated and fully equipped with new furniture, electrical appliances, household items, linen etc., by the program, substantially helping the local businesses.

The Program also provides the eligible refugees with financial assistance through pre-paid cards, enabling them to purchase food, basic necessities and city transportation tickets. As a result, this is another significant cash injection into the local market and economy, mainly in neighborhoods of our city that have been severely hit by the economic crisis.

Jobs Creation.  In order to implement the Program, new staff had to be hired. Currently close to one hundred young professionals, social scientists, case handlers, apartment supervisors, interpreters, management and administrative professionals, doctors, psychologists, counselors, etc., who were previously unemployed, are hired and offer their services. Hiring more staff becomes necessary as the project needs grow.

Multiculturalism / Cultural Diversity.  Refugees inject important human capital for our city. Many of them are skilled, educated people with expertise in a variety of fields and professions. For those who will choose to stay in our country, it becomes a challenge for us to integrate them into our society in the best possible manner, helping the revival of our economy in the city’s neighborhoods. The newcomers can become a source of enrichment in the modern multi-ethnic and multicultural urban environment of our city.

 New Athenians

Question from By Manos M., Athens: Does the City of Athens have any idea how many of the refugees and/or migrants will make the city their new home? Does the City have any idea how to integrate them and prepare them for a productive and happy life in Athens?

Mayor Kaminis replies: In addition to the tens of thousands of migrants who have been living in Athens since the early 90s, there are currently about 15,000 refugees in the Municipality. Well over 200,000 Third Country Nationals (TCNs) live in the broader metropolitan area of Attica. Some of them have applied for asylum status and are waiting for their application to be processed in Greece. Others are waiting to be relocated in another European country. Athens is not an attractive destination for most refugees because there are few job opportunities for them. Despite of this, some of them chose to file for asylum in our country and will most likely stay or end up in the capital where they have easier access to services, networks, and opportunities.

Greece does not have a long experience in receiving migrants. We were traditionally a nation of emigrants. In the past 25-30 years, even after several waves of migrants have come to our country, we still have not developed any specialized structure for their integration. In addition to that, in the recent years, the national system and infrastructure of social services have been severely affected by the economic crisis. Greece has for a long time been an entry point and a transit country for immigrants coming into Europe. In regard to the recent mass influx of refugees, research confirms that few people want to make Greece and our city their new home.

Now that the refugee crisis has subsided – at least for as long as the EU Agreement with Turkey remains functional – we have a better picture of the next day and we are working on how to best integrate the people who will in the end remain in the city. In view of their relatively small number, the task is very manageable. What is more difficult and challenging and challenging though is how to achieve their successful integration in the context of a severe economic crisis and the rise of populism.

* The interview has been edited and condensed.

Source: Reprinted with permission from the World Mayor Project 2016 by the London-based City Mayors Foundation, February 14, 2017.


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