Containers sheltering refugee families stretch down the hillside at the Vathy Reception and Identification Centre on the island of Samos, Greece. Photo by: © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

ATHENS, Greece — Since 2011, over 5.6 million people have fled Syria to neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan before looking for safety and shelter in Europe. Over 58,660 asylum seekers in 2017 alone applied for protection status in Greece and, while the original intention may not have been to make the Mediterranean country home, following the EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016 and the enclosing of the so-called Balkan Road, it rapidly became a place of protection rather than transit.

Asylum seekers new “homes” are often makeshift, in remote refugee camps in places such as Lesbos, Leros, and Samos. And progress in moving people to a more central location with to access basic services is slow.

But some 21,000 people have made it out of the camps. As a part of the European Union-funded United Nations Refugee Agency Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation program, asylum seekers have been housed in an apartment or hotel in one of 20 Greek cities.

But is a roof enough?

Yonous Muhammadi, president and coordinator of the Athens-based Greek Forum of Refugees — an organization founded by refugees like himself, working to advocate refugee rights — doesn't think so.

“The broader problem is that it’s just housing — putting people in and getting electricity, all the utilities, with everything paid by UNHCR,” he said, adding that a more holistic program of integration should be in place.

Quick to support the UNHCR-funded accommodation program, Muhammadi, born in Afghanistan, explained that prior to the launch of the program, many refugees were sexually exploited as they slept on the street. He believes that the government and others need to do provide more than just a roof to encourage integration into society.

Here are five ways integration can be achieved, according to experts, using existing housing programs.

1. Improve access to finance

Without a way to earn money, asylum seekers are dependent on local communities. This lack of independence is a barrier to integration — defined by UNHCR as “the end product of a dynamic and multifaceted two-way process with three interrelated dimensions: a legal, an economic, and a social-cultural dimension.” This includes employment, housing, education, health services, social services, as well as linguistic and cultural facilities.

Trying to remedy this, RefuAid — a United Kingdom-based NGO providing housing, schooling, medical services, language lessons, social work, and employment support in Greece — offers initial monetary support alongside housing.

“In our program, the support is given fully for the first two years, then we reduce financial support [by 25 percent] over the next three years, and the families know that at the end of the five years they are fully responsible for everything themselves,” explained RefuAid co-founder, Anna Jones. The weaning of funds reflects the hope that by the end of the support period, most people will be in employment.

Alongside the accommodation program, UNHCR also runs a cash assistance program. Leo Dobbs, spokesperson for the refugee agency, said that by enabling the purchase of services and goods, refugees are contributing directly to the host community’s economy. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said.

Jones said the cash assistance program isn’t the most effective and although the assistance is long-term, it doesn’t address the fact that people want to earn their own money: “The people arriving in Greece are highly skilled, well educated, and have attributes of resilience. They’re hardworking, and that can be used and harnessed, and it’s just not.”

Refugees staying at in container shelters in Samos, Greece. Photo by: © UNHCR/Markel Redondo

2. Provide access to services

With access to a broader range of support, individuals can better equip themselves to enter the job market and integrate into local society.

“If you’re going to house people, you cannot just put them into bricks and mortar, you need to make sure they have access to services,” Jones said.

“In an ideal world with housing ... it’d be what we’re doing: Providing housing and then providing all the extras, like making sure kids are in school, making sure they have access to a sustained level of health care, and supporting the local communities,” Jones continued.

3. Include refugees in discussions

Rather than imposing housing programs onto people, Muhammadi said that it was important to ask refugees and asylum seekers what they want, and what will work for them. This inclusion can build relationships and ultimately ensure projects have a higher impact.

“It is the problem in all of Europe — that the system is working from the top, looking down. It should be from bottom up,” Muhammadi said.

UNHCR asked the Greek Forum of Refugees for input into their decision-making, which Muhammadi said he appreciated. “When you start to understand the bottom, then you can imagine how the top should be. You can’t make a roof without thinking about the basement.”

Jones agreed and offered advice for practitioners working in this space: “Stop with the paperwork, put a pause on worrying about everything, and look at how awful and tragic this situation is. Start listening to the people who live there as refugees, get the money there, and just build something from within the community.”

“You can’t make a roof without thinking about the basement.”

— Yunus Muhammadi, president and coordinator, Greek Forum of Refugees

4. Include the local community in tackling the issue

While refugees’ perspectives are extremely valuable, Jones said, including local residents in housing solutions can also contribute to better integration.

In the year it’s been working in Greece, RefuAid has housed 32 people, both refugee and local destitute families, in 10 apartments. RefuAid claims to have a more cost-effective approach than other projects, in part because the local community was involved via local implementing partner Perichoresis.

“When you have a local community group responsible for housing, they think about it naturally from a more community-based approach. So there’s naturally more integration because they’re from there and they care about people learning the language and people getting jobs in their community,” Jones explained.

Taking a whole-of-community approach and simultaneously catering to local families in need may have also increased the success of relocating refugees.

5. Draft an integration policy

“If there’s not a central policy from the central government, integration is not a process that can be done by one project, by one organization, or civil society organization,” Muhammadi said.

This is under discussion as UNHCR begins to transition out of the country, passing over the accommodation program to the local government.

“The government has drafted an integration policy, and this is a start. In a way, the accommodation program is a building block for integration,” explained UNHCR’s Dobbs.

“The idea is, and the ultimate aim is, for people to integrate, and we’re in a transitional phase where we’re giving up these emergency link projects and handing them back to the government, which is now in a much better shape to actually address these issues.”

UNHCR is set to transfer the accommodation program to the Greek government by January 2019, but some say the lack of political framework casts doubt over the future success of this housing initiative and others like it.

Without a central policy coming from the Greek government, Muhammadi said that individual projects and organizations cannot be truly effective in integration. “Integration should be a continuing process, it should not be stopped. So it cannot be done via a project that has a start date and an expiry date.”

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.