Why the EU's flagship refugee program in Greece faces an uncertain future

A family staying at an apartment under the ESTIA (Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation) program. Photo by: EU / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

ATHENS — In August, the European Commission announced a 209 million euro ($245 million) emergency support package to provide cash assistance and rental housing for refugees in Greece. Pegged as a “game changer” by the Commission’s head of humanitarian aid, Christos Stylianides, the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation package came in part as a response to strong criticism over living conditions in Greek refugee camps.

“The aim of these new projects is to get refugees out of the camps and into everyday accommodation, and help them have more secure and normal lives,” Stylianides said at the time.

With ESTIA — “home” in Greek — the EU’s humanitarian arm intended to mainstream its funding into core services that will be transferred to local authorities at the end of this year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was chosen as the sole contractor, with local and international organizations implementing the programs on the ground.

Cash assistance and alternatives to camp-based accommodation are increasingly seen as affording refugees greater dignity and better opportunities for integration, and ESTIA has done well in meeting its targets. As of November 2017, 36,135 households were receiving cash assistance — representing all eligible asylum seekers and refugees, according to UNHCR — and 18,927 accommodation places had been created, of the 22,000 targeted.

But while ESTIA-funded programs have improved the lives of their beneficiaries significantly, many asylum seekers are still being left out due to persistent backlogs that are hampering its sustainability, and stringent eligibility criteria that fail to accommodate the specificities of the refugee population in Greece, several civil society organizations told Devex.

Now, as it heads towards the planned transition to public authorities in January 2019, insiders claim that a lack of long-term political strategy for refugee assistance in Greece means the European Commission’s flagship program is missing one of its core objectives: To help asylum seekers and refugees secure a stable future in the country.

The evolution of cash assistance in Greece

Cash allowances were first introduced in Greece by Mercy Corps at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, and were soon followed by other organizations, each using their own databases, eligibility criteria and payment systems. This meant refugees had to register with a different organization and switch cards used for monthly electronic payments whenever they moved to different locations — from the camps on Greek islands to government-provided sites (often military barracks or other public buildings) on the mainland, or from these sites to cities and towns. Cash providers were issuing payments at different dates and in different amounts, causing a perception of unfairness among refugees.

“Cash assistance is by far the best system … It’s a no-brainer for a developed country. The markets are there, the systems are there, it gives a great sense of dignity and responsibility to the people.”

— Yorgos Kapranis, humanitarian adviser for the European Commission

Implementing organizations started coordinating their efforts to share best practices and provide a more unified response. This led to the creation of the Greece Cash Alliance, a partnership between UNHCR and five INGOs for cash assistance. Its members now all use the same payment card, with one service provider — Prepaid Financial Services, in partnership with Mastercard — and a single database. They have established help desks on refugee-hosting sites, as well as a helpline. All recipients receive a standardized amount — between 90 euros ($106) and 550 euros ($649) per month, depending on family size, in alignment with the Greek welfare system.

“There is no doubt that cash assistance is by far the best system that could be put in place,” said Yorgos Kapranis, humanitarian adviser for the European Commission. “It’s a no-brainer for a developed country. The markets are there, the systems are there, it gives a great sense of dignity and responsibility to the people.”

As an example, Yunus Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum of Refugees, an advocacy organization, told Devex there was a sharp decrease in the number of cases of sexual exploitation among young refugees soon after the cash program was put into place. “This financial help brought many changes to the lives of refugees,” he said.

The challenges of a mobile caseload

Implementing cash programs came with challenges, though. Asylum seekers in Greece are highly mobile, often moving between different locations across the country. Many of them now live outside the camps and official accommodation sites, either in rented accommodation, squats or in the streets. Their exact number is unknown — the number of asylum seekers and refugees living in Greece has been up for debate since the beginning of the crisis, with UNHCR and the Greek government citing vastly different data. This has made it harder for NGOs to reach out to potential and existing beneficiaries.

CARE, which provided cash assistance until August and continues to deliver other services in Athens and Thessaloniki, first conducted a mapping exercise to get a better sense of what the urban caseload looked like. “The people living in urban areas at the time were largely invisible. Nobody really knew how many they were, where they were, and who they were,” Aleksandra Godziejewska, CARE’s head of mission in Greece, told Devex. “This program made a huge number of urban refugees visible.”

CARE understood that the monthly certification exercise, a resource-intensive process whereby NGO staff visit cash beneficiaries to check for updates about their living situation and application for asylum, could serve as a gateway to other services. Their visiting staff were trained to refer cases to the NGO’s protection team when needed, Godziejewska explained.

Yet as the number of beneficiaries grew, it became harder for CARE to keep up with the pace of new registrations and monthly certifications. “One of our biggest problems was that our funding cycles were very short,” she explained. “That posed limits on our staff capacity. We were never able to properly scale up and ... screen everyone on the waiting list.”

Scale-up challenges

With these challenges in mind, ESTIA was supposed to inject more than money into cash and housing assistance in Greece. The goal was to streamline funding from the European Union into unified programs and services, both to increase their efficiency and to prepare for their upcoming transfer to Greek authorities. That is why UNHCR was chosen as ESTIA’s sole contractor, and the number of implementing partners has been phased down.

Before ESTIA, urban housing programs were limited to emergency shelters, small-scale apartment rentals, hosting programs in private homes and, in the case of Catholic Relief Services, renovating vacant buildings. When the crisis reached its peak, NGOs resorted to renting out entire hotels.

Yet even with ESTIA, the backlog persists. Several civil society organizations that Devex spoke to said it frequently takes up to four or five months for asylum seekers to be enrolled in the cash program after their application has been filed, and a similar length of time to be accepted into housing.

Muhammadi also pointed to inconsistencies in the eligibility criteria for cash and housing programs, one of which is a valid address either in an official shelter, government-provided site, or private housing. This leaves out many people, including those who haven’t secured fixed accommodation at the time of their application, and those who live in squats – up to 3,000 in Athens alone, according to the municipality.

And though its target of 22,000 places means that ESTIA is getting a significant number of refugees out of informal housing and into private accommodation, that’s still not enough to reach the full population of refugees living in Greece’s dilapidated camps, according to Greek government figures.

When asked by Devex to comment on the waiting lists for the housing program, the European Commission’s Kapranis said: “I have only good things to say about the design and mechanism of the process … These people, before being given housing, are not on the street. These families are either in [government-provided] sites or on the islands, and the sites are very good. There are no issues.”

But Giota Metheniti, a social worker at the Melissa Network for Migrant Women in Greece, said she’s received several complaints from asylum seekers who had been housed in rented apartments funded by ESTIA. Rodent infestation, defective plumbing, dirtiness, and insufficient heating are some of the problems she’s been made aware of. “Based on what I’m hearing from beneficiaries, some of these apartments are not livable,” she told Devex.

Because apartments are rented out to implementing organizations and not directly to beneficiaries, asylum seekers cannot contact homeowners to ask for repairs, and NGOs have been slow to respond to complaints, Metheniti explained.

What’s more, the slow pace at which asylum seekers are being relocated to other EU countries, as well as the ongoing backlog in processing asylum applications — 44,285 applications were pending as of September 2017 according to Eurostat, far more than the number of households ESTIA is currently dealing with — means that the program may have to cope with a larger caseload than previously envisioned.

Difficult transition

UNHCR and its partners must contend with a daunting deadline. ESTIA is set to end a year from now, with plans to hand over the cash and housing programs to Greek authorities by January 2019. “From the start, this [program] needed to make quite a rapid journey from traditional humanitarian assistance to a bureaucratic social welfare program,” said Alan Glasgow, director of Mercy Corps’ migration response in Greece, about cash assistance.

The modalities of this transition — whether ESTIA will be absorbed by the Greek social welfare system; which ministry will take over; and whether the programs will continue to be funded by the EU — are under discussion between UNHCR, its implementing partners, ECHO, and the Greek authorities, according to Kate Washington, UNHCR’s senior interagency coordination officer in Greece. Sources speaking to Devex informally said communications from the Greek government over its strategy were sparse, and the transition was a highly sensitive topic of discussion. A combination of short funding cycles and difficult communications with the Greek government has hampered the ability of NGOs to meet the challenges of a diffuse caseload and sustain the program at scale.

Humanitarian actors insist the ingredients are there for a smooth transition to take place: A small caseload of around 35,000 beneficiaries at current levels; streamlined processes and methodologies that can be passed on to local authorities; and a strong local civil society that already works in close partnership with international NGOs.

What’s missing, they say, is a political framework. “We strongly believe that as international humanitarian actors, we came here on a temporary basis in an emergency moment, and that there has to be a clear exit transition plan,” said Aleksandra Godziejewska. “Working with local partners is one of those strategies to ensure for sustainability, but of course those local partners would need to have access to national sources of funding to be able to continue.”

The uncertainty over the future of the program is leaving implementing organizations with no information to communicate to refugees about the type of assistance they will receive a year from now. Already, beneficiaries whose application for asylum has been approved, and who should therefore become ineligible for ESTIA-funded cash and housing assistance, are being kept on the programs indefinitely, several sources told Devex.

For a successful transition, the government needs to find a long-term strategy for refugee assistance and a clear policy for integration, they said. Without it, it is unable to take over from the humanitarian system and meet the needs of its refugees.

Read more Devex coverage on migration and displacement.

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    Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a contributor based in Montreal who covers cities and international social issues. In 2013-2014, Flavie was an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellow, reporting for Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s also reported from Rwanda, Brazil and Colombia.