Refugees and migrants

Athens City council ratifies ACCMR proposals for effective refugee response

The City of Athens recently took a major step in enhancing its support for refugees and migrants, by ratifying the Strategic Action Plan for the integration of migrants and refugees, as well as the Preparedness and Response Mechanism for the management of potential refugee crises. Both plans were developed by the Athens Coordination Center for Migrants and Refugee issues (ACCMR), which brings together 92 member organizations. The ACCMR’s operation was designed and coordinated by the Athens Partnership, with a founding grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

preparedness mechanism accmr

The Strategic Action Plan and Preparedness Mechanism, mean the City of Athens has two tools at its disposal that will enable it to assume a more active role in the monitoring and management of migrant and refugee-related issues within its geographical boundaries. At the same time, the City is consulting with other European cities on integration issues, exchanging information and best-practices.

The Mayor of Athens, Mr. Georgios Kaminis, stressed that, "since 2015, when the refugee crisis broke out, the City of Athens assumed a proactive role, taking on the responsibility of implementing a comprehensive refugee management plan to safeguard human rights and protect social cohesion and the smooth operation of the city. Today, we are again assuming a leadership role. In cooperation with the Hellenic Statistical Authority and EUROSTAT, we will use all available tools to promote social integration, while at the same time we will build on the Cities Network for Integration, which is currently joined by 13 municipalities from all over the country. "

The Deputy Mayor for Migrant and Refugee issues, Mr. Lefteris Papayannakis, stated that, “through concerted efforts and synergies with many private and public bodies, the City of Athens can assume a key role in supporting and strengthening activities that promote integration. The Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues can play a central coordinating role in this effort."

preparedness mechanism accmr 2

The Strategic Action Plan sets out a clear framework with specific objectives that will strengthen the role of the Municipality and link its services to civil society. The plan will serve as a guide to strengthening services within the city as well as provide better information on services offered through existing online platforms. The creation of the plan was based on extensive mapping of services within the Municipality and extensive consultation with representatives from civil society and international organizations, to identify challenges and develop policies based on identified needs. Contributions from ACCMR  have been key to this effort.

In addition to integration planning, the guide to a Preparedness Mechanism for effective response to future refugee crises in the Municipality, codifies a preparatory actions and systems so that the Municipality’s administrative and operational arms can respond successfully to future events. The guide was developed with the financial support of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and technical support from the International Rescue Committee. UNHCR also provided important advisory support.

Support for refugees

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We have all seen images of the refugee plight in recent years: families struggling to reach the shores of Greece; small children left alone in a foreign country.

While international agencies and organizations have dedicated vital resources to address emergency needs, no city could have been prepared enough to respond to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
 
Recognizing the need for more strategic and coordinated deployment of services and funds, the Athens Partnership collaborated with the Municipality to launch the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR). ACCMR brings together 93 of the largest national and international refugee organizations to better manage resources, share data, inform policy, and anticipate future needs. 

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Asef Farjam, Open Society Fellow and member of the European Migrant Advisory Board remarks: "The Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues plays a key role in helping refugee communities make their voices heard. Through the ACCMR, they can influence decision making and help shape policy to address real needs effectively."

This holiday season please consider a gift to help us continue in this work and improve the lives of residents—new and old—in Athens, Greece.

“Cities Network for Integration” convenes in Athens City Hall: 12 municipalities join forces to promote the smooth integration of refugees into local communities

On Monday, November 5, the City of Athens invited representatives from 12 municipalities in Greece to Athens City Hall to set common targets for refugee integration into local communities, as well as share experiences and best practices.

Cities network delegates

The meeting was the first of many for the "Cities Network for Integration", an initiative of the Cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, which brings together 12 municipalities across Greece. Organized by Athens’ Vice Mayor for Migrants and Refugees, Lefteris Papayannakis, participating municipalities include: Athens, St Demetrius Attica, Heraklion Crete, Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Karditsa, Larisa, Livadia, New Philadelphia Attica, Piraeus, Trikala and Tripoli.

Speaking to the importance of this issue, the Mayor of Athens, Georgios Kaminis, remarked: "Cities are the ones that safeguard Europe's honor when it comes to the refugee crisis; from day one, we have tried to fill gaps left by the central administration, to uphold international obligations, and ensure human rights and dignity in our city. We assumed responsibility, in cooperation with the United Nations, of coordination of non-governmental organizations active in refugee support. With the creation of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR), we aim to focus on social integration of refugees into city operation". 

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The Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, noted: "It is time for all of us, and especially local government, to realize, that tackling refugee issues requires much more than just the implementation of emergency funding programs. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive Reception Strategy and, more importantly, for one that promotes the integration of refugees into the social life of the city. If the central state is stalling, the municipalities who are experiencing this need to step up and act. This is why our approach – which has already garnered international acclaim – is so unique; it is not only about dealing with emergency, but about embracing diversity.”

Cities network meeting

37 municipality representatives, including Mayors, Vice Mayors, and Municipal Working Teams, attended the event, where they sought to definite initial political and technical actions.

While welcoming guests, Vice Mayor Lefteris Papayannakis, reflected: "We are particularly pleased that the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ creates the framework for municipalities who host refugee populations, to share valuable experiences, and to work together in order to shape social inclusion tools and policies in connection with the needs and priorities of each municipality. It is up to all of us to prove that the capabilities of local governments, in cooperation, are remarkable.”

ACCMR team

The "Cities Network for Integration" was established in January 2018 with a Memorandum of Understanding between the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki. It acts as a forum for consultation, ideas exchange, partnerships, and the promotion of coordinated actions to develop policies for the social integration of refugees and immigrants into the life of cities. With founding support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and coordinated by the Athens Partnership, the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR) is currently implementing the first round of agreed upon actions. ACCMR is collaborating with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for this implementation, with support from the European Union's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid.

Of this partnership, IRC’s Director, Jana Frey, says: “Guided by our 40 years of experience in the U.S. and more recently in Europe, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is particularly pleased to support the City of Athens’ efforts to integrate immigrants and refugees. It is very encouraging to see local governments prioritizing this in their region and IRC is here to continue to support this vital effort.”

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More than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently live in Attica, with an additional 7,500+ in cities in the rest of Greece, as a part of the UN’s ESTIA housing program. Given the gradual allocation of housing responsibilities to local actors and the consequent need to link a national refugee integration strategy with corresponding local strategic plans, the initiative seeks to contribute positively to the planning and sustainability of relevant interventions. More specifically, since the initiative’s inception, 17 bilateral meetings have been held to map the needs of each municipality and collect data for defining a plan of action, which were firmed into draft guidelines during this workshop.

These new plans aim to encourage the employment of refugees, improve the transition of the refugee population from primary to secondary education, implement training programs for local government on the provision of services to migrants and refugees, as well as strengthen legal support and information. These guidelines will be used as the basis for future talks at the central and regional level.


Mayors Embrace Cities Network for Integration 


Vasilis Labrinos, Mayor of Heraklion

"Thanks to the Mayors of Crete, the Regional Union of the Municipalities in Crete, the UNHCR, and the Development Unit of Heraklion, we have managed to host 535 of Crete’s total 807 refugees. We are proud to see happy families of refugees walking around the city, with young children going to school, building friendships, and enjoying life. We look forward to seeing the benefits the inclusion of Heraklion in the ‘Cities Network’ will bring, as we strongly believe that with dialogue and cooperation, we can not only serve as a positive example for others to follow, but also enhance our program to become even more successful." 

Thomas Begas, Mayor of Ioannina 

“We all know that the so-called ‘refugee issue’ has caught everyone off guard. And municipalities were disproportionally called upon for resources. But we took responsibility, and we did so successfully – but only with the help of the ‘Cities Network’,, which served as a catalyst for cooperation. I believe that, through the experience that we now have, we are ready to focus more on the smooth integration of refugees into local communities.”

Fotis Alexakos, Mayor of Karditsa

"The City of Karditsa has been implementing the UN’s ‘ESTIA’ refugee housing program since August 2017, in collaboration with the Development Unit of Karditsa. Today, 240 beneficiaries reside in 40 fully equipped rental apartments; by the end of 2018, Kardista will add an additional 10 units. Since the start of the program, the Integration Strategy has been considered a necessary addition in the existing housing services that are offered by the ESTIA program. The City of Karditsa believes that the exchange of information, experiences and good practices, as well as the design of a common plan for integration, in collaboration and in dialogue with other cities is a win-win solution for all.” 

Apostolos Kalogiannis, Mayor of Larisa

"Since the very beginning, the City of Larisa has been an active participant in the refugee housing program. Today, an estimated 400 refugees are hosted in apartments in the city of Larisa, and right outside the city borders there is a refugee camp with an additional 1,500 people. Our experience from implementing this program is extremely positive, and the society of Larisa strongly supports every effort. Our Municipality, through its participation in the ‘Cities Network,’ continues with the same degree of excitement, to do what for us is self-explanatory: focusing our attention to all those in need, our compatriots and refugees."

Giota Poulou, Mayor of Livadia

"The local government, the closest institution to citizens, plays a central role in issues of strategy and management related to migrant and refugee issues. The ‘Cities Network for Integration’ is an important initiative envisioned by local governors—characterized by humanity and solidarity—who apply a different approach to refugees, proving that the municipalities can respond successfully. The successful implementation of the ESTIA program by the Municipalities defines the framework that should be used by the National Plan for the Management of the refugee crisis."

Aris Vasilopoulos, Mayor of New Philadelphia Attica

"In the evolving refugee and immigration crisis, the Municipalities owe and can make a decisive contribution to a sustainable planning for asylum seekers and refugees in our cities, both for their arrival and integration. We have embarked on a constructive dialogue, as it is an issue that concerns us all. United, we can respond to the challenges of our times.”

Yannis Moralis, Mayor of Piraeus 

“One million refugees have passed through Piraeus since 2015. In 2016, 5,000 of them lived in a refugee camp in our harbor with the support of the local community and the Municipality. The City of Piraeus undertook the management of 50 apartments for refugees in cooperation with the UNHCR while at the same time putting the Refugee Integration Center within the Community Center of the Municipality. In response, we will continue to enrich the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ and the Municipality of Piraeus’ response.”

Dimitris Papastergiou, Mayor of Trikala

"Local government is working with citizens to stand with refugees in solidary through actions and initiatives, a network of development and support, volunteer support, and cooperation with institutions and the central administration. We have always prioritized refugee accommodation and we understand that respect for humanity is paramount to those of us in Trikala. Our active participation in the ‘Cities Network for the Integration’ strengthens our journey towards a more equitable, fair, and peaceful society, with no exceptions or conclusions.”

Dimitris Pavlis, Mayor of Tripoli

"We are proud of our Municipality’s decision to participate in the UN’s ESTIA refugee housing program. As we look to implement the program, we encourage inland municipalities to coordinate and submit proposals to the government. Throughout this process, the UNHCR’s expertise, the work of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrants and Refugees, and the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ are proving local governments know how to cooperate and succeed.”

OECD Highlights the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues as a best-practice example for the effective integration of migrants

A recent OECD study examined the challenges related to the integration of migrant populations in 72 cities, with a particular focus on 9 European cities, including Athens, Greece. The report highlights successful and innovative actions taken by cities that aim to address this major challenge. This is essential in order to succeed in the complex task of providing coherent and effective policies for migrant integration, since, according to the report, 80% of cities participating in the survey believe there are information gaps between local authorities and higher levels of government that hamper effective policy-making.

ACCMR Liam language seminar

A 3-day Council of Europe “train the trainers” language workshop was recently hosted at the ACCMR collaborative offices.

The OECD study presents the Athens Partnership as an effective mechanism for the strategic use of funds from the non-state sector at the local level, to exchange information on needs and implement innovative solutions. In this case, this is done through the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR), which was created with lead support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and which the report highlights as a “promising example of innovative co-ordination mechanisms”. Only a year and a half since its formation, the ACCMR has already brought together 88 organizations and agencies active in migrant and refugee services provision. The OECD report states: “The key aim of this initiative is the mapping of needs, the identification of gaps in the provision of services, and the collaboration for the development of a strategic action plan for the effective integration of refugees and migrants living in Athens. The ACCMR also acts as a hub for the formulation of collaborative proposals from its members, while also liaising with potential donors and supporters for funding in order to implement innovative projects.”

The ACCMR members have produced 65 proposals for projects and initiatives addressing migrant and refugee needs, while, through the ACCMR, the City of Athens is leading the exchange of best practices and capacity-building for 10 Greek municipalities. Synergies between organizations and agencies also produce concrete actions targeted to migrants and refugees. For example last week, a 3-day Council of Europe “train the trainers” workshop was hosted at the ACCMR collaborative offices, aimed to empower language teachers and provide them with the tools to adapt effective teaching to migrant and refugee needs. In addition, the second workshop coordinated by ACCMR members to address barriers to migrant and refugee integration in the job market was held, including representation by private companies and the opportunity for participants to engage in speed interviews.

As an indication of the ACCMR’s success, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and with the support of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), the ACCMR expanded its activities on capacity building work towards other Greek municipalities. Going forward, there is great interest from other major international institutions in supporting ACCMR’s work.

Read the OECD report’s references to the Athens Partnership and the ACCMR.

What do refugees in Greece need today?

We have all seen the heart-wrenching pictures: families struggling to safely reach the shore; small children left alone in a foreign country. And according to survey results, more than half the Greek population provided assistance to refugees in some way.

A few years after the refugee crisis’ peak—the question today is what do newcomers to Greece need from the state, NGOs, and ordinary citizens?

© Hara Tasoglou

© Hara Tasoglou

Chloe Tsernovitch, a Greek-American who came to Greece to help at the height of the refugee emergency, worked on the front line in Lesvos for a year and half, where she offered psychological support. Now she works in Hestia Hellas supporting the smooth integration of refugees and immigrants into Greek society. In reflecting on both roles, Chloe remarks, "Support today, long after the arrival of refugees, is equally important. We often see severe anxiety disorders manifesting themselves long after refugees have settled in a new country." Chloe also mentions the daily risks to child refugees in Greece, living as unaccompanied minors.  

Who has the plan?

In reality, no central government plan has yet to address even the basic needs of refugees and to promote their smooth integration into Greek society. Municipalities and organizations, both international and Greek, have been called upon to fill this gap—in part because refugees in the Mediterranean are so diverse, meaning each require unique interventions:

"The ‘refugee crisis’ in the Mediterranean has some specificities which make it different, namely the large diversity of persons arriving at the Greek coasts, mainly in terms of nationality, language, and legal status”, according to the Red Cross, which has been active in Greece since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Great progress has been made against major difficulties, but "further steps need to be taken to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and ensure people have access to public health services."

Chloe Tsernovitch, Psychosocial Support (PSS) Officer at Hestia Hellas   © Marina Tomara

Chloe Tsernovitch, Psychosocial Support (PSS) Officer at Hestia Hellas

© Marina Tomara

The flow of information

One major key to overcoming obstacles in refugee services is to have access to accurate and up-to-date information, as the situation changes rapidly as new population groups arrive.

In response to this need came the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues of the Municipality of Athens (ACCMR), which brings together 85 international and Greek refugee and immigrant-focused organizations, together with relevant authorities of the Municipality. With the founding support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Center operates under the coordination of the Athens Partnership, an independent organization set up in 2015 to build public-private partnerships in Greece.

Sotiria Kyriakopoulou, Refugee and Migration Program Manager at ActionAid Hellas   © Marina Tomara

Sotiria Kyriakopoulou, Refugee and Migration Program Manager at ActionAid Hellas

© Marina Tomara

New coordination tools

Marina Tomara, Coordinator of the ACCMR’s digital platform, explains how the platform can make a decisive contribution to better co-ordination of efforts: "Through accmr.gr, any organization can register, upload their services, and access information about the services of other organizations, as well as connect with potential donors and supporters.”

Sotiria Kyriakopoulou, Refugee and Migration Program Manager at ActionAid Hellas, believes these new tools are very useful: "The Coordination Center has created a stable, open channel of communication between organizations and municipal services. The Municipality informs us of the services available and organizations respectively transfer the information to refugees and migrants, to help them access services. We in turn transfer our detailed information on refugee needs to the Municipality, so that it can shape its services accordingly." This effective coordination is all the more important given that resources for refugee and migrant support are becoming more scarce, as many international agencies are withdrawing from Greece to address emergencies in other parts of the globe.

What do refugees ask of us?

It is important to remember that despite the scale of the problem, the massive efforts that took place at the peak of the refugee crisis provided a unique lifeline for many people. However, while many newcomers are past immediate danger, they still need support.

Chloe, speaking from personal experience, tells us: "In the face of such great suffering, we often feel that whatever we do will never be enough. However, it is important to remember the difference we have been able to make... Today I see people who continue in their struggle to help refugees, not losing their courage, and that makes me optimistic about the future!"

 

© Red Cross

© Red Cross

Together with Marina Tomara, Coordinator of the ACCMR’s digital platform, we spoke with Sotiria Kyriakopoulou, Refugee and Migration Program Manager at ActionAid Hellas and ACCMR Health Committee Coordinator, the Red Cross, who also holds a coordinating role on the same committee, and Chloe Tsernovitch, Psychosocial Support (PSS) Officer / Counselor at Hestia Hellas. All three organizations are members of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR) which brings together international and Greek bodies supporting refugees and immigrants as well as the relevant authorities of the Municipality. ACCMR was created in June 2017, starting with 35 members, reaching 85 members today. The Center has five different working committees covering health, education, access to the labor market, housing and access to rights - legal support. Operating with Stavros Niarchos Foundation as its founding donor, the Center is coordinated by the Athens Partnership.