Refugees have found temporary shelter in the makeshift refugee camp in the port of Piraeus, Greece | Photo: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU
Refugees have found temporary shelter in the makeshift refugee camp in the port of Piraeus, Greece | Photo: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU

Several NGOs and human rights groups in Greece have spoken out to criticize the government's decision to cut spending on a housing program for asylum seekers by up to 30%. The groups warn that this means less safe living places for vulnerable groups.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and several NGOs and human rights groups have spoken out to criticize the Greek government's decision to cut spending on a housing program for asylum seekers by up to 30%. They said that it means less safe places to live for vulnerable groups. 

On Wednesday last week, the government announced the official budget for the ESTIA II housing program. ESTIA II  follows the original ESTIA scheme that has proven a Godsend for asylum seekers in Greece in providing safe housing. 

The budget for ESTIA II amounts to €20,852,887 euros, which is 30% down on the original scheme. 

The program, as it was in force until these days, concerns not only the provision of housing for asylum seekers, but also support services such as legal assistance, social workers, interpreters and administrative staff. 

The Greek arm of the UNHCR said in a media statement: "This represents a significant reduction in funding which may have an impact on both the quality of services provided and the ability of partners to respond to the prescribed requirements." 

Refugees sleeping rough

Already there have been shameful scenes in Athens last week with refugees sleeping rough on several city squares as the government proceeded with closing 60 of the current 93 hospitality facilities created in hotels for asylum seekers on the mainland. 

The closures started on June 1, with residents supposedly to be transferred to other facilities or will be included in the UN Refugee Agency's original ESTIA integration program. 

The decision affects approximately 11,000 people who have secured asylum but are still living in the reception-style facilities and subsidized hotels in the Athens and Thessaloniki areas. 
General manager of NGO SolidarityNow, Antigoni Lymperaki, said that the new reduction in the ESTIA II is a big blow. "When so many months have passed with rumors that NGOs are taking some funds or do not know how to manage the money, it is logical that such a decision should be made," Lymperaki told reporters. She added: "There is an ideological campaign to discredit the work of organizations since there is no certification mechanism for them." 

NGOs in the spotlight 

The subject of NGOs in Greece and how they are operating has been a major point on the political agenda for the past few weeks. On Wednesday, the Migration and Asylum Ministry announced that only 18 NGOs were reserved the right to enter reception and identification centers (RICs) as well as accommodation facilities for migrants and refugees in Greece. That is less than half of the number of NGOs currently operating. 

Earlier this year, Greek lawmakers approved the establishment of a special registry for all NGOs, staff and partners in a bid to monitor and track their operations. However, only 18 of a total 40 organizations had submitted the necessary documents for their inclusion in the new registry by the June 14 deadline. The names of the NGOs have not been made public. 

An odyssey without end 

Greece's Migration Ministry has also come under fire from leftist media observers for its handling of the ESTIA facility closures. Combined with its attempts of transferring migrants from camps at Lesbos to the mainland facilities, the facility closures have resulted in chaotic scenes with large groups of people -- many of them families with young children and babies -- being forced to sleep rough on the streets in the Greek capital.

On Wednesday morning last week, about 100 refugees and asylum seekers were reportedly evacuated from Victoria Square to the Eleonas migrant camp. In total, more than 310 refugees have been transferred to Eleonas in recent days from Lesbos. However, there is not enough space there either, and so two large awnings were erected. 

Among the refugees, who have come mainly from the notorious Moria camp, many are unaccompanied minors, infants, mothers, pregnant women, as well as sick and elderly. The ministry has said that all refugees leaving state facilities have the right to apply to the Helios program, which is run by the Greek arm of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for subsidized rent and help with job-seeking.

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