Greece's ESTIA accommodation program for refugees and asylum seekers has been officially shut down by the Greek government after seven years in a landmark moment for the country's migration policies.
The ESTIA program, which allowed for the allocation of hotels and apartments to be used temporarily to house asylum seekers and refugees, has been officially shut down. Set up in 2015 with the aim of decongesting the migrant camps that were scattered throughout the country, the program has has housed over 90,000 asylum seekers to date.
"As the number of asylum seekers in our country has drastically decreased, the asylum procedures have been accelerated, and as the safety and living conditions in the accommodation structures have significantly improved, now the "ESTIA" accommodation program in urban apartments has completed its mission," said Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, in a media statement.
He added: "We managed to cope with the challenges presented and at the same time provide the residents with humane hospitality conditions. The few remaining beneficiaries of the program have now been transferred to more modern facilities in which there are plenty of available places."
'Immigration is now under control', says Athens
The Ministry of Migration added that the winding down of the ESTIA program also "proves that Immigration is now under control".
Mitarakis commented: "We now protect our borders, implementing a fair but strict policy on who will cross into Greece, not leaving that decision in the hands of smugglers and traffickers who profit from human suffering. We respect and strengthen in every way the local communities, especially on the islands, who have borne and endured the burdens of Immigration created by the open border policy of SYRIZA, which has brought massive flows of immigrants."
Initially, the UNHCR collaborated with the Greek government, local self-government and NGOs for the implementation of the Emergency Support Program for Integration and Housing (that's what the abbreviation ESTIA stands for), co-financed by the EU's Asylum and Migration Fund.
The management of the ESTIA housing program came entirely under the responsibility of the Greek authorities at the end of 2020, and the financial assistance program on October 1, 2021.
According to the Ministry's press release, the ESTIA program "successfully completed its goal with the kind cooperation of 25 implementing partners, municipal authorities and non-governmental organizations throughout Greece, having hosted more than 90,000 asylum seekers since its transfer to the responsibility of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum."
The program has certainly made a decisive contribution towards decongesting the migrant and refugee populations of the Greek islands, as well as taking care of vulnerable categories of applicants for international protection, when Greece was under unprecedented immigration pressure.
The highest number of residents recorded was in May 2020, with 22,769 people, in 4,597 housing units/apartments (25,508 beds), while in the last month of the program's operation, 1,843 people were accommodated.
It is worth noting that in April 2022, when the termination of ESTIA was announced, 12,684 people were in the program's structures.
The program came to consist of 3,700 apartments throughout Greece with 60% of them located within Attica.
The gradual reduction of ESTIA positions within 2022 marked the completion of the upgrade of the accommodation structures of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum, of which there are currently 33 throughout the country.
Unaccompanied minors at over capacity levels
The number of unaccompanied children in Greece remains more than the country's current capacity, with 2,624 in the country according to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
This latest update comes on the back of announcements made by the European Union at the end of last year that the number of unaccompanied children who sought asylum in the European Union from 2021-2022 jumped by 72%. This was a result of the number of refugees arriving from Afghanistan rising sharply, according to the bloc's statistics office Eurostat.
According to the latest figures released by the Greek authorities for January 2023, a total of 2,624 children remain in Greece currently, out of which: 85% are boys and 15% are girls, staying in various types of accommodation facilities in the country.
Overall, Greece has a total capacity of 2,512 places in various accommodation centers (Shelters/SIL apartments) and emergency accommodation facilities.
The numbers have remained more or less stable since September 2021, pointing to the fact that continuous influxes of people make it difficult for Greece to reduce the number, as the process of relocating children to other EU countries is slow.
Only last week it was confirmed that the system of accommodation for unaccompanied minors throughout Greece is currently at its limits in terms of the number of places available.