When B.K. and her four young kids got on a boat in Turkey to make the treacherous journey to Greece a few years ago, they had virtually no other choice.
They’re Yazidis — a religious and ethnic minority — from Sinjar in northern Iraq. In 2014, ISIS launched what the United Nations has now recognized as a genocide against Yazidis — murdering, kidnapping and raping thousands.
B.K. asked that her full name not be used due to privacy and safety concerns. She says her own husband was kidnapped by ISIS. To this day, she still doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive.
B.K. and her four children now live in a small apartment 10 minutes outside of Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. As they went through the asylum process, they were able to get housing and a monthly stipend of 400 euros — that’s about $450 — through the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) program, which is funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of the European Union.
B.K. qualified for the program because she’s a single mom, and because of mental health issues she’s developed since her husband’s disappearance, she said. But recently, the payments stopped coming. And B.K. was told she’d have 30 days, until July 1, to leave her apartment. Thousands of others face the same deadline because of a new law adopted by the Greek government earlier this year.
Under the law, adopted in March 2020, recognized refugees have 30 days to leave organized accommodations like ESTIA, and transition to living independently. Previously, the grace period was six months. The Greek government says it wants to make room for asylum-seekers waiting out their applications in camps on the Greek islands and elsewhere. Currently, more than 31,000 migrants and asylum-seekers are in overcrowded camps, living in unsanitary conditions as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.
In a TV interview earlier in June, Greece’s Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi said the government doesn’t have the capacity to give housing, a stipend, and other services both to people applying for asylum and to those who have already secured it.
He suggested that the program is being abused by people who no longer qualify for it, and said that there are many in the program who secured asylum in 2018 and 2019 but are still receiving the benefits. B.K. got asylum in 2018, but wasn’t aware of any rules that she had to leave after six months, she said. So, she decided to stay.
“It’s true that the people in the camps need to taken from the mud, the makeshift tents, the trash, the unsanitary conditions, and be put in a safe housing environment.”
“It’s true that the people in the camps need to taken from the mud, the makeshift tents, the trash, the unsanitary conditions, and be put in a safe housing environment,” said Zoe Kokalou with the Association for the Social Support of Youth (ARSIS), a nongovernmental organization that works with asylum-seekers in the ESTIA program.
“But it’s not right to take out the already-vulnerable so that we can bring the people from the islands. It needs to work another way.”
Nongovernmental organizations that coordinate ESTIA placements say the program was always meant to bring temporary relief to asylum-seekers.
“The goal of the ESTIA is to empower people to move on, on their own,” said Lefteris Papagiannakis of SolidarityNow, another NGO involved with the ESTIA program.
“But when you lack the next step, then you just put them on their own out on the street.”
The Greek government, he said, doesn’t have a solid integration plan for recognized refugees: to help them get jobs and long-term housing and learn the Greek language. He has little faith in HELIOS, an integration program funded by the European Commission.
“Greece has never worked with doing integration before. Now, it becomes increasingly difficult because the policy of the government changed. The narrative of the government changed. It became more toxic.”
“Greece has never worked with doing integration before. Now, it becomes increasingly difficult because the policy of the government changed. The narrative of the government changed. It became more toxic,” Papagiannakis said, adding that the fairly new Greek government, which came into power last summer, has taken an increasingly anti-migrant stance.
Integration, Papagiannakis said, requires the cooperation of Greek society. Greeks need to employ refugees, rent out apartments to them. But people are less willing to do that in this environment.
“Because when you demonize refugees and then you ask from the whole society to show solidarity, it sends mixed messages and in an increasingly toxic environment. And people react. It makes complete sense.”
As for the ESTIA program, Papagiannakis said he doesn’t buy that the government has migrants' best interests in mind. He points to the fact that just this month, the government said it was slashing 30% of the program’s budget.
“It is all being done with an end goal to deter people from coming — making things difficult in order for people to be deterred,” he said.
Greece’s Migration and Asylum office did not respond to a request for an interview.
Thousands of refugees are now waiting to see how the new rules will be enforced. More than 6,000 are at risk of being evicted and that number will keep growing every month.
As B.K.'s deadline approaches July 1, she says she hasn’t been able to get any sleep and doesn’t know what will come next for her family. She does know that she doesn’t want to stay in Greece. When she and her kids get the right travel documents, she wants to try to go to Germany and reunite with some family members who have made it there.
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