UNHCR welcomes Greek government measures to strengthen refugee integration

© Achilleas Zavallis

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, welcomes a set of concrete actions announced by the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy to support refugees in accessing gainful employment and social solidarity safety nets as they integrate in Greece.

The measures are part of Greece’s ongoing efforts to operationalize the 2018 National Integration Strategy and include integration activities for 5,000 newly recognized refugees and a separate vocational training programme for 3,000 refugees, which will be implemented through the Ministry of Labour, Social Insurance and Social Solidarity.

The Ministry of Migration Policy has also confirmed that some 200 refugees – recognized in Greece more than 20 months ago – will be supported to access the Social Solidarity Income and will be prioritized for the vocational training programme. This group of refugees is expected to leave apartments under the ESTIA programme and State-run sites on the mainland by the end of March, but will continue to receive cash assistance through June.

The ESTIA programme is designed to assist asylum-seekers who arrive in Greece with accommodation, cash and support services. The accommodation component of the programme is intended to help vulnerable asylum-seekers for as long as their asylum claim is processed. The programme is fully funded by the European Commission and is presently implemented by UNHCR, in close cooperation with the Ministry of Migration Policy, municipalities and NGOs across Greece. The programme has been instrumental in supporting the Greek State in building up its reception of asylum-seekers sustainably and in line with standards.

When asylum-seekers are recognized as refugees while in ESTIA, they are given a six-month grace period, after which they need to exit the programme. Until now the grace period was continuously extended. Meanwhile asylum-seekers have continued to arrive in Greece in need of protection and assistance – over 6,000 people have arrived since the start of 2019. Many vulnerable asylum-seekers are staying in island reception centres and mainland sites where their needs cannot be adequately met, whereas in the accommodation scheme they will have access to the services and conditions they require.

Some of the recognized refugees in ESTIA apartments received their recognition decision more than two years ago. In addition to accommodation, they have been supported to access medical services, enroll children at school, pursue employment opportunities, attend Greek language courses where available, and be actively involved in community recreational activities. The vast majority of recognized refugees in ESTIA have been helped to receive a social security number – AMKA (93%) and fiscal registration number – AFM (62%); over 75% of 5-14 year old children are in school; and a growing number are registering with the unemployment service (OAED) and opening a bank account.

These are important steps towards self-reliance and help refugees in ESTIA to find gainful employment or access State social solidarity programmes, in accordance with the law. Meanwhile, prolonging dependence on ESTIA assistance for an indefinite period of time is neither sustainable nor encourages self-sufficiency and integration. Applying the grace period for recognized refugees in ESTIA is also necessary for the sustainability of the accommodation programme available for asylum-seekers.

The grace period is extended for refugees in ESTIA who are assessed as facing serious risks, including severe health conditions, women in advanced pregnancy and recent mothers, as well as their nuclear family members. In addition, the grace period will be extended for nuclear families with children enrolled at school, until 30 June.

Greek authorities, UNHCR and ESTIA partners have been continuously providing information to those affected, so that they are aware of the conditions, the timeframe and their options.

UNHCR encourages and continues to assist Greece in accelerating the adoption of integration measures, to further ensure that recognized refugees have access to critical national programmes and that obstacles are removed – in law and practice – which refugees face in accessing social solidarity programmes, including requirements for specific and additional identity documents and proof of residence in Greece.