Thousands face homelessness in Greek refugee relocation push

Greek authorities will start moving more than 11,200 refugees out of flats, hotels and camps on the mainland

As of Monday, Greek authorities will start moving more than 11,200 people out of flats, hotels and camps on the mainland, to make room for other asylum seekers currently living in dismal island camps.

Greek officials say housing must be secured for other vulnerable asylum seekers on the islands, many of whom "sleep under trees", Manos Logothetis, the migration ministry's asylum secretary, said earlier this week.

The migration ministry says the ESTIA accommodation system, managed by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, is designed for asylum seekers. Once they become full-fledged refugees they have the right to apply for Greek tax and social insurance numbers, and should therefore find jobs, the ministry says.

Refugee support groups note that although this is technically true, in reality applicants face insurmountable difficulties. The country was recovering from a decade-long debt crisis and jobs were already scarce before the coronavirus pandemic, which is expected to bring additional layoffs.

Refugees with precarious incomes also face reluctance from Greek landlords when they seek to rent lodgings on their own.

"UNHCR is seriously concerned about thousands of recognised refugees expected to leave Greece's reception system from the end of May," Boris Cheshirkov, UNHCR spokesman in Greece, told AFP.

"Recognised refugees are expected to leave assistance but they do not have effective access to social benefits and support," he said, adding that the language barrier is a further impediment.

The International Organisation for Migration runs a separate integration programme, HELIOS, that offers language courses, help with job-hunting and accommodation support. But at most the scheme can assist only 3,500 people at a time.

As he is now expected to fend for himself, Rahmoun says his monthly benefit of 400 euros ($440) will also be cut. The family from Idlib changed homes several times to protect themselves from bombardment during Syria's civil war, before eventually fleeing the country. Now, after "struggling to survive" for the past decade, they must "start from zero again", Rahmoun said.

Several neighbours in the block of flats where Rahmoun's family live face a similar predicament. Out of 10 families in the building, six have been told they must leave in June.

Refugees used to be able to keep their accommodation for up to six months after receiving protected status. The new conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has reduced this period to just a month. Officials have repeatedly said Greece must become a less attractive destination for asylum seekers.

"Accommodation and benefits for those granted asylum will be interrupted... From then on, they will have to work for a living. This makes our country a less attractive destination for migration flows," Mitarachi said in March.

The government also has political considerations. The continued presence of more than 32,000 asylum seekers on the islands -- over five times the intended capacity of shelters there - has caused major friction with local communities who demand their immediate removal.

An operation in February to build new camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios had to be abandoned amid violent protests.

Rights groups have repeatedly criticised unhygienic and unsafe living conditions in existing camps.

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