CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece and the role of civil society in policymaking with Lefteris Papagiannakis, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Research at Solidarity Now and former Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs for the Municipality of Athens. Solidarity Now is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works with vulnerable groups, with a focus on migrants and refugee communities in Greece in order to help them achieve dignity and a better future.
How does Solidarity Now support migrants and refugees and other vulnerable groups?
Solidarity Now was founded in 2013 to respond to the increased need of service provision to vulnerable Greeks as a result of the financial crisis. From 2010 to 2019 Greece was heavily affected by a financial crisis and the provision of support services geared towards vulnerable groups became vital. At the time, a large number of CSOs were struggling to fill the gaps because the government was unable to reach the most vulnerable. For most, money was difficult to come by, some social services were cut and societal needs increased. CSOs were brought to the forefront to act on behalf of local authorities and the state to try and build systems of solidarity, social security and service provision.
In 2015, a second ‘crisis’ hit Greece – what we now call the ‘migration crisis’ – which forced us to shift swiftly towards refugees and the realities that they were facing. Although for many years Greece had been a reception country for migrants, it had mostly been a transition country, a sort of gateway to Europe. Come 2016, the release of the European Union (EU)-Turkey Common Declaration instantly turned Greece into a destination country. This very sudden process created even wider gaps in response. As Greece does not have a very clear policy regarding migration and refugees, we had to turn towards providing services to migrants on top of continuing providing services to internal vulnerable groups.
What additional challenges have you faced in 2020, under the COVID-19 pandemic?
I came on board Solidarity Now in 2019, during a time of change in government. In that political context, and particularly due to the way migration policy is debated, there was a swing towards conservative ideologies on migration. Not much has changed from the previous government, but unfortunately the Greek approach has been shaped by European attitudes against migration. The prevailing approach is based on pushing people back; it is a deterrence policy. This active pushback policy is illegal and is being investigated. So far, it has meant that we have had to be ever more present on the ground.
This is how things were going when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and our work changed dramatically. Much of it now happens online, and networking processes are proving to be complicated. Our approach is becoming more impersonal, lacking in human interaction, which means a lot for the kind of work that we do. This makes the work of CSOs very difficult, because it is based on real-time contact. Since we are missing that, we have had to create new ways of working.
The main challenge we are currently facing is keeping in contact with the most vulnerable of migrants. Solidarity Now offers a variety of social services, but as a result of the pandemic we have had to go under lockdown and shut down our offices. Keeping in contact was already a challenge for us due to obstacles such as language barriers, and right now keeping the connection alive and vibrant and ensuring follow-up has become even more difficult. In my role at Solidarity Now, I work a lot in coordination with other CSOs and attempts to host impactful discussions online have been frustrating, as we have not been able to discuss issues at length and exchange ideas fluidly.
How has the situation of refugees evolved?
The number of arrivals had been going down for some time, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic they have gone down sharply. But this doesn’t mean that our work is done. Lack of services and the absence of an effective COVID-19 response remain a challenge. We are currently discussing vaccinations for refugees and migrants and there are a lot of questions and issues within this process. Early in the discussion around vaccines, accommodation centres were considered emergency zones and were therefore granted priority access to vaccines. Unfortunately, this is not how the situation eventually unfolded, and refugees and migrants are now considered part of the general population. There are no systems of support in place for when this process begins. Many refugees and migrants do not have a social security number, which is required to receive the vaccine. In 2019, the Greek government stopped providing social security numbers to asylum seekers and consequently, it is not clear if and how the Greek authorities will include them into the COVID-19 vaccine programme. Although the state is now providing them a temporary number, problems persist.
How much solidarity towards refugees do you sense among the Greek population?
At the early stages of the influx of migrants in 2016, the people of Lesbos were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, Lesbos is showing signs of intense segregation, similar to the kind of segregation seen in the US south in the 1960s. Lesbos has unfortunately turned into a racially and socially segregated island, a far cry from its previous reputation. As a country and at a political level we have not analysed this breakdown in humanity. The Greek government has often acted independently without consulting local inhabitants. It does not engage with mayors and local authorities, yet the local authorities have gone beyond their jurisdiction because the national state has been absent in action.
The migrants’ protests in Moria Camp and the lack of policy has definitely affected conversations on integration in a very negative way. The events of March 2020 at the land border of Evros, where Turkey drove thousands of refugees to the border with Greece, brought negative sentiments that this was an ‘invasion’ or a ‘hybrid war’, and Greece was referred to as the ‘Shield of the European Union’. While Solidarity Now is not present on the islands or at the land borders, we have had to manage the effects of this event. We are acting together with other CSOs to denounce what is happening at the borders, the pushbacks and the violence on the islands.
The new Pact on Migration and Asylum that has been proposed by the European Commission is simply the institutionalisation of the policy of hotspots, pushbacks, deterrence and closure of accommodation centres. It is widely believed that the management of migration from 2015 onwards has been a successful one; however, such policies highlight the failure of the EU in its approach towards migration policy. On the other hand, there are some positive elements, such as the launch of discussions on legal migration through talent and access to the labour market. But more importantly, we are finally putting the concept of ‘legal migration’ in debate and this is good place to start.
What are the current targets of your advocacy efforts, and what are your main asks?
The main challenge that we face after five years of this migration reality is integration. The main question is how we are going to implement a concise, complete and logical integration policy on the basis of a reasonable migration and refugee policy. We need a change in the narrative and in the way in which politicians deal with migration, and not only in Greece, but also in Europe and on a global scale. As an example, the USA is repealing Trump-era migration policies, which is somewhat reassuring and the beginning of a change that will hopefully bring back some policies that the Trump administration stopped altogether. We need this type of change.
Acknowledging the fact that we need a more robust integration policy is key in changing other policy areas. This would help us answer the questions of what migration is, what it means, what the role is of migration in human history and how it can be helpful within our countries. Greece is a country of 10 million people, with a diasporic population of approximately another 10 million. Migration is part of the human fabric and this is a reality that we need to accept.
What kind of support do Solidarity Now and other CSOs need from international civil society to continue doing their work?
In the current state of affairs, there is a very important process happening within the EU as the long-term EU budget 2021-2027 and the recovery package from COVID-19 are coming into play. There is wide financing to plan efficiently and use wisely. However, Greece needs to begin to work towards a migration policy and active integration and move away from small-scale projects and limited programmes. There is a necessity to incorporate the Greek state, every ministry and the local authorities into the formulation of a national policy in order to use this vital funding effectively.
For the first time, the EU’s 2021-2027 integration strategy has the same timeframe as the budget, therefore the time is right for the state to produce a plan, a strategy and a policy. But most importantly, it should allow civil society to come on board, providing us the space to propose strategic plans and allowing us access to funding. In the event that this does not happen, we will find ourselves participating in numerous consortiums and programmes as we have in the past, where we will lose vital time and resources and we will still not have the national migration policy support. A deep discussion needs to occur regarding planning and strategic processes, linking various political assessments, strategic analyses and policy proposals and decisions.
Since migration is not a part of wider EU policy, the EU states that migration is a matter of national competency. Tools, guidelines and potential strategies are provided to implement a country’s policy; however, how this is implemented is entirely up to each member state. A solution to this would be for civil society to put pressure on the EU to link policy to funding; that way, it would be required from member states to have a national migration policy in order to access this funding.
The current 2021-2027 budget framework also states that member states are obliged to include civil society in their discussions on funding opportunities; civil society must take part in the planning. It is very important to create networks bringing civil society together, as strong numbers could influence policymaking. We also need to be aware of changes in funding opportunities and funding instruments for CSOs. In Greece we are seeing the consequences of such changes, as funding shifts are affecting not just the roles of CSOs but also their very existence. Hostile policies are obstructing the capacity of CSOs to act. Networks that strengthen connections among CSOs and led by big players can make the difference.
As of now, it is unclear how the process will be coordinated and how this will affect the outcomes. There are other actions that could be implemented to mount pressure on governments. Unfortunately, however, the EU cannot interfere with national affairs. This is why there is lobbying against migration in countries such as Hungary and Poland, where the discourse around migration has become highly politicised, with migrants being increasingly scapegoated and intense anti-migration discourse leading to very inhumane policies. It is time for us to reflect on the direction we want to take over the next couple of years, and most importantly, on the kind of Greece and EU that we want. This is a very complicated and delicate conversation; we need space for discussion, and we need to be brave and strong to maintain the pressure on the EU and keep the discussion alive.
Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.