From 9-12 July, Thessaloniki hosted a delegation from Amsterdam and Zurich, as part of a mentoring visit organised by EUROCITIES and Migration Work.
The mentoring visit focused on the city’s plan to create an overarching integration strategy and was prepared in the context of the Solidarity Cities Initiative with support from the Open Society Education Support Programme.
Much like Athens, Thessaloniki is committed to making integration a positive experience for refugees and the host society. Yiannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki, met with the delegation on 10 July to reaffirm the city’s openness and its commitment to transforming its services and institutions. The deputy mayor for education and sports, Giorgios Dimarelos and the councillor in charge of refugee policies Sofia Aslanidou also met the delegation.
With no mandate to provide formal education Thessaloniki decided to focus its efforts on informal education for asylum seekers and refugees. The refugee camps surrounding the city will close soon and the asylum seekers are expected to live in the city. This will increase pressure on schools and informal education services, especially as most international donors plan to phase out their funding by the end of 2018. Since its creation in 2014, Greek cities have not received any funding from the EU Asylum Migration & Integration Fund, which is managed by the Greek government. Thessaloniki relies on the overwhelming support of civil society organisations, volunteers and private donors to sustain its efforts.
The delegation met with several Greek and international actors providing informal education in camps and in the city. Most projects rely heavily on volunteers and international funding. There is little coordination between projects and this sometimes leads to overlaps and redundancies. This means the informal education projects are extremely heterogeneous, meaning quality and ease of access can differ greatly.
Part of the mentors’ recommendations were to provide intercultural training for volunteer teachers and to seize the opportunity presented by the ‘Open School’ programme, which just started with the support of a private foundation. Six of these ‘open schools’, a replica of the model used in Athens, are or will be operational in Thessaloniki in the near future. The programme aspires to transform municipal–owned public schools into sustainable centres for learning, culture and social services to benefit the local communities.
The city can also play the role of mediator and facilitator, by creating soft and hard mechanisms to coordinate NGO and volunteer initiatives. This will ensure better access to services, avoid overlap and guarantee knowledge transfer and retention. The city can also make sure problems are fed back by NGO workers, citizens and refugees to a centralised service managed by the city administration. The city will also explore alternative funding streams to prepare for the phasing out of major external donors.
These recommendations and many others will form the structure of a detailed action plan, which the city will work on in the coming weeks with the support of its two mentors Amsterdam and Zurich and of the EUROCITIES migration and integration working group.