Thessaloniki expands its efforts to receive refugees and migrants

“Thessaloniki has been a crossroad of civilisations for many years, and a lot of its residents have a migrant background; it has been also a city of origin for many Greek migrants around the world,” says Eftychia Kivrakidou, Director of Administrative, Financial and HR Projects at ANATOLIKI SA.

Greece is one of Europe’s main gateways for migrants and refugees. The challenges for the reception of thousands and even millions of people seeking a better life in Europe or escaping a dire situation back home are numerous, and the municipality of Thessaloniki — together with the municipality of Delta, through ANATOLIKI SA, an organisation for local development — has been seeking solutions and sharing experiences.

“The migrants that arrived in the city in the 1990s have contributed to the local economy and played a significant role, mainly in the agricultural and the construction sector, while the recent refugee flows have also revived sectors of the local economy, mainly the housing sector (a number of the housing stock is used in accommodation schemes) but also in commerce since the beneficiaries of the relevant cash assistance programmes have been spending their money in the local market,” she adds.

This new reality has created challenges — and Thessaloniki has been moving to respond to them.

Main initiatives of Thessaloniki

REACT project

The Municipality of Thessaloniki participates as a lead partner of the corporate scheme entitled REACT (REfugee-Assistance-Collaboration-Thessaloniki), part of the programme ‘ESTIA: Rental accommodation scheme for asylum seekers’ that is funded by the EU and has been implemented in Greece since 2016, initially under the coordination of the UNHCR and since 2021 under the coordination of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.

Thessaloniki has been a crossroad of civilisations for many years.
— Eftychia Kivrakidou

The programme, explains Eleftheria Pita, Psychologist, Executive of the Office of Human Resources at ANATOLIKI SA, “provides temporary accommodation for asylum seekers; hence it mainly operates as a reception programme, but also provides support to facilitate smooth inclusion into the local community i.e. facilitates medical appointments and school enrolments, offers psychological support and accompaniment services, conducts referrals to other actors.”

“ANATOLIKI SA also participates in the REACT project, being responsible for 10 apartments, 54 places,” she adds. REACT also includes, as from 2016, Thessaloniki’s municipal project ‘Filoxenio: Asylum for Families of Asylum Seekers’ that aims to support the most vulnerable asylum seekers, such as people with severe health issues, pregnant women, etc.

The Centre for the Integration of Migrants has been annexed to the Community Centre of Thessaloniki Municipality for four years now. It provides information and specialised services while implementing integration activities to promote social cohesion and developing collaborations and networks for migrants and asylum seekers, and services and social integration programmes.

There, a social worker, a sociologist, a psychologist, a lawyer and three cultural mediators support newcomers to navigate the national welfare system, provide legal advice and psychological support. The staff also work as a bridge to other institutions, NGOs and state-funded programmes, as well as offering Greek lessons.

Thessaloniki has a Migrant and Refugee Integration Council consisting of 11 members — six municipal councillors and the rest are representatives of migrant and refugee associations — whose objectives are to “enhance the integration of migrants and refugees in the local community and to record the challenges third-country nationals residing in the municipality must deal with on issues related to integration,” explains Pita.

She notes that “the representatives, in their regular contact with the local or public authorities, will be able to make recommendations to the Municipal Council for the development of local actions that promote smooth inclusion. They will work to solve the problems third-country nationals face through the organisation of advisory services, in cooperation with the municipality and they will also conduct awareness events that promote social cohesion.”

Yet more Challenges

React goes to school

But despite Thessaloniki’s best efforts, there are still several challenges the city has to face and overcome.

Kivrakidou explains that “in general, public administration in Greece is managed centrally at a ministerial level, therefore, municipalities have little space in designing policies locally. This is the case when it comes to migration management.”

“The situation is even more difficult when it comes to asylum seekers’ reception since Greece had minimum experience in this field for the management of such a huge wave of immigrants. It’s worth mentioning that the country hadn’t even established an asylum service and until 2014 the police was the competent authority to grant international protection with recognition rates close to zero per cent.”

Municipalities have little space in designing policies locally.
— Eftychia Kivrakidou

As a result, “the municipalities were called to establish reception programmes from scratch and explore modalities to include asylum seekers and refugees in the existing social support structures.” Thessaloniki joined with NGOs and international organisations to be up for the task and. Pita notes that “given the circumstances, the City of Thessaloniki managed to respond to these new challenges quite successfully.”

CONNECTION and exchange of experiences

Thessaloniki has obtained some experience in migration management policies over the years, but, says Pita, “there are still gaps, especially in the field of integration in the labour market. Therefore, all exchanges around this issue that took place in the framework of CONNECTION are extremely useful for the municipality since unemployment or work exploitation of migrants and refugees remain challenges.”

Within the European-funded CONNECTION project, led by Eurocities, Thessaloniki was able to get familiar with good practices that other European cities have been using, such as “the Migrants’ Committee in Brussels, that has been established by the migrants themselves; the special classes for language learning and homework support in public schools for students with a migrant and refugee background in Turin and the open centres for recreational activities that NGOs run in the same city.”

Also, “it was very interesting to understand the use of the housing stock in other countries, that municipalities in collaboration with the Church and/or NGOs use for the establishment of reception, educational and employability structures for the most vulnerable locals as well as for migrants and refugees.”

Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer