“The Cities Grow project has proven very useful for the municipality of Athens in the current context of the refugee situation. Pairing up with the city of Munich as mentor was a great opportunity for our services as it has allowed us to collaborate with an administration that has been dealing with issues of access to labor market foe many years. In the same time it gave our services the opportunity to test ideas and proposals. Overall a very interesting and exciting process”, the Vice Mayor of Migrants and Refugees, Lefteris Papagiannakis, said.What is the 'Cities Grow' project

Led by the EUROCITIES Network, the Cities Grow project, which is funded by the European Commission through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), aims to enhance mutual learning between cities and to improve the implementation of migration policies through concrete actions to facilitate the integration of migrants and refugees.

Athens as an implementing city and Munich as a mentor city, are two of the project’s 16 partner cities paired up in the following thematic clusters to enable mutual learning: matching buyers and suppliers - access to public and private contracts for immigrant entrepreneurs, engaging with businesses, local employment agencies, and local educational institutions, services to support migrant entrepreneurs and anti-discrimination strategies on local job markets.

In Athens, the initiative is coordinated by the Office of the Vice Mayor for Migrants and Refugees. The Cities Grow project team is composed of Feyrouz Lajili-Djala from Eurocities, Regina Ober and Maria Prem from the City of Munich Municipality social service, Panagiotis Psathas - Head of Department for the support and social inclusion of Migrants and Refugees / City of Athens’ Directorate of Social Solidarity & Health, Marigo Charmoviti from the same Department and Ceri Hutton facilitator of this group from the MigrationWork CIC in the UK.

The Athens meeting was a follow-up to a study visit in Munich in October 2017 by City of Athens’ representatives, where they had the opportunity to be informed about the Reception and Social Inclusion system implemented in Munich.

Coordination Mechanisms are an internationally recognized good practice

"This (Action Plan) is a living document which will be continuously adapted and updated, to respond to the needs of the changing population of migrants and refugees in our city", explained the Vice Mayor of Migrants and Refugees.

The framework for the action plan was formulated on the back of a series of meetings with the relevant municipal bodies, as well as a focus group on employability with the participation of ACCMR Livelihoods and Economic Empowerment Committee members. The Livelihoods Committee is coordinated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The plan was presented on 10 May at the Athens City Hall, in the presence of Athanasios Vitsentzatos (Director of the Social Integration Department for the Ministry of Migration Policy), who highlighted the need to decentralize integration policies and encourage distribution of refugee population throughout Greek municipalities.

Ceri Hutton, facilitator of the procedure and representative of Migration Work CIC, stressed out the importance of coordination mechanisms in labour market integration of refugees. "Coordination mechanisms between public and civil society sector, such as the ACCMR, are an internationally recognized practice that can bring together organizations and encourage cooperation and data exchange", said.

One of the recommendations of the action plan to the City of Athens is for ACCMR to become an organic part of the municipality through its integration into the municipality organigram of services. This inclusion would promote knowledge exchange, ensure the engagement of civil society and the private sector stakeholders in decision-making, while enhancing cooperation on projects of mutual interest, such as research into labor market needs.

Education and vocational training are key to integration

Education and training have been identified as the most important factors for integration – however a number of factors in Greece can complicate the implementation of related policies.

Some of these factors are the challenging climate in terms of refugee skills as well as labour market opportunities available at times of crisis. In addition, there are motivational and psychological challenges presented, as the majority of refugees regard Greece as a transit country. An additional factor is the fact that those refugees that remain in Greece are generally more vulnerable, less skilled and – as such – more exposed to labour market exploitation due to lack of education, psychological trauma and language barriers. On the other hand, there is a particular window of opportunity for the development of services through partnerships with international foundations, NGOs and private donors.

In this context, the City of Athens Migrant Integration Center has a role in providing much-needed assistance to refugees and migrants to navigate the public administration system and integrate into Greek society, also by developing assessment procedures for beneficiaries and providing employability training.

“Education is the most important thing for 17-23 year olds which can ensure social cohesion. The City of Munich is adapting the range of integration services such as language learning and vocational training, depending on the intention of people to stay and the awareness of their situation", explains Regina Ober, representative for the City of Munich, adding that the active participation of migrants in the local community through volunteering, increases the chances of entering the labor market and improves society’s view on refugees.

The role of employers’ engagement was also highlighted. Significant steps need to be taken to increase companies and employers' engagement as well as to systematically monitor and gather data on both the labour market needs and the needs of refugees and migrants. Additionally, the need to engage refugees and migrants in the consultation process for the formulation of future integration initiatives was also noted.

The document will take its final form by mid-July. In November the document will be presented in Milan at the closure event of the Cities Grow project along with the projects of the other 7 city pairs. The final goal is to implement selected aspects of the project in the upcoming period.

* During the Athens Study Visit, the ‘Cities Grow’ team met with the Vice Mayor for Social Solidarity, Welfare and Equality, Ms. Maria Stratigaki, the Vice Mayor for Civil Society and Innovation Ms.Amalia Zepou, representatives of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR) and of the Accommodation and Services Scheme for Asylum Seekers implemented through the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency (ADDMA) in cooperation with UNHCR.