“Cities Network for Integration” convenes in Athens City Hall: 12 municipalities join forces to promote the smooth integration of refugees into local communities

On Monday, November 5, the City of Athens invited representatives from 12 municipalities in Greece to Athens City Hall to set common targets for refugee integration into local communities, as well as share experiences and best practices.

The meeting was the first of many for the “Cities Network for Integration”, an initiative of the Cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, which brings together 12 municipalities across Greece. Participating municipalities are the following: Athens, Agios Dimitrios, Heraklion, Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Karditsa, Larissa, Livadia, Nea Filadelfeia, Piraeus, Trikala and Tripoli.

Speaking on the importance of the initiative, the Mayor of Athens, Georgios Kaminis, remarked: “Cities are the guardians of Europe’s reputation when it comes to the refugee crisis.  From day one, we have tried to fill the gaps left by the central administration, to uphold international obligations, and ensure human rights and dignity in our city. We assumed responsibility and we coordinated with non-governmental organizations in cooperation with the United Nations. By establishing the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR), we aim to focus on social integration of refugees into city’s life“.

The Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, said: “It is time for all of us, and especially the local government, to realize that tackling the refugee issue requires much more than just than implementing emergency funding programs. There is an urgent need for a Reception Strategy, but most importantly, for a plan that promotes the integration of refugees into the social life of cities. While central government is reluctant to take action, municipalities have to step up and act. This is why our approach – which has already garnered international acclaim – is so unique; it is not only about dealing with emergency, but about embracing diversity”. 

37 municipality representatives, including Mayors, Vice Mayors, and Municipal Working Teams, attended the event and sought to define actions at political and technical level. 

During his welcome speech, Lefteris Papayiannakis, Athens Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs, pointed out: “We are particularly pleased that the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ establishes a framework for sharing valuable experiences among municipalities, and working together in order to shape social inclusion tools and policies. It is up to all of us to prove that the capacity of local governments is remarkable.

The “Cities Network for Integration” was established in January 2018  on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding between the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki. The MoU paves the way for a common cooperation framework between CNI members in the fields of know-how exchange, capacity building, promotion of good practices, joint policy-making at European, regional and local level, fundraising and programming. The Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR) is currently implementing the first phase of actions under the CNI, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) with the support of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

IRC’s Hellas Country Director, Jana Frey, says: “IRC is very pleased to assist the Municipality of Athens since 2016 in their efforts towards integration of refugees and migrants sharing its 40 years expertise from the US and recently from Europe. It is very encouraging that local authorities in Greece are showing the way by creating the Cities Network for Integration and prioritizing integration.The IRC is here to support this vital effort.”

The way forward

More than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently live in Attica and more than 7,500 people live in municipalities across Greece as a part of the ESTIA Accommodation Program for asylum seekers.

Given the gradual allocation of housing responsibilities to local actors and the consequent need to link a national refugee integration strategy with corresponding local strategic plans, the initiative seeks to contribute positively to the planning and sustainability of relevant interventions. More specifically, since the initiative’s inception, 17 bilateral meetings have been held to map the needs of each municipality and collect data for defining a plan of action. 

The access of refugees to the labour market and to secondary education as well as the capacity building of local government on the provision of services to migrants and refugees, are CNI’s top priorities. 

The outcomes of the meeting will be used as the basis for future talks at the central and regional level.

Mayors Embrace Cities Network for Integration (CNI)

Vasilis Labrinos, Mayor of Heraklion

Thanks to the Mayors of Crete, the Regional Union of the Municipalities of Crete, UNHCR, and the Development Agency of Heraklion, we have managed to host 535 of Crete’s total 807 refugees. We are proud to see happy families of refugees walking around the city, children going to school, building friendships, and enjoying life. We look forward to seeing the benefits that the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ will bring, as we strongly believe that through dialogue and cooperation, we can not only serve as a positive example, but also enhance our effort.

Thomas Begas, Mayor of Ioannina

We all know that the so-called ‘refugee issue’ has caught everyone completely off guard. Municipalities were disproportionally called upon for resources. But we took responsibility, and we did so successfully. The ‘Cities Network for Integration’ serves as a catalyst for cooperation. I believe that, through the experience that we now have, we are ready to focus more on the smooth integration of refugees into local communities.”

Fotis Alexakos, Mayor of Karditsa

The Municipality of Karditsa has been implementing the ‘ESTIA Accommodation’ program since August 2017, in collaboration with the Development Agency of Karditsa.Today, 240 beneficiaries reside in 40 fully equipped apartments; by the end of 2018, Karditsa will add 10 units. Since the beginning of the program, an Integration Strategy has been considered as a necessary next step. The City of Karditsa participates in CNI because we believe that the exchange of information, experiences and good practices, as well as the development of a common plan for integration, is a win-win solution for all.

Apostolos Kalogiannis, Mayor of Larissa

Since the very beginning, the Municipality of Larissa has been a partner of the refugee accommodation program.Today, an estimated 400 refugees are hosted in apartments in the city of Larissa, and on the edge of the town there is a refugee camp hosting 1,500 people. Our experience from implementing this program is extremely positive, and the local community  strongly supports the effort. Our Municipality, through its participation in the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ continues with the same degree of excitement, to do what for us is self-explanatory: focusing our attention to all those in need, both locals and refugees.”

Giota Poulou, Mayor of Livadia

The local government, the closest institution to citizens, plays a central role in strategy planning and management related to migrant and refugee issues. The ‘Cities Network for Integration’ is an important initiative envisioned by local governors – characterized by humanity and solidarity – who apply a different approach  and prove that the municipalities can successfully respond.

Aris Vasilopoulos, Mayor of New Philadelphia Attica

Local governments should make a decisive contribution to the development of policies for the reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees. We have embarked on a constructive dialogue on an  issue that concerns us all. United, we can respond to the challenges of our times.

Yannis Moralis, Mayor of Piraeus

One million refugees have passed through Piraeus since 2015. In 2016, 5,000 of them lived in a refugee camp in the Piraeus harbour with the support of the local community and the Municipality. The City of Piraeus undertook the management of 50 apartments for refugees in cooperation with UNHCR while at the same time is upgrading the role of the Refugee Integration Council. We will continue to enrich the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ and the Municipality of Piraeus’ response.

Dimitris Papastergiou, Mayor of Trikala

Local government is working with citizens to stand in solidarity with refugees. Organizing various initiatives, developing networks,  promoting volunteering and strengthening cooperation between local government and the central administration, are some of the means of support. Refugee accommodation has been prioritized. Respect for humanity is paramount for Greek cities. Our active participation in the ‘Cities Network for the Integration’ strengthens our journey towards a more equitable, fair, and peaceful society, without social exclusion.” 

Dimitris Pavlis, Mayor of Tripoli

We are proud of our Municipality’s decision to participate in the ESTIA accommodation program. We encourage inland municipalities to coordinate and submit proposals. Throughout this process, the UNHCR’s expertise and the work of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues are valuable. ‘Cities Network for Integration’  is called to prove that local governments know how to cooperate and succeed.