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. Organized by Athens’ Vice Mayor for Migrants and Refugees, Lefteris Papayannakis, participating municipalities include: Athens, St Demetrius Attica, Heraklion Crete, Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Karditsa, Larisa, Livadia, New Philadelphia Attica, Piraeus, Trikala and Tripoli.
Speaking to the importance of this issue, the Mayor of Athens, Georgios Kaminis, remarked: "Cities are the ones that safeguard Europe's honor when it comes to the refugee crisis; from day one, we have tried to fill gaps left by the central administration, to uphold international obligations, and ensure human rights and dignity in our city. We assumed responsibility, in cooperation with the United Nations, of coordination of non-governmental organizations active in refugee support. With the creation of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR), we aim to focus on social integration of refugees into city operation".
The Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, noted: "It is time for all of us, and especially local government, to realize, that tackling refugee issues requires much more than just the implementation of emergency funding programs. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive Reception Strategy and, more importantly, for one that promotes the integration of refugees into the social life of the city. If the central state is stalling, the municipalities who are experiencing this need 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, where they sought to definite initial political and technical actions.
While welcoming guests, Vice Mayor Lefteris Papayannakis, reflected: "We are particularly pleased that the ‘Cities Network for Integration’ creates the framework for municipalities who host refugee populations, to share valuable experiences, and to work together in order to shape social inclusion tools and policies in connection with the needs and priorities of each municipality. It is up to all of us to prove that the capabilities of local governments, in cooperation, are remarkable.”
The "Cities Network for Integration" was established in January 2018 with a Memorandum of Understanding between the municipalities of Athens and Thessaloniki. It acts as a forum for consultation, ideas exchange, partnerships, and the promotion of coordinated actions to develop policies for the social integration of refugees and immigrants into the life of cities. With founding support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and coordination by the Athens Partnership, the Athens Coordination Center for Migrant and Refugee issues (ACCMR) is currently implementing the first round of agreed upon actions in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and with the support of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).
Of this partnership, 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 and prioritizing integration in their respective locations. The IRC is here to support this vital effort.”
More than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers currently live in Attica and 7,500+ in cities in the rest of Greece as a part of the UN’s ESTIA housing program. 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, which were firmed into draft guidelines during this workshop.
These new plans aim to encourage the employment of refugees, contribute to reducing barriers to secondary education, implement training programs for local government on the provision of services to migrants and refugees, as well as strengthen legal support and information. These guidelines will be used as the basis for future talks at the central and regional level.
Mayors Embrace Cities Network for Integration
Vasilis Labrinos, Mayor of Heraklion
"Thanks to the Mayors of Crete, the Regional Union of the Municipalities of Crete, the 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, with young children going to school, building friendships, and enjoying life. We look forward to seeing the benefits the inclusion of Heraklion in the ‘Cities Network’ will bring, as we strongly believe that with dialogue and cooperation, we can not only serve as a positive example for others to follow, but also enhance our program to become even more successful."
Thomas Begas, Mayor of Ioannina
"We all know that the so-called ‘refugee issue’ has caught everyone off guard. And municipalities were disproportionally called upon for resources. But we took responsibility, and we did so successfully. The ‘Cities Network’ 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 City of Karditsa has been implementing the UN’s ‘ESTIA’ refugee housing program since August 2017, in collaboration with the Development Unit of Karditsa. Today, 240 beneficiaries reside in 40 fully equipped rental apartments; by the end of 2018, Kardista will add an additional 10 units. Since the start of the program, the Integration Strategy has been considered a necessary addition in the existing housing services that are offered by the ESTIA program. The City of Karditsa participates in the ‘Cities Network’ because we believe that the exchange of information, experiences and good practices, as well as the design of a common plan for integration, in collaboration and in dialogue with other cities is a win-win solution for all."
Apostolos Kalogiannis, Mayor of Larisa
"Since the very beginning, the City of Larisa has been an active participant in the refugee housing program. Today, an estimated 400 refugees are hosted in apartments in the city of Larisa, and right outside the city borders there is a refugee camp with an additional 1,500 people. Our experience from implementing this program is extremely positive, and the society of Larisa strongly supports every effort. Our Municipality, through its participation in the ‘Cities Network,’ continues with the same degree of excitement, to do what for us is self-explanatory: focusing our attention to all those in need, our compatriots and refugees."
Giota Poulou, Mayor of Livadia
"The local government, the closest institution to citizens, plays a central role in issues of strategy 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 to refugees, proving that the municipalities can respond successfully. The successful implementation of the ESTIA program by the Municipalities defines the framework that should be used by the National Plan for the Management of the refugee crisis."
Aris Vasilopoulos, Mayor of New Philadelphia Attica
"In the evolving refugee and immigration crisis, the Municipalities owe and can make a decisive contribution to a sustainable planning for asylum seekers and refugees in our cities, both for their arrival and integration. We have embarked on a constructive dialogue, as it is 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 our harbor 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 the UNHCR while at the same time 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 with refugees in solidarity through actions and initiatives, a network of development and support, volunteer support, and cooperation with institutions and the central administration. We have always prioritized refugee accommodation and we understand that respect for humanity is paramount to those of us in Trikala. Our active participation in the ‘Cities Network for the Integration’ strengthens our journey towards a more equitable, fair, and peaceful society, with no exceptions or conclusions."
Dimitris Pavlis, Mayor of Tripoli
"We are proud of our Municipality’s decision to participate in the UN’s ESTIA refugee housing program. As we look to implement the program, we encourage inland municipalities to coordinate and submit proposals to the government. Throughout this process, the UNHCR’s expertise and the work of the Athens Coordination Center for Migrants and Refugee issues are valuable. ‘Cities Network for Integration’ is called to prove that local governments know how to cooperate and succeed."