Thousands of migrants face homelessness amid Greece's relocation scheme

Abdelkader Rahmoun (R), a 44-year-old Syrian and his family sit in their apartment provided by NGO's through EU programs, at a working-class district in Piraeus near Athens on May 29, 2020. (AFP Photo)

Abdelkader Rahmoun hasn't slept in days.

The 44-year-old Syrian and his family are among thousands of recognized refugees about to lose the temporary homes they were given under 's asylum seeker housing scheme.

As of Monday, authorities will start moving more than 11,200 people out of flats, hotels and camps on the mainland, to make room for other asylum seekers currently living in dismal island camps.

Rahmoun's family has been given until the end of June to vacate his small EU-funded flat in the port of Piraeus. But he has little confidence that they will find alternative accommodation by then.

"We risk finding ourselves on the street," the haggard former taxi driver and father of two told AFP.

Greek officials say housing must be secured for other vulnerable asylum seekers on the islands, many of whom "sleep under trees," Manos Logothetis, the migration ministry's asylum secretary, said earlier this week.

The migration ministry says the ESTIA accommodation system, managed by the U.N. agency UNHCR, is designed for asylum seekers.

Once they become full-fledged refugees they have the right to apply for Greek tax and social insurance numbers, and should, therefore, find jobs, the ministry says.

Refugee support groups note that although this is technically true, in reality, applicants face insurmountable difficulties.

The country was recovering from a decade-long debt crisis and jobs were already scarce before the coronavirus pandemic, which is expected to bring additional layoffs.

Refugees with precarious incomes also face reluctance from Greek landlords when they seek to rent lodgings on their own.

"UNHCR is seriously concerned about thousands of recognized refugees expected to leave Greece's reception system from the end of May," Boris Cheshirkov, UNHCR spokesman in Greece, told AFP.

"Recognised refugees are expected to leave assistance but they do not have effective access to social benefits and support," he said, adding that the language barrier is a further impediment.

The International Organization for Migration runs a separate integration program, HELIOS, that offers language courses, help with job-hunting and accommodation support.

But at most the scheme can assist only 3,500 people at a time.

As he is now expected to fend for himself, Rahmoun says his monthly benefit of 400 euros ($440) will also be cut.

The family from Idlib changed homes several times to protect themselves from bombardment during 's civil war, before eventually fleeing the country.

Now, after "struggling to survive" for the past decade, they must "start from zero again", Rahmoun said.

Several neighbors in the block of flats where Rahmoun's family lives face a similar predicament.

Out of 10 families in the building, six have been told they must leave in June.

'This is cruelty'

One family from Iraq includes a father in a wheelchair and a five-year-old girl who requires assisted feeding through a gastric tube.

"We have a disabled father and sister. How could the Greek government be throwing us out into the street? This is cruelty," says the family's eldest son Mustafa.

Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has said the housing transfer process had been due to start in April but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Refugees used to be able to keep their accommodation for up to six months after receiving protected status.

The new conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has reduced this period to just a month.

Officials have repeatedly said Greece must become a less attractive destination for asylum seekers.

"Accommodation and benefits for those granted asylum will be interrupted... From then on, they will have to work for a living. This makes our country a less attractive destination for migration flows," Mitarachi said in March.

The government also has political considerations. The continued presence of more than 32,000 asylum seekers on the islands - over five times the intended capacity of shelters there - has caused major friction with local communities who demand their immediate removal.

An operation in February to build new camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios had to be abandoned amid violent protests.

Rights groups have repeatedly criticized unhygienic and unsafe living conditions in existing camps.

The latest humanitarian crisis in Idlib, caused by Assad's attacks on civilian-populated areas, has forced nearly a million people to move near the Turkish border for refuge. The renewed attacks risked another wave of migration to Turkey, which already hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot take in any more.

In response to the lack of humanitarian and financial aid from the international community and the attack on Turkish soldiers, Ankara began allowing refugees to migrate toward Europe through land borders.

Thousands of migrants had camped at Turkey's border with Greece after Ankara declared in late February that it would no longer stop them from going to Europe, accusing the EU of not upholding its part of a 2016 refugee deal.

Turkey's decision to open the border came after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed by forces of the Bashar Assad regime in Idlib, northwestern Syria. Turkish soldiers had been stationed in the area to protect local civilians as part of a 2018 deal with Russia forbidding acts of aggression within a certain delineation.

Turkey has also condemned Greece for its harsh reaction to the influx of people at its border, including physical attacks, spraying tear gas and killing several people who attempted to cross to Greece from Turkey.

Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants seeking to cross into Europe to start new lives, especially those fleeing war and persecution.

Greece's response to migrants trying to enter the country without prior authorization has been harsh, with at least three killed by Greek security forces and many others battered and tear-gassed.

Many have been camping near the Turkish side of the border, despite Greece's insistence that its border is closed. Greece has drawn widespread criticism for using excessive force, including firing water cannons and tear gas to repel incoming migrants.

The Human Rights Watch urged Greece and the EU to respect human rights in light of Turkey's new policy of refusing to halt migrants and refugees trying to leave for Greece. The international human rights group also criticized a decision by Athens to suspend new asylum applications until April and summarily deport those arriving in last month's surge. Also, inhumane conditions in Greece's refugee camps have been another point of heavy criticism.

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