Against all odds: The role of cities in refugee reception and integration in Greece


Despite lacking competences and financial resources, local authorities in Greece in the last three years have been at the forefront of developing almost everything that can be considered a good practice of refugee reception and integration in the country.  

Tihomir Sabchev


The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was famous for wandering around Athens with a lit lantern in full daylight. When locals noting his strange behavior were asking him what was he doing, he was replying “I am searching for an honest man”.  

As a researcher at “Cities of Refuge”, one of my tasks is to study the potential role of Greek cities in advancing human rights of forced migrants during the last years of refugee ‘crisis’. In other words, I was going to Greece, the country where the Moria hotspot is, to study the human rights of refugees. Moreover, I was going there to study the role of local governments, which have zero competence in issues of refugee reception and a very limited one in the field of refugee integration. As one can imagine, I left to Greece pretty confident that I was looking for something at the wrong place in the wrong time, just like Diogenes used to. However, I was wrong.

In the last three years, cities have been at the forefront of developing and implementing almost everything that can be considered today a good practice in refugee reception and integration in Greece. As early as the summer of 2015 Greek municipalities started, individually and collectively through their regional and national unions, to request that the central government take a more responsible stance in the management of refugee flows. Despite the lack of administrative competences and funding, local authorities repeatedly sent messages to the Greek government, expressing their willingness to collaborate and contribute to resolving problems and finding sustainable solutions. The elected representatives of local authorities in Greece reached a point, where they literally begged the competent Ministry of Migration Policy to develop a national plan for facing the issue. Their voice, however, remained largely unheard. It was only in the beginning of 2018 that the ministry started developing a new “National Strategy for Integration” in order to address the existing needs of the new refugee population. At present, more than three years after the summer of 2015, this strategy is still not publicly available.

But what happened in the meanwhile? Local governments throughout the country started proactively engaging with the issue of refugee reception and integration. In some cases, they took advantage of their limited space for discretion. In others, they clearly acted beyond the scope of their competences. Initially, local authorities developed a close collaboration with local NGOs that were already engaged with the issue, attempting to coordinate everyone’s efforts towards ensuring better conditions for the newcomers on the one hand and maintaining social cohesion on the other. Subsequently, they reached out to the international level, where they found new partners willing to assist them in realizing their intentions, both in terms of financial and administrative support. The result was the emergence of different local projects within the framework of the so-called ESTIA program, run by local authorities, funded by ECHO and implemented with the support of UNHCR. These projects provide accommodation in private apartments within urban areas, healthcare services, as well as social and legal support to the newcomers. In this way, living conditions in line with international human rights standards have been ensured for more than 20,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Greece.

Cities, however, did not stop there. In the beginning of 2018, a Memorandum of Understanding on the issue of refugee integration was signed between two of the forerunners: Athens and Thessaloniki. Since then 10 more municipalities hosting refugees through the abovementioned program joined the newly emerged coalition that took the name “Cities for Integration”. The network has already mapped the existing problems in all 12 participating municipalities and moves forward towards the creation of local strategic plans for the integration of refugees, addressing issues like labor market activation, education, legal assistance and training of local government personnel for the improved provision of services to migrants. In addition, the network is reaching out to other Greek cities hosting a refugee population, inviting them to adopt the Memorandum of Understanding and join the club.

Finally, what makes these developments truly unique in their significance is the fact that they took place in an institutional framework where local governments have no competences on the issue of refugee reception whatsoever, and only a limited competence in regards to integration. Moreover, they came about in a period of a severe economic crisis and austerity measures, which had led to the reduction of the budget of local governments in Greece by up to 70%. In these circumstances, it is worthwhile quoting what the mayor of Athens noted during the last meeting of the “Cities for Integration” network: "Cities are those who save the honor of Europe in the management of the refugee issue. Since day one, we struggled to fill the gaps of the central government, ensuring at the same time the proper functioning of our cities, human rights and the international obligations of our country".

In conclusion, searching for the potential of cities in advancing the human rights of refugees in Greece indeed seemed like a quest doomed to failure, pretty much reminiscent of the story of Diogenes who looked for an honest man in ancient Athens. Unexpectedly though, today I should rather end (or why not begin) with the most famous phrase of another ancient Greek who lived only a few decades after Diogenes – Eureka!