Why the EU’s flagship refugee program in Greece faces an uncertain future

ATHENS — In August, the European Commission announced a 209 million euro ($245 million) emergency support package to provide cash assistance and rental housing for refugees in Greece. Pegged as a “game changer” by the Commission’s head of humanitarian aid, Christos Stylianides, the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation package came in part as a response to strong criticism over living conditions in Greek refugee camps.

“The aim of these new projects is to get refugees out of the camps and into everyday accommodation, and help them have more secure and normal lives,” Stylianides said at the time.

With ESTIA — “home” in Greek — the EU’s humanitarian arm intended to mainstream its funding into core services that will be transferred to local authorities at the end of this year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was chosen as the sole contractor, with local and international organizations implementing the programs on the ground.

Cash assistance and alternatives to camp-based accommodation are increasingly seen as affording refugees greater dignity and better opportunities for integration, and ESTIA has done well in meeting its targets. As of November 2017, 36,135 households were receiving cash assistance — representing all eligible asylum seekers and refugees, according to UNHCR — and 18,927 accommodation places had been created, of the 22,000 targeted.

But while ESTIA-funded programs have improved the lives of their beneficiaries significantly, many asylum seekers are still being left out due to persistent backlogs that are hampering its sustainability, and stringent eligibility criteria that fail to accommodate the specificities of the refugee population in Greece, several civil society organizations told Devex.

Now, as it heads towards the planned transition to public authorities in January 2019, insiders claim that a lack of long-term political strategy for refugee assistance in Greece means the European Commission’s flagship program is missing one of its core objectives: To help asylum seekers and refugees secure a stable future in the country.

The evolution of cash assistance in Greece

Cash allowances were first introduced in Greece by Mercy Corps at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, and were soon followed by other organizations, each using their own databases, eligibility criteria and payment systems. This meant refugees had to register with a different organization and switch cards used for monthly electronic payments whenever they moved to different locations — from the camps on Greek islands to government-provided sites (often military barracks or other public buildings) on the mainland, or from these sites to cities and towns. Cash providers were issuing payments at different dates and in different amounts, causing a perception of unfairness among refugees.

Implementing organizations started coordinating their efforts to share best practices and provide a more unified response. This led to the creation of the Greece Cash Alliance, a partnership between UNHCR and five INGOs for cash assistance. Its members now all use the same payment card, with one service provider — Prepaid Financial Services, in partnership with Mastercard — and a single database. They have established help desks on refugee-hosting sites, as well as a helpline. All recipients receive a standardized amount — between 90 euros ($106) and 550 euros ($649) per month, depending on family size, in alignment with the Greek welfare system.

Difficult transition

UNHCR and its partners must contend with a daunting deadline. ESTIA is set to end a year from now, with plans to hand over the cash and housing programs to Greek authorities by January 2019. “From the start, this [program] needed to make quite a rapid journey from traditional humanitarian assistance to a bureaucratic social welfare program,” said Alan Glasgow, director of Mercy Corps’ migration response in Greece, about cash assistance.

The modalities of this transition — whether ESTIA will be absorbed by the Greek social welfare system; which ministry will take over; and whether the programs will continue to be funded by the EU — are under discussion between UNHCR, its implementing partners, ECHO, and the Greek authorities, according to Kate Washington, UNHCR’s senior interagency coordination officer in Greece. Sources speaking to Devex informally said communications from the Greek government over its strategy were sparse, and the transition was a highly sensitive topic of discussion. A combination of short funding cycles and difficult communications with the Greek government has hampered the ability of NGOs to meet the challenges of a diffuse caseload and sustain the program at scale.

Humanitarian actors insist the ingredients are there for a smooth transition to take place: A small caseload of around 35,000 beneficiaries at current levels; streamlined processes and methodologies that can be passed on to local authorities; and a strong local civil society that already works in close partnership with international NGOs.

What’s missing, they say, is a political framework. “We strongly believe that as international humanitarian actors, we came here on a temporary basis in an emergency moment, and that there has to be a clear exit transition plan,” said Aleksandra Godziejewska. “Working with local partners is one of those strategies to ensure for sustainability, but of course those local partners would need to have access to national sources of funding to be able to continue.”

The uncertainty over the future of the program is leaving implementing organizations with no information to communicate to refugees about the type of assistance they will receive a year from now. Already, beneficiaries whose application for asylum has been approved, and who should therefore become ineligible for ESTIA-funded cash and housing assistance, are being kept on the programs indefinitely, several sources told Devex.

For a successful transition, the government needs to find a long-term strategy for refugee assistance and a clear policy for integration, they said. Without it, it is unable to take over from the humanitarian system and meet the needs of its refugees.

Published by: devex (30 January 2018)
Written by: Flavie Halais


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