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Refugees in limbo


Greece is currently hosting approximately 50,000 refugees. The majority will stay there. The International Rescue Committee ensures refugees know their rights, have the psychosocial support they need and provides livelihood-skills training so that they can start to rebuild their lives.

Country facts
  • Population: 11 million
  • Refugee population in Greece: 50,000+, of which about 38,000 are on the mainland and 11,000 on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. Over half are women and children, while more than 3,000 are children traveling alone
  • Rank in Human Development Index: 29 of 188
IRC response
  • Started work in Greece: July 2015
  • People assisted: over 30,000

Greece crisis briefing

The context in Greece has changed considerably over the past three years. Where once people were using Greece as a highway to Europe, Greece has now become a holding pen. The majority of the approximately 50,000 refugees in Greece will most probably stay in Greece. Robust integration programming is key to ensure that they have the best chance to build successful lives there, something that is challenging in any context but exacerbated in a country which is still struggling to find its feet after the financial crisis of 2015.

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What caused the crisis in Greece?

This is not a humanitarian crisis, it is a political one. The European Union was founded on a commitment to international law and human rights which has driven its policies for 60 years. However, policies that are currently being put in place to prevent people from entering Europe risk whittling away humanitarian rights and standards for the world’s most vulnerable. They also mean that Greece, along with Italy, is being asked to carry the bulk of the responsibility for the lives of those who do make it to Europe in search of safety.

Two years since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal on March 20, 2016, thousands of refugees—the majority of whom are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan—remain stuck in facilities on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. Many are forced to live in overcrowded and dangerous conditions which do not meet humanitarian standards, as they wait for months or more for their asylum cases to be heard. The asylum process is poorly staffed, resulting in prolonged delays and contributing to dangerous overcrowding.

An additional 38,000 people are living on the mainland, the majority of whom are living in urban settings. They carry the trauma of war and are in need of all of the support this implies. Countries across the European Union need to shoulder some of the responsibility for those who continue to arrive on Europe’s shores. Countries like Greece and Italy cannot be expected to carry this responsibility on their own.

What are the main challenges in Greece?

The majority of refugees being hosted on the Greek mainland are living in urban settings and they need to find a way to sustain themselves and their families. Greece is a country still struggling to find its feet after the financial crisis of 2015.

As of January 2018, over 43% of Greek youth is unemployed. The overall unemployment rate is 20.8%. Robust integration programming is needed to ensure that asylum seekers can start to rebuild their lives and build bridges into the communities they currently call home, programming that can also benefit these local communities.

Refugees have been traumatised by the conflicts they seek to escape. In Greece, they endure the added stress of uncertainty and constant waiting. They need mental-health counselling and other psychological support.

Refugees also need reliable information about their prospects and available asylum services. Women, many travelling alone with children, need protection from sexual violence and trafficking. Children need support to heal from trauma. Unaccompanied children, many waiting to reunite with family already in other countries in Europe, fall victim to exploitation.


How does the IRC help in Greece?

Economic recovery and development

Refugees are people with potential. They want to contribute to the communities in which they live and to be able to live self-sufficient lives. The IRC knows from over 80 years’ experience assisting refugees, including four decades resettling refugees in the United States, that access to the workforce is key to successful integration. We are focused on livelihoods programming to support the integration of refugees into Greece. We work with local partners to implement self-employment and employment readiness programs which target both refugees and the local community.

Information, Protection and Psychological Support

The IRC provides refugees in Greece—whether they are on the move, in camps, or in urban settings—with credible, up-to-date information about available services, legal rights, options for asylum, relocation and family reunification. One way we do this is through Refugee.Info, a mobile-phone-friendly website available in Arabic, Farsi, French and English. Refugee.Info content is also available through an interactive Facebook platform.

The IRC supports unaccompanied and separated children directly through Safe Zones in two camps on the Greek mainland and provides case management services to other vulnerable children in three camps. Safe Zones provide unaccompanied children with a safe alternative to residing in police detention until they are reunified with family, or placed in shelters or foster care.

IRC is collaborating with Greece’s Ministry of Migration Policy and local and international NGOs to address gender-based violence among women and girls and to meet the mental health and psycho-social needs of refugees and asylum seekers. These services are provided in Athens, Thessaloniki and four camps on the mainland through direct counselling and outreach. The IRC is also responding to the mental health needs of asylum seekers in overcrowded first reception centres on Lesvos and on Chios, where refugees and asylum seekers are trapped in poor conditions, feeling hopeless for their futures and still experiencing violence even after their harrowing journey to escape it.  

Environmental health

When the need was there, the IRC provided much-needed water, sanitation and hygiene services to three refugee camps in northern Greece, two camps in the Athens area, and on Lesbos to ensure that people have what they need to stay healthy and live in dignity. In Eleonas and Kara Tepe camps, we continue to provide access to drinking water, toilets, hot showers, laundry facilities and supplies like soap, shampoo and toothpaste. We also teach basic hygiene techniques that can help prevent the spread of disease, and we ensure that trash and recyclable items are regularly collected.



What still needs to be done?

As more and more refugees are transferred from camps to apartments in Greece's towns and cities, the IRC is continuing to adapt our response, making sure that they can meet their basic needs, are protected from exploitation and violence, and can build a better future for their families. As the majority of refugees in Greece will likely settle in the country in the long-term, we also work with local partners to ensure that local refugees are integrated into their new communities.

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