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Refugees in limbo

Greece Crisis Watch

Greece currently hosts approximately 50,000 refugees, most of whom will remain in the country. The International Rescue Committee ensures these refugees understand their rights and provides them with job training, and psychosocial support so that they can rebuild their lives.

Greece reaches a breaking point

  • Thousands of people fleeing from violence and conflict are arriving in Greece after Turkey decided to open its borders.

  • There has been continued violence on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios, with asylum seekers and aid workers being targeted by local populations.

  • There are almost 40,000 people living in reception centers with space for only 6,000.

  • "It is shameful that people seeking safety and protection arrive on Europe’s shores only to be threatened by the European forces," said IRC director of policy and advocacy Imogen Sudbery.

  • The IRC calls for safe and legal routes for people seeking safety, and for Europe to rapidly scaling up resettlement of the most vulnerable refugees—starting with a commitment to resettle 250,000 by 2025.

Read our statement
Country facts
  • Population: 11 million
  • Refugee population in Greece: 50,000+, of whom 38,000 are on the mainland and 11,000 on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. Over half are women and children; more than 3,000 are 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

Five years ago, people fleeing violence in the Middle East and South and Central Asia viewed Greece as an entry point to Europe. Today, Greece has become something like a holding pen for people seeking asylum, with thousands stuck in reception centres on the islands living in squalid conditions. The 115,600-plus refugees in Greece can no longer legally travel deeper into Europe; most will likely remain in the country. Integration is key to ensuring that they build successful lives in what is their new home, a challenging task in any country but exacerbated in Greece because of its ongoing financial difficulties.

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What caused the crisis in Greece?

This is not a humanitarian crisis, but a political one. The European Union was founded on a commitment to international law and human rights that has driven policies for 60 years. Recently, however, the European Union adopted border restrictions and other edicts that have prevented people seeking sanctuary from entering Europe, putting the world’s most vulnerable increasingly at risk. The EU’s policies also mean that Greece, along with Italy, are being asked to shoulder much of the responsibility for the lives of those who have reached Europe in search of safety.

For instance, since the March 2016 agreement restricting border crossings, some 40,000 refugees—the majority from Afghanistan and Syria—remain stuck on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. Many are forced to live in overcrowded and dangerous conditions as they wait months for their asylum cases to be heard.

In addition, more than 74,000 refugees are living on the Greek mainland, the majority in urban settings. Most have been traumatised by war and require psychosocial support and counselling, medical aid and other humanitarian assistance. Greece and Italy cannot be expected to bear this responsibility on their own.

What are the main challenges in Greece?

Most refugees living in urban settings are unable to find work to support their families as Greece continues to struggle economically in the aftermath of the 2015 financial crisis. High unemployment rates have taken a toll on the local population as well. As of November 2019, 36 percent of Greek youth are unemployed. The overall unemployment rate is around 16 percent. A robust integration program is needed to ensure that local residents as well as asylum seekers benefit from assistance. Solutions and interventions must be coordinated with local and national efforts, emphasizing the important role host communities and governments play.

Refugee women, many traveling alone with children, need protection from sexual violence and trafficking. Children need support to heal from trauma. Unaccompanied children, many waiting to reunite with families relocated 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 lead self-sufficient lives and contribute to their new communities. With over 80 years’ experience assisting people fleeing conflict, including four decades resettling them in the United States, the IRC knows that access to the workforce is key to successful integration. In Greece, we provide livelihoods programming to support integration, and we are working with local partners to implement self-employment and employment readiness programmes for both refugees and local residents.

Women’s Protection 

The IRC is collaborating with civil society actors and key state insitutions in Greece to address violence against women and girls and to meet the mental health and psychosocial needs of all refugees and asylum seekers. The aim of the project is to strengthen Greek gender-based violence (GBV) services and to enhance the exchange of best practices and tools for GBV prevention across Europe. Since its launch, trainings have been offered to more than 180 GBV front-line service responders, such as police officers, midwives, psychologists from government institutions, municipalities, hospitals and NGOs.

Child Protection

In August 2019, the IRC launched a new child protection programme aiming at supporting unaccompanied children - 16 years old and above - to become self-reliant and transition to adulthood smoothly. The IRC supports 20 adolescents through semi-independent accommodation, individual and group psychosocial support, legal counselling, non-formal education, recreational activities and skill-building activities. 

Mental health

The IRC is also responding to the mental health needs of asylum seekers in overcrowded reception centers on the islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios. Our teams offer comprehensive mental health and psychosocial support on the Greek islands, including one-to-one counselling to help people recover from trauma. The people we see are forced to live in sub-standard, overcrowded camps, where tension and violence are a daily occurrence. These living conditions and the uncertainty about the future trigger or exacerbate pre-existing trauma.

Supporting accommodation on Lesvos

The IRC has been present in the municipal refugee camp of Kara Tepe since its establishment in 2015. The site provides quality accommodation to an average 1,200 of the most vulnerable refugees, mainly families, including approximately 750 children, who have recently arrived on Lesvos. We ensure that quality infrastructure, water, sanitation and hygiene services and shelter are available, as well as support the site management. The IRC also supports the operation of the transit site ‘Stage 2’ in Skala Sikamineas, with cleaning, small-scale care and maintenance. The IRC ensures that people who arrive in the northern part of Lesvos from Turkey, are provided with a place to stay overnight until the authorities are ready to receive them in the reception and identification centre. 

What still needs to be done?

As more and more refugees are transferred from camps to apartments in towns and cities, the IRC is adapting our response to meet their basic needs, protect them from exploitation and violence, and assist them to build a better future for their families. As the majority of refugees in Greece will likely settle in the country, we will continue to work with local partners to ensure that refugees are integrated into their new communities.

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