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Rethinking Refugee Support: Responding to the Crisis in South East Europe

Article by Dr Gemma Bird, Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik, Dr Amanda Russell Beattie, Dr Patrycja Rozbicka

February 22, 2019

Rethinking Refugee Support: Responding to the Crisis in South East Europe

This report finds that recent changes in EU border management have limited refugees’ movement across Europe, and as such, have resulted in outsourcing of refugee settlement and care to states previously described as ‘transit’ countries along the Balkan Route(s): Serbia, Greece and Bosnia. This report analyses the problems related to refugee provisions and accommodation in these countries and along the Balkan Route(s) towards Western Europe. It highlights the disparity of refugee services, housing and living conditions across the region, and acute and ongoing humanitarian crises. The report discusses the key factors affecting poor living conditions for refugees, including: overcrowding, fragmentation of services along the routes, and a lack of consistency in camp management. Subsequently, the report discusses a range of other refugee housing options existing in transit countries – including informal and makeshift camps, squats, hotels and UN-supported housing schemes known as ‘urban shelters’ – and notes the strengths and weaknesses of each. The findings are based on the authors’ field research in Serbia, mainland Greece and the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios and Kos, between 2017 and 2019.

A number of key conclusions can be drawn from the report:

(1) Population size and levels of overcrowding are one of the fundamental factors affecting provisions and quality of life in all types of refugee housing. Mainland camps and informal housing provision such as squats, are able to control the number of residents they have whereas island reception centres have far less control.

(2) Relationships between camps, reception centres and third sector provision plays a key role in determining access to healthcare, sanitation, psycho-social support and community spaces and whether these are provided inside or outside of accommodation spaces.

(3) Lack of clarity and transparency surrounding asylum procedures leads to increased anxiety about the process.

(4) Different forms of housing support are dependent on individual circumstances; however, provision lacks flexibility, particularly surrounding vulnerable cases where a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not suitable.

(5) Refugees are driven towards informal housing such as squats and makeshift settlements for two main reasons: poor camp conditions or overcrowding, and uncertainty over the asylum process, including long waits for asylum interviews in Greece.

(6) There is a lack of formal support for people living in informal accommodation, particularly healthcare, food and sanitation.

The report makes a number of recommendations for policy change:

(1) The urgent need to manage the numbers of people living in the island reception centres, by increasing the number of transfers to mainland Greece or elsewhere in Europe; and improving mainland living conditions and provision.

(2) The need for greater transparency and increased dialogue between some reception centres and third sector provision.

(3) Urgent increase in capacity to process asylum registrations in Greece and thus reduce current waiting times and overcrowding in reception centres. More, and better quality of information provided to refugees in the early stages of the asylum process, about each stage, predicted waiting times and what each stage means; to reduce anxiety for people living in reception centres.

(4) Greater flexibility is required in the provision of housing, especially for vulnerable cases where the needs of individuals differ greatly. To achieve this greater resource is required.

(5) Increased funding and support for the UN ‘Urban Shelter’ scheme which transfers refugees from camps and settles them in apartments. Increased capacity of non-camp housing, and creation of incentives for local authorities reluctant to cooperate with the scheme.

Introduction

This report focuses on refugee housing and welfare provision along the key hotspots along the Balkan Route(s). The report draws on field research[1] carried out  between 2017 and 2019 in:

  • Belgrade
  • Thessaloniki
  • Athens
  • The Aegean Islands:
    • Lesvos
    • Chios
    • Samos
    • Kos

The report assesses the current welfare and housing provision for refugees in this geographical region, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of both formal (municipality, state and international) and informal (NGO and informal collectives) provision and highlighting key areas for improvement. It also makes reference to funding usage and the gaps in the system (including, but not exclusively: treatment of vulnerable people and minors).  It is broken down into four key themes to highlight specific areas of concern in the region:

  • The disparity of refugee accommodation and provision along the route
  • The limited continuity of provision and availability of information between geographical regions
  • Squats, informal housing, and makeshift camps
  • ‘Urban shelters’ and apartments

Each area is further broken down into three sections.  First, a problem is identified and described. The problem is then situated in the findings.  Finally, a recommendation is given.

This report is based on the work of four researchers:

  • Dr Amanda Russell Beattie (Aston University)
  • Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (Aston University)
  • Dr Patrycja Rozbicka (Aston University)
  • Dr Gemma Bird (The University of Liverpool).

The report’s findings are based on primary research including: interviews with NGOs and their beneficiaries, European Union officials, local and national government staff dealing with migration (Serbia, Greece), informal and formal housing providers, social workers, housing officers, aid organisations (MSF and UNHCR), as well as insights gained from longer periods of time spent in the region working with the third sector.

The disparity in accommodation and service quality across transit regions

 The main differences in reception centre or camp conditions are caused by 4 identifiable variables:

  • Camp management
  • The physical space repurposed into a camp
  • Population size relative to number of spaces available
  • Presence of third-sector providers

Type of Space

The conditions in Reception Centres (RICs) on the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos vary considerably from the rest of the region. All three reception centres visited are re-purposed military bases and struggle to adequately deal with the current influx of refugees.  A majority of the RICs are overcrowded with a disproportional number of refugees living outside the Centre’s delimited borders. The ad hoc accommodation is provided in containers, tents, and makeshift shelters, which are not suitable for the local weather conditions (too hot in summer and not providing enough protection from the cold and rain in winter). They are permeable and rain, snow, and vermin easily penetrate the fabric of the makeshift homes.

For example, on the island of Samos, there are currently (January 2019) over 4000 refugees accommodated in Vathy RIC with an official capacity of 700 and an overflow space referred to as ‘The Jungle’.  Similarly, on Lesvos Moria RIC which has its own overflow space, ‘The Olive Grove’.  In July 2017, the population of the RIC plus the ‘Olive Grove’ was approximately 7467 individuals, rising to 9000 in 2018 (New York Times, 2018).  In January 2019 a single tent, housing 50 individuals, burnt down.  While no one was killed in this incident it did reveal the unsuitable nature of the ad hoc shelters resulting from overcrowding (AYS Daily Digest 2019).

Third Sector Provision/Support

The support offered by the third sector differs between the various areas investigated, as does the relationships between camp or reception centre officials, local and national government, and third sector providers. For instance, MSF had a strong presence on Lesvos and Chios. In November 2018 they undertook a vaccination program for all children in the RICs. However, their involvement on Samos is limited as they are unable to carry out these programmes inside the RIC. Whilst the vaccination programme will go ahead it happens outside of the RIC on Samos. Their lack of access to the RIC limits them to working with and supporting volunteer networks and providing funding to smaller grassroots NGOs.

The variations in service availability and quality is evident when comparing Lesvos and Samos. There are more than 40 NGOs working on Lesvos to support the refugee population with some having access to Moria RIC and others working in the neighbouring town of Mytilene and with nearby Kera Tepe and Pikpa camps. Conversely, on Samos, there were until recently fewer than 10 registered NGOs. Against a backdrop of a rapid increase in the size of the refugee population on Samos and a clear need for additional support for provision of basic needs and services (i.e. access to toilets, medical attention, laundry and legal support) this number is increasing. For example, between 2 January – 24 January 2019 the NGO Refugees 4 Refugees set up a distribution centre for women and children while Attika Human Support began distributing clothing to men.

Similar variations in NGOs’ access to official camps exist across the Balkan Route(s). Two official reception centres in the vicinity of Belgrade have completely different arrangements with NGOs. Whilst the Krnjaca Reception Centre hosts multiple local and international NGOs providing a range of services, the Obrenovac Reception Centre with a much larger population, allows access to far fewer NGOs. Authorities claim that access is controlled so as to avoid duplication of services. However, NGOs do also act as watchdogs of camp conditions. Across the region, there is evidence that third party access seems to be more restricted in camps known for poorer conditions.

NGOs need to remain flexible and responsive to changing needs. NGO Samos Volunteers, for instance, is facing over-crowding in its social centre and their basic English language classes have waiting lists.  They are not granted access to the RIC.  They support the refugee population within ‘The Jungle’. Interviews with Reception and Identification Service officials suggest the reticence for a strong working relationship with NGOs is to ensure that the refugee population are not provided with false hopes from the NGO/volunteer sector about the asylum process. Yet this message is not consistent with those of refugee camps in Athens, for example, which rely on NGO support to deliver mother and baby spaces, community centres, sewing rooms and English lessons.

NGO and support networks are in constant flux, partly as they rely on volunteers. For instance, in July 2018, the voluntary support network on Kos had disintegrated. In January 2019, a number of NGOs including groups from Chios, Lesvos and even further afield in Calais, have put out calls for additional volunteers, since refugees continue to arrive but organisations tend to be understaffed in winter and spring, with most volunteers arriving in the summer.

Population Size

There are significant differences in living conditions in overcrowded camps, as compared to those functioning at or below capacity. Skaramagas, a refugee camp just outside Athens, and the Krnjaca centre in Serbia are seen by residents and NGOs as ‘better’ than many other camps. In Skaramagas, the containers used for the accommodation have heating and air conditioning and the camp offers a range of support and activities, such as mother and baby sessions.  The residents are also able to build chicken coops and sell eggs in the camp.  The camp has a population of 2000 with around half being under 18. Similarly, the Krnjaca centre outside Belgrade hosted 300 people in 2018, though it has capacity for around 1000 people. This allows minimum camp standards to be met, services not to be overloaded and stretched, and staff to get know most of the residents personally and respond to issues in a timely and more informed manner. The lower populations of camps in Serbia and mainland Greece are often the result of border management policies which mean that fewer people are managing to leave the islands (whilst arrivals continue) and move northwards, as well as through constant changes in the route. The Krnjaca camp ‘emptied’ as the route moved towards Bosnia. Whilst the Krnjaca camp is under capacity, several thousand people are now living in makeshift camps in Bosnia, particularly around the Croatian border.

RECOMMENDATION: Alleviate overcrowding of island camps by increasing transfers to the mainland. Improve all camp conditions to ensure that minimum standards can be met.

The limited continuity of provision and availability of information between geographical regions

 Management of refugee camps and reception centres

One of the most significant factors in camp conditions is management. There is a multitude of actors involved: including the military, private sector companies and municipalities, with overall responsibility for camps as a system delegated to relevant national Ministries. The Moria reception centre is run by the First Reception and Identification Services and the Ministry of Migration Policy. The nearby, Kara Tepe, is a refugee camp housing women, children, and vulnerable people, and is run by the Municipality of Lesvos. Pikpa, a ‘community-based space’, is organised by Lesvos Solidarity and offers an alternative to RIC’s and refugee camps.  It is built on the principles of solidarity, empowerment and active participation and provides a variety of activities for residents.  Both Pikpa and Kera Tepe are widely thought to offer superior forms of accommodation and support in comparison to the far more overcrowded Moria.

Who runs the camp has a direct impact on the lines of communication within the structure itself.  Interviews with RIC officials discussed the confusion of the population surrounding their roles: they manage and are the outward facing representative, of the reception centre, but are also viewed by residents as representing the Asylum Services and the Ministry of Migration. Yet they are unable to communicate the decisions of these bodies and have little impact on them. Consequently, there is confusion on the part of the refugee population stemming from inconsistent information, case scheduling and outcomes, the awarding of open cards, and the cancelling of meetings. This in turn, has contributed to a lack of transparency and accountability within the spaces governed by First Reception.

Limited Lines of Communication

 There is a lack of effective and efficient communication within and between governing bodies themselves, between governing bodies and NGOs, as well as NGOs and the wider third sector, and, importantly, to the refugee population, particularly on the islands of Lesvos Chios and Samos.  This has consequences for the delivery of refugee support.

Refugees are in a precarious position when waiting for a decision to be reached about their ‘open card’ (document allowing travel off of the island hot spots).  In the first instance they are informed that their papers are ineligible for renewal.  This means one of two things, a rejection or an open card.  The time period for confirmation is variable and generates a high level of uncertainty and fear for those awaiting a decision. A quicker process and clearer information would reduce anxiety.

Once an individual is given an open card, there are also concerns about what happens next. Whilst NGO’s such as refugee.info provide certain amounts of information to populations, they are often underserved by UNHCR and First Reception with regards to information sharing. The time and location of the transfer from the RICs are provided but little else.  Refugees rely on social media and formal and informal online resources to learn details of their next location.

There is a heavy reliance on rumours and often unreliable information, compounded by inconsistencies in rules of accommodation in different regions.  People given a space in mainland Greek camps lose the space if absent for twenty four hours or more.  This is less the case in Serbia where it appears that camp residents do not lose their allocated place due to absence (usually attempts to cross borders) even though rules stipulate this should be done. This is again due to under-capacity, but does have a stabilising effect in that refugees are not left destitute and in a precarious situation once they fail to cross borders and return to Serbia.

Unaccompanied minors

A lack of consistent information has a particular effect on unaccompanied minors (UAM), who grow accustomed to the independence of the RICs. Unaccompanied minors leaving the Aegean Islands are given limited information about the next stages of their journey, other than from third sector organisations. As a result many find themselves leaving the NGO support network of the islands and entering major cities of Athens or Thessaloniki with a limited support package in place. Housing provision for UAMs on the mainland relies on a UNHCR system of shelters and apartments run on the ground by a number of different organisations including Caritas and Praksis; partially funded by the European Union. The influence of multiple organisations means that UAMs often fall through the gaps of a heavily bureaucratic system finding themselves, as interviews suggest, struggling with drugs, prostitution and crime.  As of December 2018 there were 552 unaccompanied minors reported as homeless in Greece and a further 203 with no reported location, this is a large percentage of 3741 currently known to be in Greece (EKKA, 2018).

In contrast, in Serbia, UAMs have more stable and regular access to a dedicated social worker than in Greece, even when they arrive into Serbia ‘irregularly’. For instance, the NGO network in Belgrade is able to quickly identify and meet UAMs soon after they arrive, and refer them to social workers contracted specifically for UAM protection, who then see them through the registration ad settlement into a centre. Again, the system works better than in Greece due to smaller numbers but even so, there are gaps in UAM protection (particularly outside of ‘office hours’) and each social worker has a high case load.

RECOMMENDATION: Clearer information provided to those seeking asylum. A transparent system for how to communicate and ask for support from officials to better understand the process.

Squats, informal housing, and makeshift camps

Large numbers of refugees have ended up in informal housing and makeshift camps. Reasons include, but are not limited to: poor camp conditions, difficulty accessing camps, not wishing to register in a transit country, or transiting a country without a functional or adequate camp infrastructure (currently, Bosnia, but also Serbia and Greece in 2015).

Informal housing includes squats (occupied or repurposed derelict buildings, often supported by grassroots networks) and makeshift camps and ‘tent cities’ often along country borders. Informal housing sets up more quickly than formal camps or other NGO initiatives, all of which are subject to multiple levels of regulation and governance. Most makeshift camps and settlements have no facilities and rely on volunteers for basic services, but in some cases, local authorities indirectly support them through a lack of intervention or providing additional services such as waste disposal.

Informal housing allows a degree of flexibility, but there are limitations. Despite some informal housing being relatively well established and tolerated by the authorities particularly in Athens, some services (healthcare, tax) do not accept squat addresses as a ‘proper’ address for registration and access to that service. Residents of squats also have no access to services that refugees would normally have when they are registered with the asylum service, such as financial support for food. Conditions in squats vary but many urban squats have sewage, heating or structural problems, and rely on volunteers or residents with carpentry or plumbing skills to resolve them.

Photo ‘Informal Housing’ here, caption: Informal refugee housing (squat) in central Athens.

Makeshift camps often form out of necessity, but are inadequate. Multiple makeshift camps have formed along the Balkan Route(s) as the route shifted – Idomeni in Greece, camps along the Serbia-Hungary border, and more recently, along the Bosnia-Croatia border. The makeshift camps generally have no running water or electricity, nor adequate shelter, food, waste disposal or facilities of any kind other than aid provided by small volunteer groups – local and national governments tend to discourage aid provision on these sites as they claim it creates a ‘pull factor’. Multiple problems exist: smugglers can sometimes ‘seize’ a makeshift camp, or a part of it, and ‘rent’ it out to refugees. Poor or non-existent infrastructure make it difficult for volunteers to provide services such as hot food, and individuals helping near the sites are criminalised or penalised by local authorities.

Makeshift camps and ad hoc informal support (whether organised by refugees themselves or aid providers) are vulnerable as they are ‘unregulated’ or informal. Authorities can invoke any number of regulations to shut them down: evictions, sanitation inspections, or ad hoc restrictions on volunteers. Restrictions on aid near informal sites are also linked to EU funding: for local authorities in transit countries, funding is channelled primarily to camps, border management and the formal sector, meaning that thousands of refugees living informally outside of it, are entirely reliant on volunteer and NGO aid.

RECOMMENDATION: Recognition of residents of informal spaces when registering for healthcare provision and refugee support. Greater support for NGOs and services they provide in informal housing.

‘Urban shelters’ and apartments

 The UNHCR ESTIA programme (Emergency Support To Integration and Accommodation) managed to relocate around 27,000 vulnerable people (as of 31st December 2018)[2] from camps in to ‘urban shelters’: apartments that are not only located in cities, but also in some rural areas and islands such as Crete. The programme is run a cooperation between UNHCR, municipalities and third sector providers – the overall responsibility is now being transferred to the Greek national authorities.

Once refugees are identified as vulnerable and relocated out of a camp to an apartment, they are assigned a team which includes a social worker, housing officer and translator, and from whom they receive regular visits. The team meets with residents in their home and helps with issues like liaising with landlords or referring residents to relevant services. Each social worker is assigned a group of apartments/cases to look after and they work exclusively in the ESTIA context (not local social services more generally), meaning that they often get to know individual residents well and can respond to their needs.

Whilst some parts of the scheme work well – apartments are well provisioned, for instance, and the social workers are well trained and responsive – there are issues, however, mostly related to resources.

  • Not all refugees can be relocated out of camps into apartments as there is no capacity for this. There are not enough suitable apartments as not all municipalities in a city sign up to the scheme, or support it. The limited resources also mean that normally, two families or groups of single men/women, have to share a single apartment.
  • Apartment sharing has proven at times to be problematic when cohabitants are torture victims, traumatised or have psychiatric issues.
  • Currently the scheme is open only to vulnerable people. UNHCR and camp managers identify who is ‘vulnerable enough’ to be transferred. Consequently the system puts large responsibility on the camp managers who are not always engaged and/or fully aware of individual situations (especially in large, overcrowded camps).

The apartment scheme highlights the complex needs of vulnerable populations. Gathered evidence concludes that this system can only work if it is well resourced and thus able to find appropriate apartments and provide ongoing psychosocial support.

RECOMMENDATION: Increased resource and flexibility in support packages provided by ESTIA programme. Implementation of the scheme across transit countries.

 Conclusions

 (1) Population size and levels of overcrowding are one of the fundamental factors affecting provisions and quality of life in all types of refugee housing. Mainland camps and informal housing provision such as squats, are able to control the number of residents they have whereas island reception centres have far less control.

(2) Relationships between camps, reception centres and third sector provision plays a key role in determining access to healthcare, sanitation, psycho-social support and community spaces and whether these are provided inside or outside of accommodation spaces.

(3) Lack of clarity and transparency surrounding asylum procedures leads to increased anxiety about the process.

(4) Different forms of housing support are dependent on individual circumstances; however, provision lacks flexibility, particularly surrounding vulnerable cases where a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not suitable.

(5) Refugees are driven towards informal housing such as squats and makeshift settlements for two main reasons: poor camp conditions or overcrowding, and uncertainty over the asylum process, including long waits for asylum interviews in Greece.

(6) There is a lack of formal support for people living in informal accommodation, particularly healthcare, food and sanitation.

Authors:

Gemma Bird, Lecturer in politics and International Relations at The University of Liverpool.

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University, Birmingham.

Amanda Russell Beattie, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, Birmingham.

Patrycja Rozbicka, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, Birmingham.

The report is a part of the authors’ larger project, IR Aesthetics, @IR_Aesthetics, which focuses on refugee journeys across the Balkan Route.

This report is based on primary research carried out by the authors, and funded by the Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University, and a University of Liverpool Early Career Researcher Grant.

 [1] Funding for this research has been provided by the Aston Centre for Europe and a University of Liverpool Early Career Researcher Grant (https://www2.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/lss-research/aston-centre-europe/index).

[2] http://estia.unhcr.gr/en/home/

Footnotes
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