2020 | Mar
A series of scattered programs targeting asylum seekers and refugees have been planned and implemented by various actors in the urban space of Athens, following the arrivals of large numbers of refugees from 2015 onward. These programs, directly or indirectly affect aspects of the socio-spatial settlement of asylum seekers and refugees in the city, raising questions about the informal trends and the institutional actions that concern interethnic cohabitation at the local level.
This paper addresses the socio-spatial dimension and the geography of the ‘ESTIA’ accommodation program for asylum seekers in Athens. This dimension was not explicitly and publicly documented during the planning stage of the program. It is selectively explored in this paper by analyzing a) the placement criteria of ESTIA units (apartments and buildings) in the urban fabric and b) the discourse of competent bodies and their perceptions concerning ethnic diversity, dispersal and socio-spatial segregation in Athens. The paper also addresses the planning framework for ESTIA, driven by notions of “emergency” and “integration”, as well as the importance of associated urban actions.. These aspects of the analysis relate to interethnic interaction in the city and correspond to theoretical perceptions of urban studies that regard interethnic cohabitation as a process inextricably interdependent with place. They also re-introduce to the debate crucial questions on ethnic diversity, socio-spatial mix and segregation.
The research is part of the author’s doctoral thesis and it was conducted through the analysis of relevant legislation, systematic mapping of policies, collection, processing and mapping of quantitative data and qualitative semi-structured interviews with representatives of key stakeholders.
The settlement of immigrant populations in Greek cities affected their urban development and social geography. Especially from the 1990s onwards, newly arrived populations settled by their own means, in the absence of relevant housing policies and integration planning. Migrant groups from Eastern Europe and the Balkans (1990s), as well as more recently arrived groups from the Middle East, Asia and Africa (mid-2000s) settled in central neighborhoods of Athens, making use of the available housing stock that was left behind since the partial moving of middle and upper-class locals to the suburbs from the 1970s onwards (Βαΐου κ.ά. 2007, Μαλούτας 2018). This settlement pattern produced a geography defined by socio-spatial mix and ethnic diversity, differentiated from the Northern American and Northern European cities that are defined by higher levels of ethno-racial segregation (Arapoglou 2006). In the case of Athens, horizontal housing segregation decreased and the conditions of spatial proximity that prevailed, formed the ground for interethnic cohabitation and the development of informal trends towards immigrants’ “integration”  (Leontidou 1990, Βαΐου κ.ά. 2007, Αράπογλου κ.ά. 2009).
Crucial questions on the settlement of refugees and asylum seekers in cities have been raised in literature. A series of studies discuss urban housing policies for refugees at the local level and the importance of placement methods of the accommodation units in cities (Doomernik and Glorius 2016, Eckardt 2018, Seethaler-Wari 2018), Some authors have also provided critical reviews of refugee settlement dispersal policies in urban space, which were implemented in some countries aiming to decrease housing segregation (Musterd et al. 1997, Andersson 2003, Netto 2011, Darling 2017). Policies for ethnic diversity and interethnic mixing in specific local contexts have also been discussed (Arapoglou 2012), as well as issues of everyday life, interethnic relationships and boundaries (Jacobsen 2006). Perspectives vary over time, from viewing ethnic diversity as a barrier to social cohesion (Putnam 2007) to understanding it as a positive factor that should be reinforced (Vertovec 2007), Other views emphasize the intersections of diversity and socio-economic inequality (Arapoglou 2012).
From 2015 onwards, due to the increased arrivals of refugee populations in Greece, a series of scattered programs and actions targeting refugees and asylum seekers have been planned and implemented by various actors (Local Government, NGOs, International Organizations) in the urban space of Athens. These programs relate (directly or indirectly) to dimensions of the socio-spatial settlement of refugees and asylum seekers in the city, raising questions about both the informal trends and the institutional actions that concern interethnic cohabitation at the local level. This paper addresses the socio-spatial dimensions and the geography of the ‘ESTIA’ accommodation program for asylum seekers in Athens. Despite the fact that these dimensions were not explicitly and publicly documented during the planning stage of the program, they are selectively explored in this paper by analyzing a) the location selection criteria of ESTIA units (apartments and buildings) in the urban fabric and b) the discourse of competent bodies and their perceptions concerning ethnic diversity, dispersal and socio-spatial segregation in Athens. The paper also addresses the planning framework for ESTIA which was driven by notions of “emergency” and “integration”, as well as the importance of urban actions carried out.. These aspects of the analysis relate to facets of interethnic interaction in the city and correspond to theoretical perceptions of urban studies that regard interethnic cohabitation as a process inextricably interdependent with place. They also bring back to the debate crucial questions on ethnic diversity, socio-spatial mix and segregation.
In terms of methodology, the research was conducted through the study of relevant legislation, systematic cataloguing of policies, collection, processing and mapping of quantitative data and qualitative semi-structured interviews with representatives of key stakeholders, namely the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Local Authorities and several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) .
The geography of ESTIA programme and the competent bodies’ perceptions of ethnic diversity, dispersal and socio-spatial segregation in Athens
The UNHCR’s ESTIA program, started in mid-2016, as a programme for ‘Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation’  and it benefits asylum seekers who meet certain vulnerability  criteria, as well as applicants for family reunification. The programme provides the beneficiaries with urban accommodation, whether in apartments or in other buildings. The Ministerial Decision of 2019 defines ESTIA as a “program providing financial assistance and housing” aiming to “ensure an adequate standard of living for applicants for international protection by providing cash assistance and to ensure their safe accommodation, as appropriate, and the provision of support services […]” . UNHCR is implementing the program through partnerships with 11 municipalities and 12 national and international NGOs (UNHCR 2019). Despite the fact that ESTIA seems concerned with the “integration” of asylum seekers, as proclaimed in its initial official title, it actually functions primarily under the “emergency” governmentality framework. Thus, it maintains its temporary character until today, reproducing a permanent state of precariousness (Kourachanis 2018).
“UNHCR is here just for capacity-building, we are here to assist during the emergency. When everything is set up, we move out. […] Integration is the government’s responsibility. This is very important to us, we do not do integration, UNHCR does not engage in implementation of integration, we support integration” (UNHCR representative).
The ESTIA accommodation program is implemented inside the urban fabric of Greek cities. This is in contrast to the location decisions concerning the open Temporary Reception and Accommodation Facilities for asylum seekers (ie Camps) in the mainland (which are usually established away from the urban fabric) and the Reception and Identification Centres (ie Hotspots) in Northeastern Aegean islands (who are concerned with the “geographical restriction” of asylum seekers). As of November 2019, 4.501 apartments and 14 buildings were rented in 14 cities and 7 islands across Greece. Accommodation capacity had reached 25.666 places  and 21.639 people were accommodated (UNHCR 2019, UNHCR 2020). The geography of the program across Greece, shows for a concentration of 55% in the Attica Region, followed by Northern Greece (20,7%), Central Greece (7,8%), the islands (6,5%), Western Greece (6%) and the island of Crete (4%) (UNHCR 2020).
Map 1: Number of ESTIA accommodation places in different locations and cities across Greece, 30/11/2019
Source: UNHCR (2019) ESTIA, 2019
Concerning the process of choosing the apartments to rent, the program defines certain official criteria . During the initial stage of the program, the need to find a big number of accommodation places as fast as possible led to the rental of whole buildings, especially in the center of Athens (buildings that were empty until then).
“There was the accommodation demand and each apartment we rent can accommodate a maximum of 6 people, so we started searching for larger facilities, like hotels and buildings. As soon as we found a whole building, we could then shelter almost 400 people immediately” (UNHCR representative).
ESTIA expanded through renting apartments in blocks of flats, while gradually the rental of whole buildings was reduced by the decision of UNHCR. Dispersal of accommodation places in apartments across the city was determined as best practice due to the high costs of maintaining the rented buildings and because the programme aimed to spread the economic benefits of renting to a larger number of property owners. Today, 95% of the total facilities are apartments while 5% consists of entire buildings (UNHCR 2020).
With respect to the location choices of ESTIA apartments in Athens, the interviews with competent bodies reveal certain criteria which could be grouped into two different categories: The criteria for apartment blocks (according to which, the goal was to rent a limited number of apartments in each block) and the criteria for neighborhoods. The initial goal, a political decision of Athens Municipality, was to disperse rented apartments in various areas and avoid the concentration of asylum seekers’ settlement in specific central neighborhoods of Athens, in order to avoid the “dangers of ghettoization”, a term that emerges in the discourse of key stakeholders.
“When we first launched the program in 2016, we had set very strict criteria. For example we refrained from renting more than one apartment in each building. We wanted to avoid ghettoization, we didn’t wish for everybody to end up in Victoria or Omonia. Unfortunately, when you are desperate, these criteria tend to relax. So right now, there are certain areas with higher concentrations than others. […] I mean we go wherever there is supply” (UNHCR representative).
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