From Transit to Reception: A New Reality for Refugees in Greece

Publication Date: 
Monday, July 11, 2016
Nicola Zolin/IRIN

“We do not face a refugee crisis, but a reception crisis,” is a common refrain heard in Greece these days, though it’s arguably applicable to Europe as a whole. For one, while the number of refugees arriving in Europe has been unprecedented, it remains a fairly small proportion of the total number of displaced persons around the globe.  UNHCR now reports this figure to be 65.3 million, most of whom flee to neighboring low- and middle-income countries. Moreover, as the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece via the Aegean Sea continues to decline in 2016 – due in part to the closure of borders along the Western Balkan Route and conclusion of the EU-Turkey deal to deter crossings from Turkey – a new reality is setting in as Greece transitions, albeit reluctantly,  from a country of refugee transit to reception, creating a host of challenges and opportunities.


As the primary point of entry for refugees and migrants into the EU for the last year, Greece has primarily been a country of transit – receiving arrivals, issuing them travel permits to enable them to move on to further destinations in Northern and Western Europe. Yet the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni in March, and stricter border regimes throughout Europe, have left these persons “stranded” in Greece with little prospect of onward travel as initially hoped. These developments are gradually transforming the country into a point of reception. UNHCR reports that approximately 57,000 ‘persons of concern’ are currently in Greece, a number that has slowly risen with the border closure and reduced, though continued arrivals in the islands. While Syrians make up the largest group of arrivals, many have arrived from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria and other countries as well.

With the prospects for relocation within Europe similarly dim – as EU relocation schemes designed to relieve pressure on arrival countries like Greece and Italy have proven largely inadequate and unimplementable – these ‘persons of concern’ are likely to remain in Greece for some time. The European Commission recently reported that 2,280 persons have been relocated within Europe as of June 14th, at a rate that has almost doubled since May but is still far short of its target of 6,000 people per month (totaling 160,000 people from Italy and Greece by September 2017). This figure is still woefully inadequate considering the number of persons in need.      

From Reception to Integration

While Greece thus continues to urge its European partners to share more of the burden of refugee reception, it is also coming to terms with the reality of hosting growing numbers of people for the foreseeable future. This shift from being a country of refugee transit to reception poses a number of critical challenges for a country already beset by its own economic and political crises.

First is the challenge of housing the growing number of people stranded in Greece as transit routes close. In March, authorities closed the Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border and reportedly transferred several thousand people to camps and reception centers in other parts of Greece, including warehouses and military barracks with reportedly poor living conditions. Authorities have also slowed transfers from the Greek islands to mainland and turned many open reception centers to closed detention centers on the islands. Humanitarian and human rights agencies have criticized conditions in these detention facilities. While efforts continue to relocate some of these refugees from Greece to other EU member states, the slow pace, political difficulty, and undesirability of these relocation schemes is leading to the growing recognition– among refugees, Greeks and European officials, and humanitarian organizations – that this population will remain in Greece for the foreseeable future. There is thus a growing need to move from temporary to longer-term housing. Last winter, the European Commission pledged €80 million to help Greece house refugees, including in apartments, hotels, and host families, and UNHCR has worked with Greek municipalities to provide more temporary housing for refugees through the plan. With a large number of Greek properties vacant since the financial crisis, there have also been efforts to house refugees in abandoned buildings.

Second is the challenge of addressing the education needs of refugee children, who make up 38% of arrivals in Greece since January 1st. The Greek Ministry of Education and UNICEF report that they have been developing a plan to address the education needs of refugee children, including through interventions at reception centers to create ‘child-friendly’ spaces and educational programming, Greek and English language classes, and integrating refugee children into Greek schools, especially when classes resume in September.

Third is the challenge of employment opportunities for adult refugees staying in Greece for the medium- to long-term. While Greek law enables asylum seekers to apply for a work permit while their asylum cases are being considered, finding a job remains exceptionally difficult in practice for refugees due to the priority given to Greek and EU citizens on the labor market (as well as language barriers and xenophobia), let alone for many Greeks, amidst financial crisis and around 24% unemployment. Moreover, unregistered persons and those outside of the formal asylum process – including migrants illegible for asylum and those choosing not to register in hopes of still seeking asylum in another European state – would not share this right to work in Greece.

Shifting Mindsets

While many of the challenges of refugee reception are logistical – housing, education, employment – successful implementation of these measures depends as much on shifting mindsets as on organizational and financial efforts.

On the part of refugees and migrants, this also means coming to terms with border closures and the reality of remaining for the foreseeable future in Greece. For months, the uncertainty of changing policies and border closures has produced frustration and despair among many stranded refugees and migrants – as the term ‘stranded’ itself indicates – who had hoped to travel onward to Germany and elsewhere, where conditions are seen as more favorable for future integration. This desperation among refugees to move onward has increased the danger of exploitation by traffickers and smugglers. It has also contributed to rising tensions with host communities, as the mood shifts from the joys of safe arrival on land in Europe, aided by compassionate local volunteers, to frustrated waiting, dwindling cash reserves, confrontations with the police, restricted movement in detention centers and bureaucratic frustrations. Similar patterns have been seen in countries of first refuge such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, as well as in destination countries such as Germany, as the initial euphoria of arrival fades away into the difficulties of longer-term reception and integration. If they are to stay in Greece for some time, then refugees themselves will thus need to accept the possibility of a future in this country, aided of course by changing mindsets and conditions in Greece.

On the part of Greek communities and leaders, this required shift in mindsets thus means coming to terms with the reality of Greece shifting from a country of transit to reception and the implications for a diversifying society. Notably, this crisis in particular has hastened Greece’s efforts to adopt a strong legal framework to protect refugees – through the transposition of European and international norms – yet implementing these protections remains a challenge in practice. The current Greek government has also garnered praise for adopting a more inclusive and protective discourse towards refugees, which has helped to shift societal attitudes. However, the shift from refugee transit to reception will continue to strain Greece’s already crippled economic and political structures for some time to come. Therefore, it is important to continue to devise means of legal relocation of refugees in other countries to relieve the pressure on Greece, as well as to identify opportunities for new arrivals to contribute to the Greek economy and society. This could include the hiring of more Greek teachers, doctors and other professionals to serve refugee communities, the transformation and upkeep of abandoned properties for refugee housing, or enabling qualified refugees to fill professional gaps caused by the post-financial crisis brain drain in Greece.

Greece is not alone in facing the challenges of refugee reception or in facing the difficult shift from arrival and civil society engagement to rising tensions and frustrations as the realities of longer-term settlement set in. Yet, as some young Greeks note with a tinge of optimism, the sight of determined refugees arriving on their shores, and the opportunity for local citizens to help them, has given Greeks a sense of perspective and purpose after years of domestic economic and political crises. It is now imperative to leverage these existing bases of support for refugees in Greece as the country attempts to tackle the challenges of integrating refugees in the longer term.

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