22nd Oct 2016

Cities demand access to EU migration funds

  • A Syrian mother and her child at a new refugee facility in Athens city centre (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

On the second floor of an abandoned medical clinic, a Syrian woman and her child stare out into the messy streets of Athens city centre.

They are among the lucky few who managed to find a temporary home that opened up only a week ago.

Nikos Chrysogelos, a former Greek MEP, has a nine-year lease on the building. His plan is to shelter up to 250 Syrian refugees, integrate those that want to stay into the local community, and prepare others whose futures lay elsewhere.

"At the end, we are not sure they are going to leave," he concedes when asked on Monday (17 October) about those registered into the EU's failed relocation programme.

Around 30 Syrians are now at the centre, known as Welcommom, a project largely financed by the EU via the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Most of them are children.

The project is described as a prototype on finding new ways to house refugees unlike the overcrowded and often dangerous facilities on the Greek islands.

"It's a new model for hosting refugees," Chrysogelos told visiting municipal representatives from across Europe, who had gathered in Athens for the launch of a new "Solidarity cities" initiative.

Solidarity cities is a project conceived by Athen's mayor Georgios Kaminis. The aim, he says, is to get cities to work better together in addressing a wide range of practical issues faced by refugees.

State gets EU funding but not cities

Among the visitors was Ramon Sanahuja from Barcelona, whose job is help immigrants integrate into the Catalan capital.

Earlier in the day, he told EUobsever that the Spanish state has yet to disperse any of the some €400 million it received from the EU's asylum, migration and integration fund (AMIF).

Around 20 percent of the €3 billion fund, spread over seven years until 2020, is supposed to be reserved for integration of asylum seekers, but Sanahuja believes most of it has instead gone to border controls.

The EU commission, he says, which overseas the funding, won't tell him how it was spent.

Barcelona had also offered to relocate 100 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy but Madrid won't allow it, he said.

Faced with problems that need immediate responses, cities are having to rely on volunteers and strained budgets to host people seeking international protection.

Limbo population

Elizabeth Collett, director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, issued a stark warning.

"There will be an increasing limbo population in your cities," she said an event in Athens hosted by Eurocities, a network of 130 European cities.

Unable to return home and with no legal status, more and more are likely to end up homeless and on the street.

Budget constraints, lack of direct access to EU funds, and administrative bottlenecks appear to be contributing to the problem.

But politics and heavy administration is holding back money, leaving cities stuck to foot the bill from their own budgets.

Capitals like Helsinki are struggling with practical issues like a growing population, lack of overall housing, on top of a sudden arrival of a large number of people.

Helsinki received 36,000 asylum seekers within eight months last year but was granted no aid from the government despite the state obtaining EU emergency funds.

Instead, the city had to rely largely on a network of volunteers given the need to address immediate demands of refugees and find an additional €10 million from its own budget.

Refugees need accommodation, clothes and food, and children require education, said Helsinki's deputy mayor Rita Vijanen.

"We hired a special volunteer coordinator and she has a special unit for it," she said.

The city now also plans to build 7,000 new apartments, up from the previous annual target of 5,000 given last year's asylum influx.

Bad policies

In Athens, many refugees can be found begging along its dilapidated city centre streets.

Lefteris Papagiannakis, the vice mayor of Athens, says it was a political decision by previous governments not to have integration policies.

"Unfortunately we are paying the price now," he said.

He told this website that refugees are now having to squat in abandoned buildings in Athens as one side affect of bad decision-making by previous governments.

"We have integration plans but nobody is implementing them," he said.

The EU commission says cities won't get direct access to EU funds unless rules are changed, which is an unlikely prospect.

"You would need member states to change the regulation on how the money is administered," said Belinda Pyke, a senior commission official.

The EU parliament insisted that at least 20 percent of the EU migration fund goes to integration efforts in order to prevent EU states from using all the money on returning rejected migrants and shoring up border security.

"Implementation, I have to say, is I think virtually zero in Greece," said Pyke of the integration funds.

Other EU states are not much better, she noted.

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