Humanitarian response in Greece: A system not fit for purpose (parts of this piece were edited and published in and in December 2016)

IMG_1455 (20)‘The conditions in the camp are better than Idomeni’, Mohamed, a young father of two from Aleppo, told me recently in Oraiokastro camp near Thessaloniki, ‘but eight months in a tent are too long’. Not knowing how long they will have to spend in temporary shelters, often in abandoned warehouses and factories is what makes refugees’ days and nights long, especially as the cold begins to bite.

Given the amount of funds the European Union has poured into Greece, why aren’t the living conditions better? ‘The conditions are not the result of a funding gap’, says UNHCR in Athens. Funding from the EU for the refugee response in Greece makes for the bulk of the resources. Some individual member states also contribute to humanitarian organisations.

DG for Migration and Home has earmarked €509 million for Greece under the national programmes for 2014-2010, forming part of long term support from the EU Commission to improve common European responses in asylum and migration processes. So far, €70 million from this funding channel has been made available.

DG Home through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) has also allocated since January 2015, €178 million towards Government of Greece (GoG) entities and €175 million to international organisations (UNHCR, IOM) and EASO (European Asylum Support Office) as emergency funding to respond to the unprecedented refugee crisis.

DG for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) has committed €700 over the period 2016-2018 period and allocated through the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI) a total of €198 million to UNCHR, UNICEF, IOM, IFRC and 10 NGOs since April 2016. Following ECHO’s regulations, these funds are disbursed quickly and not through government, in this case to complement DG Home funds to the GoG. The second tranche (€115 million), announced in September 2016, will cover winterisation activities, education and child protection. It was committed before monitoring of the work done with the first allocation had been possible, raising suspicions that it was another politically driven decision.

In summary, the widely reported figure of €1 billion of EU assistance to Greece is through different channels, €248 million to the GoG and €373 million to humanitarian actors.

In addition to the funding, Civil Protection has provided to the GoG 185,000 items of in-kind emergency assistance donated by the member states (tents, beds, sleeping bags, blankets, hygiene kits, power generators, water pumps, fire-fighting equipment).

This is the first time ECHO is funding operations in a EU member state. This presents political complications, as the recipient country is part of the decision making process, even if the state is not a direct partner. On the ground, this means that criticism of government or EU policies responsible for the stranded refugees in the country by ECHO partners, presents a set of challenges. The absurdity of the response in Greece is showcased by the anecdote that NGOs have requested ECHO funding in order to conduct advocacy against EU policies. On the other hand MSF decided not to receive any EU or member state funding after the EU-Turkey statement to avoid precisely this type of dilemmas.

Delaying factors

The sector that is covered to a larger extent through DG ECHO is shelter. No two camps, municipalities or islands are the same in terms of living conditions. A lot of improvements are noted in the mainland since the closure of Idomeni and Pireaus makeshift camps, but a lot remains to be done and given the funding available it should be done quicker. In order to quickly respond, abandoned factories and army camps have been used, levelling, landscaping and food distribution were delegated to the army. The army was supposed to hand over soon after setting up those camps in March-April but it is still not clear who they should hand over to. Food is more appropriate to be cooked by the refugees themselves after all those months, through cash assistance and communal or family kitchens, provided fire safety is in place. This is one of ECHO’s priorities for 2017.

The lack of strategic longer–term planning by the government, including the final list of sites is what is impeding timely preparations for winter’, one of ECHO’s partners told me. ‘If we had clarity on what is expected of us for the rest of the year, we could better assist. As it is now, we just put bandaids on the gaps, like repair showers, put heating where possible, but cannot do major improvements in shelter, which are needed for the winter’. This is echoed in a recent joint policy brief issued by twelve NGOs active in Greece. The GoG position is that it has done planning since April for the rest of the year with a planning figure of 100,000 stranded in the country and provided in August the list of camps that will remain in the winter. There are NGO funds available for camp construction but need the approval of the GoG to go ahead and this is not forthcoming.

Complications in acquiring sites and procurement procedures are causing delays. Inter-ministerial decisions and agreements are needed for site allocation, whether land or buildings to be used (owner of the land or building whether public or private, municipality for water and sewerage, ministry of health, forestry authority, archaeological authority to inspect when digging is needed, to name just a few). This becomes even more complicated when food is planned to be cooked on site with further checks required.

‘Initially we were of the opinion that guesthouses or apartments might be more appropriate for this response, but we stand ready to support, through our humanitarian partners, what the Greek government considers a faster option, that is winterised camps’, said Yorgos Kapranis, representative of the ESI in Athens. Multiple camps dispersed around the country –in order not to create ghettos- require logistics and transportation. Apartments or guesthouses are more appropriate but it is time consuming to find the numbers required. UNHCR has a commitment of 20,000 places funded with €80 million from the EU a year ago, for relocation candidates. So far 17,000 places have been found, including for vulnerable families and individuals.

NGOs and private foundations (with their own funding) in coordination with the authorities have identified and assessed closed buildings and several are now rented and functioning as guesthouses, for unaccompanied minors or vulnerable families and individuals in Athens and Thessaloniki. The numbers of beneficiaries though are still quite low. The lack of coordination and appropriate services, leave gaps which are often filled by volunteer and solidarity groups, often on the margins of the law (eg squats). Their interventions is often life-saving but they may also lack expertise in the humanitarian field. They are capable to fundraise quickly online but are not accountable in a meaningful way and are sometimes at odds with local populations.

Another delaying factor is procurement process disagreements between the GoG and humanitarian partners. Bank capital controls in place since July 2015 delay purchases and act as impediment for local procurement while importing goods is another lengthy administrative process.

Despite its interest in having an overview and control of the response to avoid gaps and overlaps, recognising its responsibility as the lead, the GoG doesn’t possess the human resources needed and shows slow reflex when offers for secondments are made. The legal framework and existing apparatus are not appropriate to register, coordinate, monitor and evaluate the multitude of actors and their work in the refugee response. There is currently a recruitment drive for the ministry of migration. With the austerity measures in place, increasing public employees is difficult and short term only, through the EU funding. This leads to lack of continuity.

The model of implementing partners adds layers of administrative costs. There are too many coordinators and donors and too few hands on deck. Local NGOs are getting overwhelmed by the demand for partnerships, many pushed to expand at an unsustainable rate.

Given the nature of the assistance is increasingly longer term, some NGOs I have discussed with recognise there should be an exit strategy and move to development funding (which goes through governments), to assist not only refugees/migrants but also Greeks under the poverty line due to the economic crisis and successful asylum seekers who fall through the cracks. Other NGOs however are reportedly getting together to advocate for their longer-term remaining in Greece to assist in a ‘humanitarian’ response.

So, what would improve the response?

At this point in time, we need to separate advocacy from protection and response. Daily public reminders to the GoG of their responsibilities and the conditions in camp A or B, or the situation of UASC have lost their value. Humanitarian organisations need to respond in collaboration with the government, offer their expertise. The country is not in conflict, where humanitarian principles impede closeness to the state. The number of refugees is manageable (out of a total of 62,000 roughly 20,000 are already in decent out-of-camp sites). The only real obstacle is the lack of trust between the GoG and humanitarian partners.

The GoG would like to have uniformity of services across camps and NGOs responsible for specific camps rather than sectors. One solution may be for UNHCR to offer to second camp managers and build local capacity over a period of time. Registration should be done in accommodation sites to have a clear picture of who remains and what their needs are. The government should be part of the planning for the 2017 RRMRP (Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan) and should clearly articulate its needs for UN/NGO support.

Advocacy is needed at the Brussels level to influence EU policies that are keeping people hostage in Greece as well as member state capitals that should show more solidarity towards refugees and migrants and support for Greece. The country, because of an accident of geography, is a frontline state at one of the most difficult economic times in its post-war history. The EU is happy Greece is isolated in its southeast corner. As long as the refugees don’t show up at ‘the heart of Europe’, Greece remains its Nauru so let’s at least ensure humane conditions for refugees that, unlike Nauru, do not put us to shame as European citizens.

ANNEX: Funding by source and receiving entity 

A. SOURCE of funding: AMIF AND ISF (emergency funding)

source of information: Managing the Refugee Crisis, EU Financial Support to Greece, 5 October 2016  


Government entity Dates Amount
Ministry of Defence March and July 2016 88.8 mil
Ministry of Health December 2015 and July 2016 27.48 mil
First Reception Service June, October 2015 and March 2016 8.61 mil
Asylum Service January 2015 1.18 mil
Ministry of the Interior May and July 2016 20.79 mil
Hellenic Coast Guard June and October 2015 6.67 mil
General Secretariat for Coordination October 2015 5.99 mil
Ministry of Infrastructure February 2016 12.76 mil
Hellenic Police October and November 2015 5,58

Total 177,86 mil

Organisation Dates Amount
UNHCR July, Aug 2015 and May 2016 114.13 mil
IOM Dec 2015, Feb and May 2016 34.5 mil
EASO Feb and May 2016 26.12 mil

Total 174,75 mil

B. SOURCE of funding: ESI/ECHO (700 million to be made available in total for 2016-2018 to all member states)

source of information:

First round: April 2016

Organization Amount
UNHCR 25 mil
IFRC 15 mil
DRC 8 mil
IRC 10 mil
Save the Children 7 mil
OXFAM 6 mil
ASB 5 mil
MDM 7 mil

Total 83 mil

Second round: October 2016

Care Germany
Save the Children
Terre des Hommes

Total 115 mil


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