They Told Me to Leave the Flat. They Didn't Tell Me Why
This post is part of our 'Experiences from the field' section. This section is specifically dedicated to amplify the experiences of those on the ground, activists, community advocates and people directly affected by border violence (experts-by-experience). Do get in touch with us if you want to contribute.
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Guest post by Suzanne Fossan and Andrea Noseda. Suzanne is a case worker, translator, language teacher, freedom of movement activist. Free soul, passionate about social justice. Originally from France, she moved to Greece two years ago because she needed to feel part of living struggles, practice mutual aid and enjoy the sun rays around her. Andrea is a Sociology graduate at the LSE, formerly researcher on migration and inequalities. Feels like enough theory has been written yet, and currently finds more meaning in practices of solidarity, rage channelling and community empowerment. Along their political activity, they enjoy collective writing, and this is the first article of a series that will follow, part of an effort to raise the silenced voices of those who suffer injustices.
G: "I didn't receive any letter, no no, everything has been told by phone: they called me, "oh G! You have to leave the apartment soon!"; "what do you mean I have to leave the house?"; "you know the government takes things in hand, the NGOs have to kick you out, yes, that's it, that's it, G, you have to go to the camp!"
F, like G and thousands of people in Greece, received a similar phone call this Autumn, 2022.
F: "They said 3 days but I didn't go out because I didn't rent an apartment, I had no other solution. For two months I lived under huge stress, every time I put my head on the pillow I was afraid to be evicted by the police the next day. I swear, for two months. It was a nightmare. Every time I left for work, I was afraid I’d come back and find the door with a new lock.”
G and F are two friends that were provided with a home under the ESTIA II scheme, a housing initiative providing accommodation for asylum seekers in Greece. In February 2022, the government announced the closure of the programme despite support from the European Commission to continue funding it until 2027. As a result, thousands of people were sent to live in filthy containers far away from cities, or were condemned to homelessness.
Initially, this program seemed to be founded on the intention of providing asylum seekers with the stability needed to build a new life in Europe, building bridges with the local communities, and with time, becoming financially independent. As required by EU law itself, the scheme seemed to strive for an “adequate” standard of living, along with financial aid and safeguards for the physical and mental health of its applicants.
The ESTIA programme was created by the UNHCR in 2015 with funding from the European Commission and initially provided up to 27,000 accommodation units in 21 Greek cities. It is estimated that by 2020, more than 70,000 refugees or asylum seekers were benefiting from the program.
“The ESTIA programme was unique. It was a bet at a very challenging time of emergency in Greece. With everyone’s goodwill and cooperation, the programme managed to respond very rapidly to a huge need, at scale and with a humane touch. It made a difference for many people.”
Said Mireille Girard, UNHCR representative in Greece
Although a housing program alone can't be enough to overthrow the racist framework of border controls, the rights gained only through citizenship and the endless recarious procedures for asylum eligibility, the claims made by Girard over a year ago seem to contain some truth. However, C, a person involved in the struggle against evictions, whom we have interviewed, was less enthusiastic:
«I wouldn't use the term bad or good, let's say that this program was necessary to state policies at that time. (…) For sure some had the so-called “luxury” to live in apartments, but… this housing program had failures by itself. A lot of these apartments were the ones that locals wouldn't like to live in as they appeared precarious and dirty. One part of the accommodation was in hotels, located very far from cities, in small villages, from which the migrants basically couldn't get out: « Migrants never left the hotel. They slept there, shopped there, and lived there. They were always being watched. They were not welcome in town»
In 2021, millions of euros were spent to ensure a smooth transfer of responsibilities from the UNHCR to the Greek government.
“This is not the end of ESTIA. The programme now continues under the leadership of the Government and with the unfailing support of the EU” assured Girard in July 2021.
However, less than a month later, the government began carrying out the first evictions for ESTIA beneficiaries. All of a sudden, the Greek government’s urge became to eradicate the program in the shortest possible time, notably, before December 2022.
As the program gradually reduced its scope over a year and a half, up to 20,000 people (of which most were vulnerable families) were forced out of their homes, stripped of the psychological, medical and financial support they were receiving and buried in the shadow of reception camps; the ultimate “no-place” of modern Europe. Surrounded by concrete walls far away from friends and support.
The ending of ESTIA affected the lives of its beneficiaries in many different forms, starting with the severe stress they faced upon realising that their home wouldn't be their home anymore, and that the life they were trying to build (made up of challenges like finding jobs, accessing education and health assistance and building a social life) would be shattered from one day to another.
F, from Algeria, has been living in Greece for over 3 years. He has worked as a legal representative? for a cleaning agency for more than 6 months. In October, CARITAS called him to inform him that he had three days to leave his home. Just like F, most of the people that we met have not received any official documentation formalizing the process and the date of eviction, a breach of both Greek and European law. This led to confusion and misinformation because people received varying eviction dates via several phone calls. It also prevented them from taking legal action to oppose the evictions.
F: It's been two months since they told me to leave the flat, they were threatening me, they said that they would call the cops. They said they would come with the cops to evict me.
S: Did they tell you why?
F: They told me that I have to leave the flat, they didn't tell me why. I couldn't find another one. I wanted to live alone, there were no studios, or they were too expensive, I couldn't pay for them. Once a friend of mine showed me a house but the owner, as soon as she saw that I was a foreigner, told me that it wasn't possible.
A: How did the story end? (…) How did you find the house you live in now?
F: It's thanks to an Algerian friend, a cab driver friend. It's by trust, by a friend that it worked out.
Z had been looking for a flat for over 2 months. Since the eviction, and at the time of the interview, Z was temporarily staying in an acquaintance's flat while he searched for somewhere to live.
Z: I am demoralised by the evictions. I'm now living in a room where I don't feel comfortable, where I feel bad. I'm still looking for an apartment. The problem is that the moment when they evict us is really not the right moment. First of all it's cold, then the students have already occupied the studios, there is a lack of housing. So we have to go far from the city.
For the few people who, as F and Z, have enough money, a fixed wage and a legal contract, it's far from being easy to find an alternative. Rents are expensive, a lot of owners refuse to rent to foreigners and the bureaucracy required to get a rent contract is an obstacle, particularly for non-Greek speakers.
Many people lost their jobs after being evicted because the camps they were relocated to were far from the city, where most people worked. For example, one person that we met, E, got fired because he was absent from work the morning he got evicted; he had been sent to a camp against his will.
Yet, for those that don't have a regular job, the situation was even harder. In these cases, the lucky ones were crammed into friends’ and relatives’ flats, while others hid in abandoned houses, ended up in detention-like camps, or were condemned to sleeping in the streets during the cold winter months.
Who could ever get used to living in a camp?
Here is the story of G, whom we met one year ago. He arrived in Greece with his mother and sister in 2018. After one year of diseases, detention and inhumane treatment in a camp in Samos, they arrived in Thessaloniki. They had an ESTIA flat in the centre of the city. During this time, the family split. His mother went to Athens and his sister disappeared in Drama over a year ago. She has still not been found. For six months, G was living in an ESTIA apartment with some roommates until one day, REACT, the NGO managing his eviction, called them to let them know that they would be evicted and sent to a camp. G was unable to rent another flat, he didn't have a job and the NGO was threatening to cut the financial support he was receiving monthly.
G: They came with a car at 8 AM instead of 11 and took some of my things. I told them "I'm waiting for a friend right now, I can't leave". They said "no, we have to leave!”. By force. So I looked at what I was going to take and I left. I left.
S: What happened when you arrived at the camp of Nea Kavala?
G: So I came here to the camp in Nea Kavala. Before going in I stayed outside for almost 2 hours without knowing why. The security was there like this happy, working. They think they are working but for me it's not a work: can't you see the people are tired?
After we were brought in, we were registered, “where do you come from?”. They gave us a paper, a bottle of water, some food and then they showed us [our room], "you are going to stay here, you are going to stay there, you are going to stay here". That's all. "If you have any questions, you have to go there, if you are sick, you have to go to the hospital.” That's it, and life goes on. Every day they give us little things to eat but I don't take that, it's nothing, it's not good for me.
S: What is the food like at the camp and how many meals do they give per day?
G: Only one.
S: Only one? And how big is it?
G: It's not much: two bottles of water, then you have the orange, two eggs, a little rice, that's all, but I don't eat that, I give.
A: And your room, are you alone or do you live with other people?
G: Yes, I have a Congolese friend, an African. I met him there. Yes, because I said I can't stay with people, I have to stay alone and they said "aah no, how! Alone!" like that. They showed me a room like that and the smell there, no! Awful! The security said to me, "no, you have to put on a nose plug", but you're sick! What do you mean I'm going to put on a nose plug. I'm going to sleep with the nose plug on! Then he asked me, "Are you moving from Thessaloniki?” I said yes and he said: "Oh, that's normal, you're in the camp, you have to get used to it". You have to get used to the camp, and that's it.
‘You have to get used to the camp’ they said. Most of the people who are sent to camps as a consequence of the evictions have already experienced what it's like to live in a camp from when they first arrived in Greece. Sending people back to camps means increasing the risk of re-traumatising those who have suffered violence and depression there before.
G: I had some African brothers there [in Samos]. When they came to Greece they were doing fine. They were thinking well. Now they became...like they're mad! They are sick! They don't think well anymore...I don't know why, it's the stress perhaps? Or what...boredom too? That's what a prison looks like.
As mentioned before, ESTIA was a program especially designed for vulnerable groups, including families and children whom had previously been exposed to threats to their mental and physical health. Before we even asked, everyone we interviewed appeared conscious of this further problematic.
F: But you know, this is not even so bad for us, for families it's really bad.
This is not the time to evict families, in the middle of the winter. I'm not talking about young people, single people like us. I'm talking more about families. Single men it's easier to manage.
M: yes, it's a big problem, with three children, it's really not easy.
M: There was this Iraqi family, they suffered. Now they are in Serres' camp, 80km away from the city. Before, when they were still in Thessaloniki, the father was working for a company. Him and his wife live with three children, all of them were attending school. After the eviction: hop! To the camp, do you understand? I speak to him on the phone and he tells me he's not ok, there is no job at all there, nothing in general that he can do. Can you imagine? You were living in the city and get thrown in the mountain in the middle of nowhere at the beginning of winter, to live in a caravan. Can you live that way? No work, no school, nothing. They are in containers, just waiting for the moment they would receive their passports and are allowed to leave the country.
G: I have a friend that just called me, he was in the program too and just got evicted. But him, he has already two rejections [in his asylum process], so he can't even go to a camp. The others that were living with me are here in Nea Kavala too.
S: And your friend, what does he want to do?
G: He wants to leave, he called me now. He has a baby and his wife is here, but he wants to leave the country. Then he'll get in a truck.
S: With the baby?
G: No, the baby will stay here cause it's too cold. My friend wants to leave alone to search for the Life [The Life is the word he used originally in French]. Maybe next year, the other members of the family would join.
A: how old is the baby?
S: I imagine that because of the evictions some people decided to leave Greece sooner than expected, that they take more risks. What do you think?
G: Yes, because of the house they want to leave faster and if you have already two rejections, you don't have the right to go to camp. You can ask a lawyer, maybe he could do something for your situation but if you don't have any lawyer you don't have the right to go to camp, then you're nothing. That's why some of them go too quickly: Macedonia, Serbia... That's it... A lot of people have already left. A lot of people, mostly Africans. Everyday, everyday they leave.
S: More since the evictions?
G: Yes, even if people were already leaving before.
It's impossible to count how many people decided to leave Greece as a result of the evictions. Our information is sourced from people who discuss with their communities and who are themselves concerned by the situation. One of the people we talked to had tried to leave Greece, got pushed back and now he is back in the camp. Some others succeed in paying smugglers thousands of euros to enter in the back of a truck or walking for hours in the mountains between Greece and Albania, North Macedonia or Bulgaria, with children sometimes. As G mentioned, obviously, people wanted to leave Greece before the evictions.
'To keep these people forever excluded is in the State’s interest'
The official statements made by institutional actors to justify the termination of ESTIA were disappointing. Not only is the issue almost completely absent in the media, but also the few explanations provided by Greek and European officials are elusive and contradictory, as they rely on racist political calculations and completely disregard the human consequences they generate. We have identified two main reasons the government relied on to explain the abolition of the program. The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum claimed it was due to the “improved management of the migration issue”, as well as to “further decongest city centres”. Both give insight into the cynical logic governing migration flows in Greece and the rest of the EU.
ESTIA was initially founded in response to a humanitarian emergency. In agreement with some of the richer Member States, the EU funded the program in order to limit the mass arrival of people seeking international protection in central Europe. Simultaneously, the previous leftist Syriza government expanded the capacity of Greek reception camps. Those camps are currently underpopulated, among other reasons, due to the EU-Turkey agreement. The new right-wing government in Greece came to power in 2019 with a strong anti-immigration agenda and in the first two years of term, they changed their rhetoric to publicly claim that the issue was “solved” and migration was now under control.
C: This happened everywhere in Europe, it is not something that happened only in Greece. It was the end of the program as if it had two phases: the first one was dealt with like a humanitarian issue, and then we say that the humanitarian issue is solved. Do we have a war in Siria? No they say! But of course, we have a constant war there still now. And what about Afghanistan? No war they say…there is only Taliban now! They take words so literally... Since there is no war in Afghanistan, no war in Siria, then there are no refugees. If they are not refugees, then there is no need for a humanitarian program, so we are closing the program. This is how the Greek state and the EU decided to close the program, because the problem is solved in their papers. Unfortunately, not in real life.
Following the abandonment of the “crisis” rhetoric related to migration, there was allegedly no need for international NGOs to operate anymore because the state could take care of the issue of its own accord. Thus, even though the EU Commission claimed the funds could have been extended until 2027, Greece decided to give up the funding and made the decision an explicitly political one rather than an economic one:
C: A big travel destination for these people [people on the move] is Germany. Other states also, but mostly Germany. And Greece doesn’t want to have this program, even with international money. If they wanted they could get from the EU a lot more money, enough not to have any camp or to have very few people in those camps, but this would create a situation in which migrants would not migrate and would integrate to the local population. This is not an ideological decision because there is Nea Democratia in power, it is something deeper.
Here is where the state’s second argument for the closure of ESTIA is engaged, giving great insight into the approach to migration used not only in Greece, but by all EU Member States. Incapable of offering any humane solutions to their electorates, EU states are rebounding responsibilities from one country to another, building camps, walls and hostile environments for people on the move everywhere around the continent to make sure they are constantly kept in a state of precarity and discomfort; exploitable yet far away from people’s sight. As groups are being “swept away” by constant police pressure and evictions from the centre of Thessaloniki, something similar is happening all around the continent both on a local and national scale. Examples include the closures of the city camps of Eleonas (Athens) and Ventimiglia, the eviction of makeshift camps in Paris, border “externalisation” agreements with Turkey, Libia, Niger and Egypt, efforts by the British government to process asylum applications in Rwanda, and the proposed EU “New Pact on Migration and Asylum”.
As people will continue to migrate, they will continue to expose the precarity of the global imperialist and capitalist order by challenging its equilibria. Rather than questioning it and welcoming people on the move onto European soil, governments made it their common goal to reassure their electorates that city centres remain “decongested”, clean, and free from any unwanted strangers. European leaders made “not in my backyard” their mantra at every level.
We asked G what he thinks of the state’s policy. We leave to him the final words.
G: … the Greek government is complicated, they change their ideas all the time so I don't know how they work. One day they say we're going to build something and then no! We stop. It's complicated, and they are liars. The countries of Europe take the money, they eat, they exploit the migrants, they are very comfortable with all that. It's hard. To live here, it's hard. I came here as a handsome guy, cute and all, and after 6 months: ugly! Because of the stress, because of these people's behaviour. That's what they do to us. That's it.
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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):S. Fossan and A. Noseda. (2023) They Told Me to Leave the Flat. They Didn't Tell Me Why. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/04/they-told-me-leave-flat-they-didnt-tell-me-why. Accessed on: 01/06/2023
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