“κανείς δε μένει χωρίς πατρίδα όσο θα υπάρχει η Θεσσαλονίκη”

“No one is left without a homeland as long as Thessaloniki exists" Nikiforos Choumno, 14th Century Byzantine Scholar

From 9-12 July, Thessaloniki hosted a delegation from Amsterdam and Zurich, as part of a mentoring visit organised by EUROCITIES and Migration Work. The mentoring visit focused on the city’s plan to create an overarching integration strategy and was prepared in the context of the Solidarity Cities Initiative with support from the Open Society Education Support Programme.

Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is home to thousands of refugees who were left stranded after the closure of the ‘Balkan Road’ in March 2016. Several camps were opened around the city but the city also has several accommodation programmes in flats and hotels, either managed by the city authority itself or NGOs and international organisations.

Much like Athens, Thessaloniki is committed to making integration a positive experience for refugees and the host society. Yiannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki, met with the delegation on 10 July to reaffirm the city’s openness and its commitment to transforming its services and institutions. The deputy mayor for education and sports, Giorgios Dimarelos and the councillor in charge of refugee policies Sofia Aslanidou also met the delegation.

With only 20,000 out of a target of 160,000 benefiting from the EU relocation programme, asylum seekers are losing hope of ever reaching their final destination. A knock-on effect of this delay is the increasing number of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians applying for asylum in Greece, where they have a greater chance of being granted refugee status or temporary protection. Others are offered relocation in countries where they see little chance of integration and chose to remain in Greece. This is a considerable shift in mentality compared to previous years when Greece was seen by asylum seekers as a transit country. As a consequence, many of the asylum seekers and refugees the delegation met during the mentoring visit were focused on learning Greek, finding a job and finding schools for their children as quick as possible.

“Whatever they decide, we have a duty to make sure refugees have a fond memory of Greece, that they remember the language and remember the country that got them into the EU. I want them to remember Greece as a first safe harbour.”  - Giorgios Dimarelos, deputy mayor for education and sports, Thessaloniki.

With no mandate to provide formal education Thessaloniki decided to focus its efforts on informal education for asylum seekers and refugees. The refugee camps surrounding the city will close soon and the asylum seekers are expected to live in the city. This will increase pressure on schools and informal education services, especially as most international donors plan to phase out their funding by the end of 2018. Since its creation in 2014, Greek cities have not received any funding from the EU Asylum Migration & Integration Fund, which was managed by the Greek government. Thessaloniki relies on the overwhelming support of civil society organisations, volunteers and private donors to sustain its efforts.

The delegation also met with several Greek and international actors providing informal education in camps and in the city. Most projects rely heavily on volunteers and international funding. There is little coordination between projects and this sometimes leads to overlaps and redundancies. This means the informal education projects are extremely heterogeneous, meaning quality and ease of access can differ greatly.

However, they provide an invaluable service to the refugee population, which the city could not have done with its own scarce resources. To consolidate its overall integration strategy and with the support of the URBACT ‘Arrival Cities’ project, the city is mapping all active organisations in the city providing services to refugees. It sees its role in mainly coordinating efforts and guaranteeing equal access to services for all, for example by preventing a concentration of services in one area or by facilitating the use of unused public buildings.

The municipality will also make sure all refugee children are ultimately enrolled in the formal Greek education system. While not being responsible for the curriculum or the recruitment of teachers, the municipality takes care of infrastructure and can provide afternoon programmes to complement the education provided by the Greek government. It can also influence the way schools are linked with communities and use them as hubs to foster interactions between the migrant and host communities.

Part of the mentors’ recommendations were to provide intercultural training for volunteer teachers and to seize the opportunity presented by the ‘Open School’ programme, which just started with the support of a private foundation. Six of these ‘open schools’, a replica of the model used in Athens, are or will be operational in Thessaloniki in the near future. The programme aspires to transform municipal–owned public schools into sustainable centres for learning, culture and social services to benefit the local communities. 

The city can also play the role of mediator and facilitator, by creating soft and hard mechanisms to coordinate NGO and volunteer initiatives activities. This will ensure better access to services, avoid overlap and guarantee knowledge transfer and retention. The city can also make sure problems are fed back by NGO workers, citizens and refugees to a centralised service managed by the city administration. The city will also explore alternative funding streams to prepare for the phasing out of major external donors.

These recommendations and many others will form the structure of a detailed action plan, which the city will work on in the coming weeks with the support of its two mentors Amsterdam and Zurich and of the EUROCITIES migration and integration working group.