On the 20th of February, 2019, Prof. Lyberaki participated in a panel discussion entitled “Greece Facing the Immigration and Refugee Crisis”, together with Mr. Lefteris Papagiannakis and Dr. Lilian Tsourdi, hosted by the Hellenic Observatory, LSE. Her presentation discussed some of the paradoxes of the existing refugee policy in Greece, focusing on the challenges as well as the bright side of the everyday reality of those involved. It also focused on the policy implications of this reality, underlining the lessons we can draw for social policy, now and in the future. The key points of her presentation are summarised below.
Refugees as catalysts for modernisation in social policy
- Two paradoxes on refugee policy
Talk of refugees sometimes confuses two issues. One is the situation of refugees currently in place, a question of social policy and the other is the conjectural issue of what might happen if another wave reappears, a matter of international relations. I will deal only with the former
Refugees in Greece have stabilised to 71,200 (UNHCR). 20% are on the islands, 30% are accommodated in apartments in urban centres, 24% are in mainland camps, while the remaining 25% have made their own arrangements outside the system. 1.4 billion Euros is earmarked by the EU to serve them to 2020.
Living arrangements vary. In the islands, things are shameful: endemic violence, insanitary environment, exposure to the elements. Those in the mainland camps, face overcrowding and geographical isolation – they are in the middle of nowhere. Those in urban accommodation enjoy freedom to act, but face a kind of poverty trap: if they were to start working, they would lose many benefits. They live in limbo – waiting to go to Northern Europe. Four observations follow:
- The numbers concerned are small for a country of 10 ½ million.
- The available funds are large per head of beneficiary,
- The benefits available to refugees can be more generous than what is on offer to local vulnerable groups.
- All this is played out at the tail end of the deepest crisis of the developed world. Prospects are still dire.
Two paradoxes are staring us in the face.
From the inside-out, a social paradox: Austerity in social policy; generosity for refugees.
From the outside-in, a fiscal paradox: How can conditions still be so bad, after all this money?
- Four recent stories highlight the conundrum
Story 1. A refugee child needs a difficult spine operation. A team of top surgeons offers to perform the operation for free. The public hospital could not sidestep the waiting list. A private hospital stepped in, but did not know how to donate the cost necessary. Day-to-day refugee work is a legal minefield. You need a can opener for a (legal) can of worms.
Story 2. A donor asks an NGO working with unaccompanied minors why they are serving 230 beneficiaries only. Why not spread the money to the 2000 others who are currently in the streets? Spreading benefits thinly may look good for donors, but will be ultimately wasted. If the objective is to create life chances, the minimum effort must include individual services and a long term commitment. Low quality is no quality.
Story 3. Majd from Syria, a school leaver aged 20 with no qualifications, was trained by SolidarityNow as an interpreter and cultural mediator, in Arabic, Greek and English. He started work immediately, and after a while enrolled at a private University in Athens, studying English, with a scholarship from the US Government. Majd, no matter how good, could not attend a Greek public university. His take on all this was ‘Social Integration is no big deal; it is doable. It’s a matter of wanting it’. Solidarity works if it leads to empowerment.
Story 4. Social science graduates in Thessaloniki are living glory days. From being unemployed, they are now in heavy demand by refugee-linked NGOs. The sociology market is so tight that NGOs are poaching staff each from the other. The sudden demand to supply individual social services, and the emphasis on measurable results have already led to a pool of trained and experienced talent, who can do more than simply theorise about missed opportunities. New delivery structures and their staff are already in place.
- Civil society as a social policy lever: SolidarityNow
SolidarityNow (https://www.solidaritynow.org/en/) was founded in 2013 on the initiative of the Open Society Foundation as a response to the financial crisis. The fear was that the crisis was feeding extremism. Two Solidarity Centres, in Athens and Thessaloniki, were founded to provide free legal, psycho-social and employability services.
This work was underway, when the refugee crisis erupted. SN was well-placed to adapt the existing solidarity model to refugees. While it was not active on the beaches, it operated as second line of defence in integration and advocacy.
As a result, SolidarityNow is one of the largest NGOs in the social field in Greece. It has interacted with over 300 thousand individuals, 120 thousand through Solidarity Centres and provided shelter to 7,100 people across Greece. It employs 364 staff, one in six of whom are refugees, with a 2019 budget of 16 million euros.
So, SN is a social policy actor, whose refugee work is part of its overall mission. Nevertheless, the refugee crisis can still act as a modernization catalyst. SN is a social policy innovator:
- Result- driven social interventions. In a system concerned with securing privileges, having to respond to the needs of refugees, means a confrontation with results.
- Value for money. SN acts as a mediator between external donors and beneficiaries. It is accountable to both – and needs to prove itself constantly.
- Social policy as a wider responsibility. The State is assisted by civil society, volunteers, donors and professionals. Novel needs demand novel approaches. First we need to test what works, amend it and scale up.
- Social policy and life chances. What is needed is life chances, not hand-outs or favourable publicity.
Our work frequently involves thinking out of the box, handling unrelated issues together. In Long Term Care, a certified training course for carers addressed equally to unemployed Greeks and refugees could act as an inter-generational and inter-ethnic solidarity bridge.
The refugee crisis demonstrates why a modern country needs an active and effective social policy. In this way the refugee crisis can force the pace of social reform in Greece and provide an example that can be applied more widely. It also demonstrates how national social policy cannot be an island – what happens in Greece (to both Greeks and refugees) is not simply a Greek problem but benefits from international and especially European solidarity.
Antigone Lyberaki is General Manager, SolidarityNow and Professor of Economics, Panteion University.
The blog post represents personal views and not those of the Hellenic Observatory or the LSE.