Greece: The Uncertain Future of the Helios Program
The cessation of the HELIOS project is a troubling development in the ongoing efforts to aid refugees. Administered by the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum, the project’s suspension, as announced by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), commenced January 1, 2024. This suspension is attributed to a shortfall in the required financial resources. The abrupt discontinuation of the HELIOS initiative, which stands for “Hellenic Integration Support for Beneficiaries of International Protection,” leaving not only the approximately 4,000 refugees enrolled in it hanging, but also approximately 500 workers without work. With the looming threat of homelessness now more real than ever.
The concerns of workers, who distrusted the assurances given by Deputy Minister in early November, are now confirmed. They had been told that the program would operate smoothly until June, as funding from the Public Investment Program was secured until HELIOS joins the NSRF regional programs via the European Social Fund.
Local media, EFSYN has reported that In recent weeks, workers have been anxious about when funding will be approved, allowing them to return to their jobs with new employment contracts. Most were dismissed at the end of December without compensation, having signed open-ended contracts just a month before, when they reached the legal limit of five consecutive fixed-term contracts.
Due to funding gaps since last September, thousands of refugees lack basic integration services: the chance to sign new apartment contracts with HELIOS’s rent subsidy, to continue their Greek language courses, and to access employment counseling and labor market connection services.
The problem started at the end of 2021 when HELIOS, initially financed by European funds from the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund, was moved to the Public Investment Program. It was given successive extensions of a few months each because it wasn’t possible to allocate money for longer periods.
Each extension was a separate bridge scheme, where half the funding was to be paid at the beginning and the other half at the end, after each scheme was closed. This funding method, combined with the management by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), led to increased bureaucratic burdens and financial obligations. This eventually caused a funding freeze in October, as the approval for the extension was delayed.
Purpose of the HELIOS Program
HELIOS provides services to refugees for a maximum period of 12 months from their recognition. This period before the Ukraine war and the registration of Ukrainian refugees practically was between 6 to 9 months. It includes supporting the housing of recognized refugees by granting subsidies to those who have secured housing, the provision of Greek language courses and other integration courses, as well as work support for integration into the labor market. Which many recognized refugees do not have access as they do not meet the conditions.
This program was dedicated to those who were in official accommodation centers, such as refugee camps, FILOXENIA program hotels, or other residences like the ESTIA program. However, only those who had obtained asylum after January 1, 2018, and were officially residing in one of these centers at the time of obtaining protection, could apply for the Helios project. However, due to discriminatory policies and the government’s lack of proper preparedness, many refugees were unable to receive HELIOS services. The main problem was related to administrative bureaucracy and fundamental flaws in the program.
In the summer of 2020, I met Siamak a refugee from Iran in Victoria Square with his autistic child. He had just arrived in Athens from the infamous Moria camp on the island of Lesvos and said, “They have left us in an endless uncertainty. I have no idea what to do. They say you need to bring a house contract to have AFM, but they don’t issue a house contract without AFM!” The AFM number is the Greek personal Tax Identification Number.
Mohammad, who arrived from Moria just three days before Siamak, immediately says, “Brother, it’s unclear what they really mean. In the camp, they told us to go to Athens where Helios would take care of everything. We came and called them, and they said to go to the office to register. They gave us papers there and said we were registered and needed an AFM and a bank account to rent a house! How can we get these documents when we are on the street?”
Challenges extend beyond the initial ones encountered. Sarwan, who sought refuge from Syria as a Kurdish national, told me his experience with displacement under the Estia initiative—a temporary housing scheme. “I received a call instructing us to vacate the apartment,” he explains. “Subsequently, representatives from Helios approached us with promises of registration for alternative accommodations. The details remained unclear; their assurances conveyed only the urgency to abandon our current house and entrust our relocation to Helios’s purported oversight.”
Recounting his experiences with a grave demeanor, Sarwan shared, “My ability to work has been extensively compromised due to the grave injuries I sustained from air assaults in Aleppo by Assad’s forces. Following a period of severe deprivation and starvation, my journey led me from Turkey to my current location. The authorities in Turkey were adamant about the refugees staying in the allotted tents close to the border; urban areas were off-limits for any form of assistance. Overcoming numerous challenges, I managed to arrive here, where I now find myself largely reliant on the financial aid provided to me. Upon my engagement with the Helios initiative, I was furnished with documents stating the program’s provisional nature. It postulates that within a matter of months, I should have acquired proficiency in Greek and secured employment. But has there been sufficient consideration for my predicament?”
Sarwan inhales sharply, his resolve hardening, and states, “I must inquire how one is expected to pursue additional documents under such circumstances. Securing a rental property in Thessaloniki is not a straightforward task for migrants. Landlords are hesitant to lease to us. While Helios claims to assist in locating accommodations, their efforts are rendered futile when property owners refuse to rent. Moreover, the financial aspect is burdensome. With an allocation of 300 euros a month, allocating 250 euros for rent alone is not viable. One must consider the additional expenses, such as electricity, water, and most importantly, providing food for my family.”
The plight faced by Sarwan is far from unique. Laleh, another Afghan woman, shares a similar harrowing narrative. She recounts her struggles, “Raising two daughters was challenging amidst the oppressive dictates of the Taliban who forbade their education. My aspiration was for them to be well-educated and to avoid the hardships I experienced. But now? My youngest daughter, merely 15, appears as if she has aged a decade. The severe mental and emotional strains we suffered in Moria have left us in need of support and rehabilitation, rather than the impossible expectation for a 60-year-old refugee woman to learn Greek language in a mere six months and secure a job.”
According to the stipulated regulations, refugees granted international protection status are obligated to vacate within a period of thirty days following the issuance of their status. Concurrently, they encounter the cessation of cash assistance and the provision of food previously available within the confines of the refugee accommodation facilities.
Mismanagement and financial problems
In recent months, there have been serious and persistent problems in its implementation, as well as sporadic interruptions in the operation of the program, due to successive funding interruptions from the Ministry’s side.
On February 2023, the Union of Private Employees of Heraklion requested the safeguarding of jobs in its announcement. The “Helios program” was employed workers to provide services, but the lack of financial resources, combined with the instrumentalization of the refugee-immigrant issue, had a direct consequence on the future of several people living and working in the Heraklion prefecture and other cities. In this context, the Union of Private Employees immediately requested that the jobs for the employees of the “Helios program” be guaranteed and that there be programs to ensure the dignity of refugee-immigrants.
Practically, the government and the IOM transferred responsibility for the continuation of the program to its respective NGO-partners, resulting in staff jobs being at risk. At the same time, this development had extremely adverse consequences for the uprooted refugees, who faced a series of risks. These included the deprivation of basic protection measures, the interruption of the planned rent subsidy, homelessness, the interruption of school attendance, and more.
In particular, the program was suddenly frozen from October 1, 2023, restarted for a while, and suspended again in November, with the result that no new registrations of recognized refugees are accepted. At the beginning of December, the renewal of the funding of the program was announced until December 31, 2023. However, throughout the month of December, the program was implemented without allowing any new registrations of beneficiaries and without rent subsidies.
The testimony of Maryam, an Afghan refugee who arrived from Moria at Victoria square, 2020.
Nastyia, a Ukrainian refugee residing in Athens with her son, told me her situation has become more difficult since they stopped receiving the subsidy from HELIOS. She expressed her concerns, “The cost of rent is high, and my earnings are insufficient to cover all household expenses, leading to financial challenges. Fortunately, my landlord has been understanding and has not pressured me for the rent, but the situation is distressing.”
Samira, an Iranian refugee, also recounted her experience when her landlord demanded eviction due to her inability to pay rent. She explained, “At the end of September, I lost my job, and I have been unemployed since. Additionally, Helios has ceased providing me with financial assistance. Now, as I am unable to pay the rent, my landlord asking me vacate the apartment.” Samira continued, “He told me the rental agreement was with me personally, not with Helios.”
Indeed, people must lease the property and are responsible for covering all initial costs on their own, as well as furnishing a valid lease agreement. Upon verification of the submitted documents, they will become eligible to receive the initial disbursement, which is issued in two parts. Tenants are required to submit the monthly rental payment receipt. Following the approval of this receipt, they will then be entitled to the rental subsidy.
The strict turn in immigration policies over the past years has been gradual but continuous, and it has become a subject of political competition: a competition between right-wing populists who see non-European migrants as a threat to European civilization, moderate politicians who try to appease the populists by fulfilling some of their demands, and a security-defense industry that has replaced maritime patrols in the Aegean and Mediterranean with surveillance by drones.
UPDATE: According to the official announcement, the Helios program has been reactivated from the beginning of February and has started providing some support.
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