At the reception of the former hotel City Plaza, volunteers are on duty.
An alternative to refugee camps – refugees don’t need to be invisible and away from the cities
In Athens, as the city filled with refugees and migrants during 2016, squatting in abandoned houses became an alternative way to accommodate people with no place to go. In 2019, the new government closed down many of the squats but what happened still remains an example of solidarity, and of one the ways to react to refugee homelessness. In June 2018, our project team visited two very different squats. The hotel City Plaza, that was probably the most well-known and organised squat in the city, and one less formal Squat that had recently been opened in an empty business building.
Since then, the new government in Greece was elected in July 2019. They wanted to hear nothing more about the squats and consequently in the Summer of 2019 most of the squats were closed in a government crackdown.
This article was first published in the Finnish street paper Iso Numero (The Big Issue of Helsinki) in February 2019.
Text: Veera Vehkasalo and translation Emma Nikander. Proofreading Scott Stapleton
Photos: Vanessa Riki
The Hotel City Plaza was squatted in 2016. Squatting was a protest against the European Union asylum policy.
The small yard of the hotel was used as a recreation space for the children as well as cooperation meetings.
Pictures of demonstrations decorate the lobby of the Plaza hotel and are a reminder of the sounds of solidarity from 2016.
The former office building in Athens has recently been squatted in and it now serves as a humble home to dozens of migrants and refugees.
The walls of the building corridors are like a statement of freedom or an insight into the mind of the city’s underground world.
Farhad, a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, ended up in a squatted house, because he couldn’t afford the cost of a rental home.
Naym, Rasil, Maiz, Dildar and Waqar all live in the same room in the house, on the so-called Pakistani floor.
Facilities for cooking and everyday life are rather elementary but much better than staying on the streets.
He came to Greece a few weeks ago from Kurdistan for political reasons. At first he slept on the streets. This squat he found with the help of his brother’s friend. Without connections and money, you would be lost in the city.
Yusuf’s roommate Farhad tells that before coming here he lived in a shared apartment. Two of his seven roommates went to Germany and the rest couldn’t pay their rent, electricity and water bills any more. Farhad found this squat with his friend.
“We need to stay together. In Athens, we cannot trust anyone”.
Nobody knows the exact number of homeless refugees or immigrants in Greece. Although the number of people on the street had decreased from the peak years 2015 and 2016, however in 2018 it is still a visible part of Athens’ streets. There are no more tents in Victoria Square – but blankets and sleeping bags, yes. Many were forced to sleep in the open air for months.
There are many reasons why refugees and migrants end up on the streets. Some don’t want to seek asylum from Greece because they are planning to move on. Some are not able to live in the camps. Some are paperless and some are looking for a job instead of asylum.
Unfortunately, some will be left without a place to stay when they get the status of refugee because they need to leave the refugee camps.
The squatters have sought not only to offer practical solutions to the problem, but also provide alternatives to isolating people in camps far away from local communities. Nasim from City Plaza says that all of Greece’s 60,000 plus refugees would fit in Athens, a city of 5 million people, without any trouble.
“In a city with 4,000 empty public buildings, people could be living differently and there wouldn’t be the need for the horrible camps”.
“The point isn’t that people couldn’t be hosted in better conditions than now. But rather that they want to put people in camps. It is an attempt to make refugees invisible and hide them out of sight, away from the cities”.
In Athens, as the city filled with refugees and migrants during 2016, many had to sleep on streets and parks in the open air.