An Alternative To Refugee Camps – Refugees Don’t Need To Be Invisible And Away From The Cities

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 building was left empty at the beginning of the economic crisis in Greece. It was squatted in by activists in April 2016, only a month after the EU-Turkey deal to tackle the migrant crisis. Tens of thousands of people who thought they were just passing through, got stuck in Greece
Victoria Plaza, a square close to the hotel, was filled with people sleeping in tents and in the open air. Most of these people had been planning to stay for only a night or two. The refugee camps were overcrowded. 
“Protesting wasn’t enough anymore. We wanted to create an example of an alternative to camps, and suggest different ways to live together”, says Nasim L, who has been an activist for a long time and involved in City Plaza from the beginning.
City Plaza is a a good example of cohabiting peacefully. The enthusiasm of volunteers and residents is infectious. Turnover rates are low, and many are on the waiting list to get a place. In this former hotel, living conditions are much better than in many other squats, many of which are old office buildings. 
“I don’t know where I would have gone if there wasn’t City Plaza. Food is free, we have our own rooms and showers. I love the place”, says young Syrian named Hasan who came to the Greek islands as an asylum seeker and is now in Athens, waiting for a decision on his status.
In this house, everything is done together: cleaning, cooking, safety, language courses, babysitting and medical care. There is a list with shifts on the wall, to remind you when it is your turn to participate. Those who work in the kitchen cook about 800 meals a day. The things that need to be bought are paid for with donations.
Volunteers emphasized that it’s important that in every task, there are people from different backgrounds, different countries and different situations in order to create unity and enhance cooperation.  All of the residents that have a refugee background are not homeless. Everyone has their own reason to come to City Plaza and legal status is not an issue. 

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.

International and Greek volunteers, and refugees participate in the upkeep of the space as equals. Some of the volunteers also live under the same roof. The slogan of City Plaza is “We live together, we fight together”.
“We wanted to show that this is possible without people being treated like animals. At the refugee camps, people are not allowed to participate in anything or feel useful,” says Coral, a Spanish volunteer who have been in City Plaza for almost a year.
City Plaza might be the most famous squat, but it was definitely not the only one in Athens. According to Nasim, at most Athens had 18 houses seized by asylum seekers. They hosted up to 2,500 people. In 2018 there were about 10 of them left and some residents had got a negative answer for the asylum application and been evicted. 
However, not every squat is, or is even trying to be, as idyllic as City Plaza. Typically, they are established in empty office buildings.

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.

To get in, you need to slide under a metal net which covers the door, and then get past piles of random furniture and trash. There is a note on the elevator door that says, with a smiley: “still not working, use the stairs”. The toilets upstairs are flooding.

The walls of the building corridors are like a statement of freedom or an insight into the mind of the city’s underground world. 

“I’m not 100% satisfied, but after all, it is a roof over my head”, says a young Kurdish man Kadir, staying at the squat.
This office was squatted in only a few weeks ago, but there are already a lot of people, mainly people who have no residence permit in Greece, or refugees waiting for an opportunity to leave. Most of the latter want to go and apply for asylum or work elsewhere in the EU.

Farhad, a Kurdish refugee from Turkey, ended up in a squatted house, because he couldn’t afford the cost of a rental home.

One of the floors hosts mainly Pakistani men and above them there are three floors of Kurdish people. Men and women stay in different rooms.
“I came here only to continue somewhere else in Europe. I’m planning to go soon to Germany or Belgium”, says Yusuf, who is living in a big room with eight other residents.

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.

However, not everyone has welcomed the squats. Many of these buildings, including City Plaza, are located in areas where poverty and social problems are common.
Activists of City Plaza emphasize that they want to give an example – that living together is possible, and getting to know “the others” will also diminish anxiety and fear. This is why they have also been seeking dialogue with the local community. People in this area have been invited to discussions and celebrations. According to Nasim, many of the people who were previously worried about refugees coming to the area and the hotel, now come over and bring donations of toilet paper, sugar or pasta for the residents.
“It doesn’t solve our needs, but shows that people have started to understand something about the residents. At least it reduces the type of thinking that puts poor people against other poor people”, says Nasim.
The warmest memory he has is of a woman in the neighboring house. On the first day of squatting, she threw everything she could get her hands on from her balcony, including chairs, at the squatters.
“But last Easter we held a common celebration in the streets for our residents. Then she threw chocolate from the balcony for the children. So there is hope, I have seen it with my own eyes”.
City Plaza was closed voluntarily in July 2019 because of a lack of material resources and commitment in demanding circumstances. In its 36 months, City Plaza hosted over 2,500 refugees from 15 different countries. According to the volunteers the remaining residents living in City Plaza were moved to safe rented housing paid for with donations within the city.   
For the approximately 40 former residents that did not have a place to go to, City Plaza was replaced by a 7-apartment house named p.a.l.m.i.e.r – rented in the center of Athens. 
A comment from the project leader 
In a crisis situation that rapidly develops, the use of existing but empty or available houses and office buildings for accommodating refugees is environmentally safer than camps that are quickly rigged up and frequently do not yet have the proper facilities in place. Existing buildings are usually already connected to water and wastewater networks, and waste collection systems. This saves construction costs and diminishes other possible adverse environmental effects like the illegal dumping of waste. 
In Greece there is an example of a system that is focused on providing refugees with urban accommodation called Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation programme (ESTIA). This system is built with the cooperation between the UNHCR, the Greek Government, local authorities and NGOs. 

Crisis and Environment crowdfunding campaign – We are collecting funds to be able to continue the project

Crisis and Environment crowdfunding campaign – We are collecting funds to be able to continue the project

Now we need your help so we can continue this work. Support the Crisis and Environment project so we can tell the world about the environmental impacts of conflicts and possible solutions.
Join us in finding out how we can better prevent and anticipate crises related to the environment and discover solutions to overcome them. 
With the help of additional funding, we will travel to Syria, Iraq or other countries related to our research. The final destinations will be decided depending on the amount of funding we raise. The photographic, video, text and sound material collected from these trips will be used to create publications on the project’s website, exhibitions and multiple articles for the Finnish and international media. 
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We started the project in 2017. Our team has travelled to Jordan, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Using multiple communication channels, we wanted to raise awareness about the crises related to water and the environment at large, and the impacts they have. It is widely documented that the well-being of people and the environment are strongly linked. 

 In this project we look into the challenges on the environment, and therefore also into human well-being, caused by the Syrian war and the consequent large number of people fleeing internally displaced in Syria and also fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Turkey and Greece.


Major challenges on the environment caused by the crisis include: stress on groundwater resources, an increase in water consumption and amounts of wastewater, huge increases in the generation of waste, degradation of soil and grazing lands, challenges on land use, biodiversity loss and increased air pollution.


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Cooperation partner with our project is Lilith Cooperative


Living in unfinished buildings and wild shelters means harsh life for Syrian refugees – and growing environmental challenges for Turkey’s urban areas

Living in unfinished buildings and wild shelters means harsh life for Syrian refugees –
and growing environmental challenges for Turkey’s urban areas

Text: Nina Jaatinen & Emma Nikander

Photos: Vanessa Riki
Near the southern border of Turkey in an outskirt suburb of the Kilis city lives numerous Syrian refugee families.
One of them, a family of five, is settled in the ground floor of a two story building. The family consist of the mother, father and three small children, aged of 10 years, 8 years and 1,4 months. They come originally from Aleppo, from where they escaped six years ago illegally by smugglers.
It is very common that refugees are living in the spaces that were originally not meant to be for housing, for example in shops, garages and cellars. So does this family. The ground floor of the building was originally meant to be a shop, having an apartment upstairs. 

Urban refugees face great difficulties concerning their shelter needs

In 2019, 98 percent of Syrian refugees living in Turkey are living in urban, peri-urban or rural areas, while only the remaining refugees are living in temporary accommodation centres (UNHCR 2019).
Kilis and other city Gaziantep are located near Syrian border. Due to this they both host a large number of refugees. 
”There are 428 779 Syrian refugees living in Gaziantep city. According to the statistics the population of Gaziantep was 799 558 in 2012 and as 2023 projection it was estimated 2 257 278 people. However, at the end of 2015 the population was more than 300 000 with Syrians living in city center”, tells sociologist Ömer Atas, giving an example from Gaziantep. It explains how big is the problem. Atas is coordinator of Ensar Community Center which belongs to Migration Office of Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality.
In the cities like Kilis and Gaziantep, the amount of Syrian refugees has been a big challenge for the municipalities. Urban refugees face great difficulties concerning their shelter needs as well as their health.
Biggest problems in the areas are especially housing, water and wastewater, natural gas and power, solid waste collection as well as disposal and transportation.

The ground floor space is divided into two rooms with a plastic sheet. Earlier there were two families living in this space that was meant to be a shop.

Heating up the houses with coal causes pollution problems

The baby is sleeping in the warmest place on the ground floor – behind the oven that was just heated up by burning plastic and cardboard.

It’s cold, as it is already November. Heating up houses with coal is common among the local population in Turkey. But after the Syrian crisis and arrival of refugees, more households are heating up their homes with coal. It negatively affects the air quality and it’s causing a challenge for Turkey’s cities.

Many refugees struggle with their income and therefore buying coal is often not possible. They are forced to burn cardboard or plastic to create just enough warmth in their houses to help them through the cold winter months. 

The family in Kilis do not have enough money for heating. 25kg coal costs 40 Turkish lira (TL) and it lasts for only two days. The father works at a shop and gets a salary of 1,000 TL per month. The family needs 2,000 TL every month for living costs, so they get 1,000 TL further into debt every month. 

Lately the mother has been burning some cardboard in the coal oven to get at least a bit of warmth in the living area.

 “My husband gets some cardboard from the shop. Sometimes neighbors bring some cardboard from the factory”, she explains.

However, this means toxic pollution gets released into the air.

“My husband has got asthma due to the smoke and bad air”, she says.

At the same time the situation is putting significant pressure on the energy infrastructure. Consequently, the increase in energy consumption also increases greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a problem with the illegal use of electricity.

Finding an apartment is difficult

In Kilis, the number of Syrian refugees outnumbers the local residents. For example, in November 2018, there were 130,000 local residents and 131 000 Syrian refugees. This is one reason why it is hard to find a proper place to stay in Kilis. There aren’t any houses to rent anymore. Families are forced to share houses with two or three other families, which causes other kinds of challenges, such as medical and cultural difficulties.

For many refugees, living standards are low. They find themselves in very poor housing. And those who don’t have enough financial resources may have nothing else to choose, except unfinished, abandoned buildings or they end up making their own shelters.

 The family found their first place to stay with the help of relatives. 

“This place we found by asking around”, tells the mother.

There is severe water damage on the ground floor making this space unsuitable for living. The husband from this family got the cardboard for the heating from his work. 

The door for the ground floor space, that was originally meant to be a shop, is only a metal shutter. 

Ground floor apartment looks more like a garage. There is not even a proper door to insulate the cold air outside, merely a plastic sheet to make a place for the door.  

The biggest space of the apartment works as a living room and bedroom at the same time. There is mattresses next to the walls, where one can sit during the daytime and sleep during the night time.

Rising demand of housing has pushed up the rents

In Turkey, the increased demand for housing has pushed up the rents in the cities and neighborhoods where refugees have settled. In some areas the rents have risen almost threefold. This has had a negative impact on not only the asylum seekers, but also the local communities, especially those with a lower income.

Cities like Istanbul, which have been the main attraction for Syrian refugees, have had an increase in property sales. However, most of the asylum seekers have a low income and they live mostly as tenants in the city’s slums or poor areas.

The housing problem is also a threat to agricultural and protection areas, as new houses are being built due to high demand. For example in Gaziantep, an area densely populated with Syrian refugees, there is a need for 75,000 houses to be constructed with public funds. Beside housing,  there is also a need for schools, health care clinics, religious facilities, playgrounds and parks.


The family has managed to get a washing machine, which is very much needed when raising several kids and a baby. However, the electricity is expensive and the family struggles with living costs. 

The lack of water is a huge challenge in Kilis

The large number of Syrian refugees has increased the demand for potable water.

One of the biggest problems in Kilis is the availability of drinking water. Kilis is a very dry area and most of the water comes from a dam. In 2018, it rained significantly less than average, so the amount of water was not enough. The mother explains that two months ago there was a problem with the water flow. 

“There was a water outage for 24 days”, she says. “But now it’s been ok”.

Their small toilet also works as a shower. The family uses buckets to get water from the toilet tap to wash themselves. The other space works as a kitchen, where the family can make food. But the problem with making food, explains the mother, is that the water there is not drinkable because there is sometimes chlorine in it, sometimes calcium.

“In our country we are not used to drinking water with calcium”.

The ground floor has a tap and running water but the toilet serves both as a bathroom and shower, and it is the only source of water. 

Still an even bigger problem in Kilis city is the water pipe leakages coming from the old water distribution network.

“There is a 40% leakage rate in the city’s pipes”, tells Sertac Turhal, who is the project manager under the Syria Crisis and Resilience Response Program of UNDP Turkey.

During the last five years, when the Syrian refugees arrived in Kilis, the population increased twofold and water consumption increased threefold. Because of this, the daily amount of water distribution rose from 9,000 cubic meters to 27,000 cubic meters.

 Besides water consumption, the rising number of inhabitants is an extra challenge for the wastewater treatment plants and sewer infrastructure.

Learning Turkish is vital for surviving

The mother claims that they have not received any help from the government during this time. Only some NGOs have offered them some temporary help. One big problem is that not all members of the family understand Turkish.


“I can read and write Syrian, but my husband can’t”, she tells.


The opportunity to learn Turkish is also nearly impossible, as the husband works and the wife has to take care of the kids. There is no time to learn the language of the host country.


Local governments and NGOs have tried to find solutions to the housing problem, but the scale of demand is far beyond available resources. One problem is that not all of the urban refugees have been registered and information of their needs has not been collected in any systematic way.


Besides this, the language barrier creates even more challenges in providing services to Syrian refugees. It makes it problematic when raising awareness and spreading information about the rights to which the refugees are entitled.


“Life is difficult. We are looking for our dignity and we can’t get it from here. We have to move to Europe”, says the mother of the family.


The kitchen is divided from the main space with plastic sheets and is furnished with a rusty fridge and a kitchen table made from plastic baskets. A small gas plate is used for making food. 



Syrian refugee family.

Sociologist Ömer Atas, coordinator of the Ensar Community Center which belongs to the Migration Office of Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality.

Sertac Turhal, project manager under the Syria Crisis and Resilience Response Program of UNDP Turkey.


Syrian Refugees and Turkeys Challenge: Going beyond Hospitality. 2014.  Kemal Kirisci. Publisher Brookings; 2014, (p28)

Syrians Under Temporary protection in Turkey: Findings and Recommendations. 2016. Mehmet Duman,  Editors: Prof. Dr Adem Esen,. 2016: WALD; World Academy for Local Government and Democracy

Local Politics of Syrian Refugee Crisis. Exploring Responses in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 2017. Alexander Betts, Ali Ali and Fulya Memisoglu. 2017, University of Oxford; Refugee Studies Center