Small Greek island facilitates integration of Syrian refugees

More than 60,000 refugees have been left in limbo in Greek camps waiting to hear whether they will be granted asylum and allowed to settle in the European Union or whether they will be rejected and returned to Turkey from where they set out. Despite this bleak situation, there is one small Greek island, Tilos in the Aegean Sea which offers some semblance of hope and possibly a best practice example on how Europe could promote integration and address the refugee crisis.

Ever since the migration crisis began in 2015, the inhabitants of the island have showed solidarity and welcomed asylum seekers. Significantly it became the first local society to express an interest in hosting refugees. It is now home to a dozen Syrian families, about 70 people in total, many of them young children. This is a significant figure considering the entire population of Tilos is less than 500 people. The refugees have been well integrated and are further said to be “making a positive social and financial contribution to the island.”

“If a little island like ours can support 12 families, then others can do the same, in proportion to their population. Bigger communities can take larger numbers. We can solve the refugee problem,” says Maria Kamma, the mayor of Tilos. “We think that the arrangement we have here is a model that could be exported to the rest of Greece and the whole of Europe.”

Central to these efforts is a Greek NGO called SolidarityNow, funded by the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations organisation. Fay Koutzoukou, the group’s accommodation programme coordinator compares the situation in Tilos to Lesbo and other Greek islands. She underlines that the refugees were stuck in the camps in Lesbos with no attempt being made to integrate them. Stressing that this was not a good model, she emphasised that NGOs and the private sector were needed to take the lead to help facilitate integration.

Koutzoukou underlined that the situation on Tilos had provided a perfect opportunity to facilitate cooperation and integration. In particular, she underlined how hotels and shops got higher numbers of tourists during the summer months and consequently needed extra people. As such, she noted that they “contacted local businesses and said ‘Why hire someone from Athens when you have people here on the island for whom you won’t need to pay travel or accommodation costs?’

The SolidarityNow model works on the basis of a three-stage, more inclusive, framework. The first stage is to get the local population to accept the refugees. In the second stage, the organisation of Greek classes provides refugees with the requisite language skills; and the final stage is aimed at getting refugees working.

Entrepreneurship is another key factor in facilitating integration on the island.  For instance, plans are in place for refugees to partner with locals to set up a cheese factory and export local produce internationally. Among its objectives the Tilos project aims to improve the self-reliance of refugees and vulnerable members of the host community. Likewise, it aims to bridge humanitarian aid with development perspective.

Moreover, this project has provided activities which benefit both refugees and the host community. Currently the refugee families in Tilos live in a residence funded by UNHCR and the NGO SolidarityNow; where they receive English, Greek and computer classes at the village school and work in Tilos companies. With this program, SolidarityNow also assisted the island to “boost the local economic cycle through direct cash assistance for refugee families” and strengthened its health facilities through a grant, thus providing medical facilities to the local population.

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