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To Integrate or to Move On? A Case Study of Refugees in Towns, Thessaloniki, Greece

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Mohamad Kasra, Osman Mohammad, Rabih Saad, and Ioanna Terzi, with Anjali Khatri

Introduction

Thessaloniki is known by Greeks as the “Mother of Migration,” due to its centuries-long history of providing refuge to those fleeing persecution and conflict, from Sephardic Jews in the 1400s to Greek refugee returnees in the 1900s. Today, Thessaloniki hosts asylum seekers and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, plus south Asian and African countries. In Greece as a whole, asylum seekers and refugees number some 115,600, with around 16,000 in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area. Some refugees treat Thessaloniki as a transit city where they stay while preparing to travel to other, wealthier European countries. Others see Thessaloniki as a permanent home (destination city) and seek to integrate into Greek society.

This report attempts to shed light on the integration process for the most recent wave of refugees in Thessaloniki. While Greece still officially considers itself a transit country, and official policy is meant to provide refugees and asylum seekers with temporary relief while they await permanent resettlement, we show that for migrants, many processes meant to be temporary are in fact often the first steps toward de facto integration to Thessaloniki and a sense of permanence.

The report first explains refugees’ journey to Greece’s borders and the obstacles preventing them from leaving Greece, making it a de facto host country. We then explain four initial steps toward integration in Thessaloniki: receiving an asylum card (currently called a “White Card”), registering at Diavata Refugee Camp, acceptance in the urban housing program, and receiving Greek social security and tax numbers. We then explore the economic challenges and the setbacks in education, housing, and employment that refugees face while integrating.

Our research includes the authors’ personal experiences as well as the experiences of those we have interacted with or interviewed. Our backgrounds gave us access to Urdu-, Arabic-, and Farsi-speaking refugees as well as to the native Greek population.