What Athens, Amman learned about helping refugees amid tight budgets

A Syrian woman and boy receive food assistance from a relief worker in Athens, April 2016. (Nice_Media/Shutterstock)

For lessons on how a major city should handle a migration crisis, look to a cradle of Western civilization: Athens. Already mired in economic crisis, the Greek capital was tested in the summer of 2015 when it was inundated with migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty — and who needed immediate housing and sustenance.

The city’s response was multi-pronged. It set aside space for Greece’s first temporary “accommodation centre,” which can shelter nearly 2,400 people. And it designed a subsidized housing initiative that matches migrants with vacant apartments.

Now, a report from the Rockefeller Foundation spotlights the creative steps that Athens and other metropolises across the globe are taking to avoid human catastrophe or accelerate the integrations of immigrants. Global Migration: Resilient Cities at the Forefront, was published by 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative launched by the foundation in 2013 that aims to help cities strengthen their resilience to physical, social and economic challenges.

[See: These preparations can help cities ease the impacts of migration]

Eleni Myrivili, chief resilience officer for Athens, writes in the report that the Greek capital has proven that migration offers pathways to strengthen urban resilience. A temporary housing programme in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shifted from emergency shelter to the provision of subsidized apartments for approximately 30,000 refugees.

It will evolve once more after participants find permanent residences. The focus would then shift to housing the local homeless population.

Athens even has managed to create new jobs as it tackles its refugee situation. Hundreds of young professionals — many formerly unemployed — were hired to help resettle new arrivals, Myrivili writes.

[See: Cities must stop underestimating their need and ability to respond to migration]

Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis underscores that municipalities can and should take the lead in such situations. In the report’s introduction he writes: “Cities have shown that local governments can play a decisive role during crises where national governments are either too remote or too politically constrained.”

Initiatives for immigrants

The report highlights the range of steps cities are taking to assist migrants. Some are creating new offices, while others are setting up innovative housing or anti-rumour campaigns:

  • Montréal’s Newcomer Integration Office: Originally designed to help Canada absorb 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, the office now has a wider mission: facilitate integration of migrants with one-stop shopping for city services.
  • New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs: The first municipal office in the United States devoted to the needs of immigrants has been replicated by other U. S. cities. The office addresses issues that including poverty, job opportunities and assistance for the undocumented.
  • Paris’s CALM Initiative: This government-sponsored housing programme, short for “Comme à la Maison” or “Just Like Home”, places refugees in private homes. The goal is to bridge cultural divides.

[See: How Nashville is training a new generation of local leaders from its immigrant communities]

  • Barcelona’s Anti-Rumour Campaign: To prevent misinformation and prejudice from taking root, the city council launched a public campaign that uses videos and comic books to dispel stereotypes about immigrants.
  • Welcoming Pittsburgh Plan: To fill a labour shortage, this U. S. city hopes to attract 20,000 new residents over the next decade, many of them immigrants. Mayor William Peduto’s strategy aims to connect newcomers with public amenities and housing.  

[See: In Calgary, ‘welcoming’ immigrants is no longer enough]

  • Ostfildern’s homeless mentors: The German city places refugees in new, energy-efficient housing alongside former homeless people. A community garden encourages interaction.

Amman maximizes resources

Amman is another example of a municipality tested by crisis. As the conflict in Syria heated up, the Jordanian capital was forced to quickly absorb more than 180,000 refugees — the equivalent of a midsize city. That is more than a quarter of the 655,000 displaced people who have sought shelter in the nation in recent years.

City leaders drew on their creativity to maximize resources. In conjunction with 100 Resilient Cities and its partner, the International Rescue Committee, Amman will debut an urban resilience research centre to gather and analyze data on refugees, with a focus on women and girls, the report says.

[See: Humanitarian response is getting a major urban overhaul]

Another goal is to employ “tactical urbanism” to quickly offer more amenities to displaced people such as no-frills football fields or miniature parks.

Co-working space for migrants and incentives to launch start-ups are envisioned along with information centres in neighbourhoods that would help refugees register and license new businesses.

Syrian refugees await help in Mafraq, north of Amman, June 2015. (Melih Cevdet Teksen/Shutterstock)

Among other impacts, Amman’s population spike resulted in a 25 percent increase in waste generation, the report says. That prompted the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other aid agencies to issue emergency loans to help the city improve its solid-waste disposal.

Applying lessons learned from Athens, the city is “leveraging” the loans to accomplish broader environmental goals that include greater reliance on renewable energy, reductions in fossil fuel emissions and job creation.

[See: What refugees living in cities need]

Together, Athens and Amman offer a critical lesson for city leaders: A decision to expend limited resources on humanitarian relief does not have to end with budget shortfalls and austerity measures.  

“Hosting large numbers of displaced persons can attract significant international investment,” the report emphasizes. “Cities can leverage these resources to build better infrastructure and improve social services for all residents.”

The report builds on September 2016 meetings in Athens that convened the chief resilience officers of eight 100 Resilient Cities members to examine the effects of the global migration crisis. In addition to Athens, representatives attended from Thessaloniki, also in Greece, as well as Amman, Paris, Montréal, Los Angeles, Ramallah and Medellín. The three-day event, dubbed the Athens Network Exchange, was part of the broader 100 Resilient Cities Network Exchange Program. Learn more here.

100 Resilient Cities provides members with funds to hire chief resilience officers, guidance on developing resilience strategies, access to ideas and solutions, as well as partners membership in a global network of municipalities. Visit www.100resilientcities.org  to learn more.

This article is the second of a three-part series. The first instalment highlighted preparatory steps that cities can take to ease migration crises. In upcoming coverage, Citiscope will highlight innovative technologies, from analytics to apps, being employed to aid with resettlement.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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