ANTIGONE LYBERAKI @ LSE: Immigration as catalyst for social policy modernisation

SolidarityNow General Manager, Antigone Lyberaki, was one of the three speakers of the “Greece Facing the Immigration and Refugee Crisis” organized by the Hellenic Observatory of the London School of Economics on February 20th. Mrs Lyberaki spoke about how Greece handled the unprecedented refugee and migratory flows in the country, but also about SolidarityNow’s innovative initiatives implemented to help all those affected by the consequences of the refugee and economic crisis in Greece.
“The refugee crisis demonstrates why a modern country needs an active and effective social policy. In this way the refugee crisis can force the pace of social reform in Greece and provide an example that can be applied more widely. It also demonstrates how national social policy cannot be an island – what happens in Greece (to both Greeks and refugees) is not simply a Greek problem but benefits from international and especially European solidarity” said Mrs Lyberaki.

Her speech follows.

Immigration as catalyst for social policy modernisation

  1. Basic facts on immigration lead to two paradoxes

There are two distinct questions on immigration: One refers to facts and the present: what is happening to the refugees stranded by the previous immigration wave? The other is conjectural and refers to a possible future. What could happen, should there be a repeat of 2015/6, if for example the refugees currently assembled in Northern Syria or in Turkey decide to make their way westward? I will deal with the first question, though the second ought be in our minds as an eventuality.

How many and what are the trends? According to UNHCR there exist this week 71,200 refugees in Greece. This number is more or less stabilized – as the numbers flowing in are more or less equal to those leaking out.  Of them 14600 (20%) are in the islands, in reception centres, under appalling conditions. 21300 (30%) are accommodated in apartments in urban centres.  A further 17000 (24%) are in mainland camps. The rest (25%) have made their own arrangements outside the system, including squatting or staying with friends, and are essentially unaccounted for.  This population was targeted by 1.4 billion Euros which were designated by the EU to their benefit covering the period from 2015 to 2020 (in practice three years from 2018 to 2020).

As far as living conditions are concerned: In the islands, conditions are shameful: endemic violence, insanitary conditions, exposure to the elements.

In the mainland camps, things are better. However, there is overcrowding, inadequate and/or insufficient services. The key problem is geographical isolation – they are in the middle of nowhere. Recall that the origin of the camp model lay in the 1940s and 1950s when the UN saw them as temporary solutions while resettlement was being implemented. In the event, they have turned into permanent settlements – marking decades of existence.

Those in urban accommodation are more fortunate, in the sense that their conditions are better and that they have greater freedom to act. Their key problem lies in agency: they are living in a kind of poverty trap – in the classic sense that, if they were to start working, they would lose their benefits. They pass their life in a kind of limbo – waiting for their eventual resettlement in Northern Europe.

A number of paradoxes are staring us in the face:

  • We are talking about small numbers which should be manageable for a country of 10 ½ million part of an EU of 550 million.
  • The earmarked funds are very large if calculated per head of beneficiary,
  • The kind of benefits available to refugees can be more generous than the social protection on offer to local vulnerable groups in need. We must remember that the Greek welfare state is top heavy on pensions and hardly concerned with other social risks.
  • All this is played out at the tail end of the largest and deepest crisis of the developed world – GDP per head is lower by a quarter what it was in 2008, recovery is still the most hesitant in the EU. Prospects are dire – driven by the need to repay debts.

We may summarise the situation by two paradoxes:

One from the inside-out: Social policy is facing financial stringency at the same time as there are funds for refugees. Austerity in social policy; generosity for refugees.

Another from the outside-in: How can conditions still be so bad, after all this time and all this money? Who benefits? Qui bono?

  1. Immigration and social policy – how do they fit? Four observations highlighted by recent events

Four stories to give a flavor of problems ‘in the field’.

Story 1. A refugee child needs a difficult spine operation. A team of top surgeons offers to perform the operation for free. The public hospital could not sidestep the waiting list. A private hospital stepped in, but did not know how to donate the cost necessary. A Swedish hospital volunteered, but the child could well be returned, not to Greece but to Syria or worse. Day-to-day refugee work is a legal minefield. You need a can opener for a (legal) can of worms.

Story 2. A donor asks an NGO working with unaccompanied minors why they are directing actions only to 230 beneficiaries. Why not spread the same amount to the 2000 unaccompanied minors who are currently in the streets of Athens. The reply was that spreading the benefits thinly may look good for donors, but will be ultimately wasted. If the objective is to create life chanced, the minimum that could be considered must include individual services and a long term commitment. Low quality is no quality. 

Story 3. Majd from Syria, a school leaver aged 20 with no other qualification, was helped by SolidarityNow as an interpreter and cultural mediator, in Arabic, Greek and English. He started work immediately, and after a while enrolled at a private University in Athens, studying English Language and Literature, with a scholarship from the US Government. Majd, no matter how good, could not attend a Greek public university. His take on all this was ‘Social Integration is no big deal; it is doable. It’s a matter of wanting it’. Solidarity works if it leads to empowerment.

Story 4. Social science graduates in Thessaloniki are living glory days. From being plagued by unemployment, they are now in heavy demand by refugee-linked NGOs. The sociology and social work market is so tight that NGOs are poaching staff each from the other. Whereas the curriculum was heavy on ex post analysis, which was all that could be practiced while social policy was simply spending on pensions and cash benefits. Suddenly, there was a demand for individual social services, with an emphasis on measurable results. Active, hands-on, social policy created a kind of Say’s law and changed the job market for social sciences.  Changing the type of social policy creates the need for new delivery structures.


  1. Immigration as catalyst for social policy modernization: the role of SolidarityNow

SolidarityNow was founded in 2013 on the initiative of the Open Society Foundation as a civil society response to the Greek financial crisis. The concern was that humanitarian effects of the crisis were feeding extreme reactions – evidenced inter alia, by the rise of Golden Dawn. Its interventions were to found two Solidarity Centres in Athens and Thessaloniki to provide free legal, psycho-social and employability services in deprived areas.

This work was underway, when the refugee crisis erupted. SN was well-placed to adapt the solidarity model to the needy refugee population. In other words, SN was not active on the beaches but took action as the second line of defence – concerned mainly with integration and advocacy – i.e. applying the existing solidarity model to a wider population.

Achievements to Date

  • SolidarityNow has interacted with over 300,000 individuals through direct implementation and regranting
  • SolidarityNow has established two Solidarity Centres (in Athens and Thessaloniki) and the Blue Refugee Centre in Thessaloniki, benefiting 100,000 individuals to date
  • SolidarityNow has provided shelter to 7,100 individuals through its accommodation project across Greece.
  • SolidarityNow, working with UNICEF and other partners, has facilitated the establishment and operation of Child and Family Support Hubs in refugee camps and urban areas. These centres have supported almost 14,000 children and care-givers
  • SolidarityNow’ reached more than 6,000 children and adults through its holistic Educational Programme. This combines language with vocational training and school support
  • SolidarityNow’s staff was 364 people across Greece in 2018; more than a sixth of that number were of migrant/refugee origin
  • SolidarityNow has received almost 500 volunteering applications, since the programme began in March 2017; it has taken on 145 volunteers across programmes and regions.
  • SolidarityNow’s 2018 total budgeted outlays amounted to €12.1 million. This was financed from the following source: 59% of this sum originated from UNHCR, 18% from UNICEF, 19% from the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and 4% from other donors.  SolidarityNow’s estimated budget for 2019 is in the order of €16 million.

So, SN is and was an organization concerned with social policy in Greece. Its involvement with refugees must be seen as a part of its overall mission. However, the refugee crisis can act as a catalyst for the kind of modernization that is long overdue in Greece. SN is acting as an innovator in social policy, in the following areas:

  • Result- driven social interventions. In a social system concerned with disbursing money to secure privileges or political leverage, responding to the immediate needs of refugees cannot escape confrontation with results.
  • Value for money. SN acts as a mediator between external donors and beneficiaries. It is accountable to both – and needs to prove it on a constant basis.
  • A need to align benefits for refugees with what is available to others. Individually tailored actions must be made available to a wider population – for which extra, internal finance must be sought.
  • Social policy is not the responsibility of the State alone. The State is assisted by civil society, volunteers, donors and professionals. Novel needs demand novel approaches. Experimentation is necessary if we are tackle new problems. First we need to test what works, amend it and scale it up.
  • Social policy can work if it provides life chances. It is not simply providing hand-outs or securing favourable publicity.
  • Thinking out of boxes – very frequently two issues can be dealt together. An example is Long Term Care, very important in a rapidly ageing country facing austerity. A certified training course for carers addressed to unemployed Greeks and refugees will create a type of inter-generational and inter-ethnic solidarity bridge.

The refugee crisis demonstrates why a modern country  needs an active and effective social policy. In this way the refugee crisis can force the pace of social reform in Greece and provide an example that can be applied more widely. It also demonstrates how national social policy cannot be an island – what happens in Greece (to both Greeks and refugees) is not simply a Greek problem but benefits from international and especially European solidarity.