Country facts

  • Population: 11 million
  • Asylum seekers in Greece:119,700, of which 19,100 are on the islands (Lesbos, Samos, Chios)
  • Rank in Human Development Index: 33 of 191

IRC response

  • Started work in Greece: July 2015
  • People assisted: over 30,000

Greece crisis briefing

Three years ago, people fleeing violence in the Middle East and South and Central Asia viewed Greece as an entry point to Europe. Today, Greece has become something like a holding pen for people seeking asylum. The 50,000-plus refugees in Greece can no longer legally travel deeper into Europe; most will likely remain in the country. Integration is key to ensuring that they build successful lives in what is their new home, a challenging task in any country but exacerbated in Greece because of its ongoing financial difficulties.

What caused the crisis in Greece?

This is not a humanitarian crisis, but a political one. The European Union was founded on a commitment to international law and human rights that has driven policies for 60 years. Recently, however, the European Union adopted border restrictions and other edicts that have prevented people seeking sanctuary from entering Europe, putting the world’s most vulnerable increasingly at risk. The EU’s policies also mean that Greece, along with Italy, are being asked to shoulder much of the responsibility for the lives of those who have reached Europe in search of safety.

For instance, since the March 2016 agreement restricting border crossings, some 16,000 refugees—the majority from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan—remain stuck on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. Many are forced to live in overcrowded and dangerous conditions as they wait months for their asylum cases to be heard.

An additional 38,000 refugees are living on the Greek mainland, the majority in urban settings. Most have been traumatized by war and require psychosocial support and counseling, medical aid and other humanitarian assistance. Greece and Italy cannot be expected to bear this responsibility on their own.

What are the main humanitarian challenges in Greece?

Most refugees living in urban settings are unable to find work to support their families as Greece continues to struggle economically in the aftermath of the 2015 financial crisis. High unemployment rates have taken a toll on the local population as well. As of January 2018, over 43 percent of Greek youth are unemployed. The overall unemployment rate is above 20 percent. A robust integration program is needed to ensure that local residents as well as asylum seekers benefit from assistance. Solutions and interventions must be coordinated with local and national efforts, emphasizing the important role host communities and governments play.

Refugees also need reliable information about their prospects for asylum and available services. Women, many traveling alone with children, need protection from sexual violence and trafficking. Children need support to heal from trauma. Unaccompanied children, many waiting to reunite with families relocated in other countries in Europe, fall victim to exploitation.

How does the IRC help in Greece?

Economic recovery and development

Refugees are people with potential. They want to lead self-sufficient lives and contribute to their new communities. With over 80 years’ experience assisting people fleeing conflict, including four decades resettling them in the United States, the IRC knows that access to the workforce is key to successful integration. In Greece, we are focused on livelihoods programming to support integration, and we are working with local partners to implement self-employment and employment readiness programs for both refugees and local residents.

Information, protection and psychological support

The IRC provides refugees in Greece—whether they are on the move, in camps, or living in urban settings—with credible, up-to-date information about available services, legal rights, and options for asylum, relocation and family reunification. One way we do this is through Refugee.Info, a mobile-friendly website available in Arabic, Farsi, French and English. Refugee.Info content is also available on Facebook.

The IRC has created Safe Zones for unaccompanied and separated children in two refugees camps on the Greek mainland. These safe zones provide children with a safe alternative to police detention until they are reunified with family or placed in shelters or foster care. We also provide a variety of support services to vulnerable children in three other camps.

The IRC is collaborating with Greece’s ministry of migration policy and local and international humanitarian organizations to address violence against women and girls and to meet the mental health and psychosocial needs of all refugees and asylum seekers. These services, which include counseling and outreach, are provided in Athens, Thessaloniki and four camps on the mainland. The IRC is also responding to the mental health needs of asylum seekers in overcrowded reception centers on the islands of Lesbos and Chios. 

Environmental health

The IRC provides much-needed water, sanitation and hygiene at two refugee sites in Greece: Eleonas, just outside of Athens, and Kara Tepe on Lesbos. Here, we provide access to drinking water, toilets, hot showers, laundry facilities and supplies like soap, shampoo and toothpaste. We also teach basic hygiene techniques that help prevent the spread of disease, and we ensure that trash and recyclable items are collected regularly.

What still needs to be done?

As more and more refugees are transferred from camps to apartments in towns and cities, the IRC is adapting our response to meet their basic needs, protect them from exploitation and violence, and assist them to build a better future for their families. As the majority of refugees in Greece will likely settle in the country, we will continue to work with local partners to ensure that refugees are integrated into their new communities.