Ioannina is a small city in the region of Epirus in northwestern part of Greece with more than 2000 refugees currently hosted by the Municipality. In the words of Dr. Moses Elisaf, Mayor or Ioannina: “The municipality plays the main supportive role in coordinating the activities to address the migration and refugee problem. We aim for an open, tolerant, inclusive society, and I think we are succeeding”.
The Municipality of Ioannina has developed multi-level actions for the integration of refugees and migrants, following a holistic view that sets the focus on smooth and well-managed inclusion of migrants into the local community. Services such as home for victims of domestic violence, dormitory for homeless people, social grocery store and a social pharmacy, have been successfully set up to serve the needs of the most disadvantaged groups.
In the framework of the EPIC project, the Municipality of Ioannina works hand in hand with Symbiosis. The NGO based in Thessaloniki aims to promote democratic participation in social and political processes without discrimination and exclusion. Among its different initiatives, Symbiosis implements the Council of Europe programme to promote the linguistic integration of adult migrants in Ioannina and has carried out different training programmes in this city for the development of educational skills as well as the implementation of language teaching.
In 2020, the mayor of Ioannina invited Symbiosis to participate in the Ioannina Urban Working Group, a consultative body in effective urban management with the ultimate goal of creating a welcoming city.
As a partner and provider, there is also the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – of which Greece was the founding member (in 1951) – that cooperates with the Municipality and many local service providers implementing a number of programmes for migrant inclusion, among others, the Helios project.
Helios is a project focused on awareness raising, workshops, trainings and events in order to create opportunities for interaction between the migrants and the host society, emphasising the importance and benefits of migrants’ integration into Greek society.
Both the Municipality and the IOM collaborate with ASB, a charitable NGO that implements programmes to support the Greek government in migration management in the regions of Epirus and Diavata. ASB goal is to ensure that decent and harmonised reception standards are provided to international protection applicants. The pillars of ASB work include coordination, protection, interpretation, non-formal education and community supported participation. ASB’s goal is to provide and maintain safe and dignified living conditions for migrants with access to civil services, enhanced physical and psychological security, enhanced capacity for self-protection and self-reliance.
Migrant children are one of the most vulnerable social groups in every society and thus need constant care and attention. ARSIS, a social youth support organisation, serves children, young people and other disadvantaged groups offering psychological counselling and legal support. Since 2017, ARSIS has focused on working with unaccompanied minors providing them with semi-autonomous living in apartments.
Although there are many organisations actively operating in the field of services in the city of Ioannina, the need for ad hoc providers will never be enough. Therefore, the Intercultural Centre for Social Integration “Academia” was established in 2021. Athena Peglidou, Coordinator in the Centre explains: “We have noticed that there is a big gap in the filing of migrant tax returns. We provide support both with the interpretation and the preparation of appropriate documents, so that migrant people can file their tax returns. With tax returns they have access to public services such as those by OKPAPA, the social grocery store and the social pharmacy.” The Centre cooperates with many other bodies within the Municipality making sure that services can be effectively completed to the best of their quality.
In August 2020, the Municipality of Ioannina established the Migrant Refugee Integration Council. This is an advisory body aimed to make suggestions to the Municipal Council for the Development of Local Actions in order to promote smooth social integration of migrants and refugees. The Council is providing feedback to local authorities about migrants’ living conditions and other challenges, to make sure their voice is adequately heard and taken into account.
Finally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been working closely with the Municipality of Ioannina since 2016. Petros Mastakas, Associate Protection Officer of UNHCR emphasises: “There have been very important achievements, which have not only helped the local community and the institutions of Ioannina and Epirus, but also constitute examples of good practice, which we hope, other municipalities in Greece and abroad will adopt”.