Special Report: Northern Greek hoteliers reluctant to let to refugees

Most hoteliers in northern Greece are extremely reluctant to rent their rooms to refugees, fearing that this will negatively impact their tourism business, according to UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) officials in Greece.

Only a small number of hotels, chiefly those in mountain regions, have embraced the refugee hospitality programmes as a “life-raft” for their ailing businesses, they noted.

The UNHCR alone has leased 19 hotel in Grevena, Ioannina, Kastoria, Pella and Thessaloniki where roughly 2,000 of the more vulnerable refugees, asylum seekers and candidates for relocation have stayed for an average of 50 days, the UNHCR’s Stella Manou said.

“The criteria for choosing the hotels are specific and include, among others, a minimum capacity of 50 beds, immediate availability with an initial contract of three months, that they are situated within 10 km of a hospital and one kilometre from a school, supermarket and ATM,” she told the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA).

According to the head of the Thessaloniki hoteliers’ union Aristotelis Thomopoulos, the city’s hoteliers showed little interest in the aid organisations’ requests to put up refugees. “We sent the relevant requests to our members in early autumn but there was no significant response,” he said. Since the start of last year, he pointed out, hotels in the area have been experiencing an economic recovery and seen a large increase in the number of Greek guests, while there was no change in the number of foreign guests.

Halkidiki hoteliers opposed to taking refugees

“We have to protect our tourism product,” said the head of the Halkidiki hoteliers’ union Grigoris Tasios, who opposed the arrival of refugees in the area under a Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) programme. “We are not saying that they should not have hospitality but the government must understand that there is a ‘conflict of interest’ in a region that has lost a large part of its tourism,” he explained. Hospitality structures for refugees must be built in Greece’s interior, he added.

“We disagree with hosting them in infrastructure that is in tourist areas and ‘throwing away’ the more general economic benefit for a fleeting 2-3 month profit from the rents paid by non-governmental organisations (NGOs),” Tasios said.

In spite of the reactions, three tourist facilities in Halkidiki have so far signed leases with the NRC and the first refugees have been installed.

According to the NRC’s head for Greece Gianmaria Pinto, only 2.4 pct of the hotels contacted by the humanitarian aid organisation have agreed to take refugees, despite repeated attempts.

“Many owners were reluctant to accept refugees to stay, thinking that they will damage their hotel’s reputation and that tourists will not come in the summer. We understand that some municipalities discouraged other hotels. It is important to explain that a rental period of two months outside the tourist season will give us more time to find apartments. We provide payment for hotels and apartments at a time that would otherwise be quiet. We hope that the Greek people can accept this as an opportunity,” he said.

Pinto said that the NRC’s Urban Housing and Response programme covers seeks to eventually transfer the most vulnerable individuals among the refugees to apartments. The wintry conditions and the lack of improvements to refugee accommodation had forced the NRC to change the programme requirements and start moving people to hotels early as an emergency measure, he explained.

“Allowing refugees and migrants to live in safety and dignity must be our main aim. This is not possible with the use of warehouses and facilities with tents, so the NRC is working with Greek authorities and NGOs, using EU funding, to allow children, women and men to move to apartments and hotels,” he said.

The hotels and apartments programme is financed by the European Commission until the end of July, with a budget of 1.8 million euros, and has so far transferred more than 400 people.

Among them were a newly-wed couple from Syria, Baser and Samar, who have been in Greece for 10 months and are expecting their first child. They lived on the islands and then in a camp in the interior without, as they said, “experiencing one good day as newly-weds”.

“In the tents we sat on the floor and didn’t have a wall to lean against. Now that we live in the hotel it is better and we are anxious to go to a safe country. For the time being we are living day to day in an environment that is a thousand times better than the camps,” said 24-year-old Baser.

A father of three, 34-year-old Ibrahim, related his own experiences at the hands of migrant traffickers in Turkey as the three children bounced on the beds beside him. “I paid 1300 dollars to the migrant trafficker to bring us to Greece but he was asking for even more. Another one in Idomeni also asked for money so I could be in a ‘priority queue’ to cross the border, which was still open when I got there.” After living in Greece in various camps for nearly a year, the first thing that he did when he arrived in the hotel was to “clean up the kids and throw their dirty clothes away,” he told ANA.

According to the head of the Grevena hoteliers’ union Giorgos Dagoumas, the refugee hospitality programmes gave the area’s hotels a much-needed new lease of life.

“Thank goodness for these programmes, otherwise we would have to hand over the keys to the banks,” he told ANA, noting that business in Grevena had dropped by as much as 85 pct since 2009.

“We were being led to closure with mathematical certainty since the state made no real provision for promoting mountain destinations. The 3- and 4-star hotels were therefore rented to refugees because they often did not have a single guest and even five euros profit is important,” Dagoumas said.