What is unique about Tilos?
Making actual participation possible: Tilos, an island of 800 residents, has shown how existing communities can welcome newcomers and include them quickly in local life. Local authorities, together with residents, have worked to create a community with refugees. In doing so, their focus has not been on solutions for a temporary stay, but on getting refugees involved in different aspects of public life: from jobs to social events.
“We have said from the beginning that this is not a correct way of dealing with the refugee issue: To have people locked up in camps, isolated, to feed them but not to actually provide anything for them. We want to integrate them fully in the social life of the island. There is no other more proper way of dealing with the refugee issue.”Maria Kamma Aliferi, Mayor of Tilos
What are the key factors?
A visionary mayor in a special community: The in-take of refugees in 2015 on Tilos was the continuation of the overall progressive course followed by the island for the last 20 years. Many of the innovative schemes were spearheaded by the former mayor of Tilos, Tasos Aliferis, who was a seasonal doctor on the island and became mayor in 1995 after he decided to settle there. Overall, what makes the example of Tilos really special is not each individual initiative or project, but the overall atmosphere of community and participation of the island.
What are the greatest achievements?
Refugees as co-owners of local businesses: Tilos received more than 5,000 refugees in 2015 alone and has since maintained a welcoming and proactive approach towards inclusion. In contrast to most other communities throughout Greece, local businesses in Tilos offered jobs to refugees. In the case of the Irrina cheese factory cooperative, city authorities went one step further: They created the opportunity for refugees to become co-owners of a local business. In this sense, the welcoming of refugees in Tilos goes beyond humanitarianism, to a process of more equal participation in economic life on the island.
Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level
Tilos is a member of the Cities Network for Integration.
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Download the full city report
The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.
Political context of Greece
Key developments of recent years
Greece has endured frequent economic and political crises since 2010, with migrants often becoming scapegoats in both mainstream political party rhetoric and the media. As the former Public Order Minister declared: “illegal migrants are a threat to the system of social welfare and solidarity, public health, public order and security, as well as national security. They are a time bomb in the foundations of Greek society.” The ultra-right has also grown rapidly during this time. However, the so-called "refugee crisis" in the summer of 2015 shifted the dominant representation of migration in Greece. Refugees began to be viewed less as threats and more as fellow humans fleeing war-torn countries. All mainstream media, including conservative press outlets, began designating these mass migration movements as a “refugee crisis”. While Greece has been both a transit country and a destination for over two decades, before 2015 fewer than 100,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea each year. However, that summer alone, almost one million people made the journey. Local people generally welcomed newly arrived migrants, and a far-reaching solidarity movement developed that spread from the Aegean islands to Athens and even further. In addition, the election of the left-wing Syriza party also influenced mainstream discourse. Syriza came from a completely different background than previous governing parties, and had historically supported migrant rights. This different background was evident – at least during the first months – both in the government’s rhetoric and in the ways in which migration was managed. In May 2016, then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stated: “We, in Greece, are facing two important crises simultaneously: the economic and the refugee [crises]. (…) We have to enrich our response to the one that lies behind all the others: the humanitarian crisis.” The Syriza government implemented certain initiatives to support refugees, especially during its first few months in office.
Overall conditions for refugees in the country
Refugees are given access to the public health system and to housing through certain programmes such as ESTIA. The first open refugee camp was set up in Elaionas, in close proximity to the city centre of Athens – a sharp contrast to the previous closed detention centres. However, in the months following the summer of 2015, Syriza’s policies gradually became harsher. The EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 transformed the Greek islands into a buffer zone, creating a double border between Turkey and Greece. “Hotspots”, a new neutral word for refugee camps, were set up on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, and other Aegean islands. Refugees and migrants waited for months or even years for the proper documents required to reach the mainland. The Moria refugee camp gradually became synonymous with increasingly humiliating conditions. The overall conditions on the mainland are better, but not by much. A few thousand refugees have access to housing through certain programmes set up by international organisations or NGOs. The rest, however, are either homeless or living in camps on the outskirts of big cities. In most cases, the mainland camps are also overcrowded, with very harsh living conditions. Access to welfare, health and education is also difficult and complicated, especially for people living in remote camps. Nonetheless, a dynamic solidarity movement has grown since 2015. For instance, some occupied buildings in both Athens and Thessaloniki have been transformed into refugee accommodation.
The impact of the 2019 elections
The elections of 2019 brought Nea Dimokratia, a conservative party, back to power, giving new fuel to xenophobic and racist views in mainstream discourse and politics. Refugees can no longer access public health services for free, in the same ways as the native population, while camp conditions have further deteriorated. The COVID-19 pandemic, instead of being a reason for improving the living and hygiene conditions in the camps, became an excuse for applying more restrictive and authoritarian policies. Instead of providing proper medical care and basic hygiene conditions, the government even sealed off open camps to prevent the virus from spreading.
Refugees have also been the target of attacks in several high-profile incidents. On Lesvos, locals attacked NGO workers and set fire to refugee reception centres. In Kammena Vourla, the locals rioted against the opening of a shelter for 39 unaccompanied refugee children. People in several towns and neighbourhoods collaborated to prevent refugee children from participating in public school classes. In the national media, these incidents were covered as evidence for the argument that “Greece cannot take in any more refugees”.