Greece has been on the frontline of the migrant crisis. How much of this inflow has Athens had to handle?
When the crisis erupted–in August 2015–Athens started receiving hundreds of refugees on a daily basis. More than 900,000 refugees came to Greece last year, the majority of which passed through Athens. So, you can understand the challenge that we had to deal with especially when the country was found completely unprepared to deal with these massive inflows. We were the first municipality to react providing a space for the first camp in Greece that can now host around 2,000 refugees. We had to offer urgent solutions to a problem so largely affecting the city’s normality. After the closing of the borders, flows have decreased but the EU-Turkey agreement is still at stake and we need to be constantly prepared to welcome new waves of refugees and provide emergency relief.
How has EUROCITIES helped the city handle the migrant crisis in particular to attract funds and expertise?
Our involvement with EUROCITIES has certainly helped us in getting expertise from other cities and sharing best practices on how to deal with the multiple implications of the refugee challenge. Our approach has been, from the beginning, to invest in synergies both internally and abroad. In this respect, and based on my belief that cities play a crucial role, I suggested the ‘Solidarity Cities’ initiative, which was approved at the EU Capital Cities Mayors meeting last April. Now, together with the EUROCITIES network and also within the framework of the Urban Partnership on Migration and Refugees, we are moving to the next steps of this initiative.
A lot of cities across Europe are facing financial constraints.
How has Athens been able to tap into civil society to address the most pressing problems?
Athens has recognised the role of civil society and has dynamically embraced citizens’ initiatives in its decision-making process. In times of austerity, we wanted to create a systematic mechanism that collects the available capacity of public spirited citizens to co-create new solutions for a better life in the city. This mechanism is called SynAthina and is an online platform that brings forward the voices of the various community groups of the city along several collaborations with the private sphere and new expertise. Around 2,000 activities and 250 community groups have so far connected to the SynAthina platform. Our platform won the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge award, and is part of an international rising tendency in social innovation.
It could easily be said that Athens has enough on its plate but is the city playing a role within the EU Urban Agenda and helping address other global challenges?
Athens has indeed played an active role in the EU Urban Agenda based on our belief that at a time when the EU is confronted with many difficulties, cities should have a strengthened role in EU policy-making as they can be strong allies in supporting the European project and pursuing the EU 2020 objectives. Cities have been a driving force in providing solutions to its most pressing challenges, such as the refugee crisis, air quality, unemployment etc. The recent signing of the Pact of Amsterdam with the adoption of the EU Urban Agenda is a landmark and the vindication for our enduring efforts in bringing cities closer to the EU.
Despite the economic crisis has Athens been able to attract tourists, both for leisure and business?
Athens has made a dynamic comeback in the global tourism and conference scene successfully navigating through the trying socio-economic conditions of the 2010-2012 period. We relied on our close collaboration with all the city’s stakeholders and our integrated tourism strategy that highlighted the unique characteristics of the city as well as the upgrading of services and infrastructure. We have moved beyond our indisputable historical legacy, aiming to showcase a rich cultural agenda and a profile of a contemporary destination hosting flagship international events such as the Documenta 14 exhibition and the international Athens Democracy Forum. Moreover, Athens today figures in the top 25 conference destinations, a sharp increase from 47th place we had only two years ago.