In the last few months the Antiracist Initiative of Thessaloniki and the Social Centre – Immigrants’ Place (Steki) in Thessaloniki have been threatened with closure due to a long overdue debt. It is a debt of 85.000€ to the Public Power Corporation (PPC, or DEI in Greek) and of 5.000€ to the Municipality of Thessaloniki owed by the now defunct Refugee Shelter. The Antiracist Initiative and Steki have been bearing the burden of this debt for 6 years now since the only Refugee Shelter in the city of Thessaloniki was threatened with closure. At that time, we offered our own legal name as the bearer of the electricity costs of that Refugee Shelter. That was the only immediately available solution to keep the shelter operational and prevent refugees hosted there from becoming homeless. In what follows we describe the key-points of that hard but interesting solidarity effort to organise a Refugee Shelter as well as how we propose to deal with this outrageous debt.
The history of the old Refugees’ Shelter in Thessaloniki
The Refugees’ Shelter, situated at the Siatistis 12 & Filippou corner, had been for many years the only hosting facility for refugees in the city of Thessaloniki and was providing accommodation to 14 families (or approximately 70 people). In January 2010 the shelter was shut down by the NGO that was managing it on the grounds of financial difficulties (according to the NGO’s declaration). At that time, the Antiracist Initiative of Thessaloniki with the support of other collectives and concerned parties – such as unions, associations, municipal movements and political parties of the left – as well as with the active participation and support of hundreds of people, organised a common front in order to rescue the Refugees’ Shelter from closure. Our initial target was to keep the Shelter open and operational, by any means necessary, till a public entity could take over the financing and the operation of the facility since we believed – and still do so – that this should be a responsibility of the state.
Despite the difficulties that such a new project involved for us, the Refugees’ Shelter operated in an excellent way managed by the common assembly of refugees and solidarity people for more than a year. The practical needs were covered only by the Antiracist Initiative and the practical solidarity and material support of dozens of other people and collectives which offered voluntary work, financial support and in-kind donations. This way, we managed to cover all the needs of the residents of the shelter without any funding, since the Antiracist Initiative does not accept, in principle, any financial subsidies for its activities.
The most serious difficulty we faced was in the summer of 2010 when DEI stopped the provision of electricity – responsibility for the utility costs until that time rested with the NGO that left the Shelter’s management a few months earlier. Despite concerted efforts to re-connect the electricity (legally or not, and even with the use of a generator), it was not technically possible. On the other hand, Thermi City Council (who is the owner of the building), Thessaloniki City Council and other responsible public entities declined to provide any support. Thus at that point, the only way to keep the facility open was to bear the electricity costs on our own. To do so, we collectively decided in consultation with all parties involved in the project to start a new electricity account in the name of the not-for-profit legal entity “Social Centre of Thessaloniki” which we had established to support the formal operations of the Social Centre – Immigrants’ Place (space rental, utility bills etc.). It was obvious that this not-for-profit entity could not legally undertake responsibility for the utility costs of the Refugee Shelter as it did not have a legal relationship with the building hosting the shelter (no legal form of ownership, rental or concession). However, the new connection succeeded after our collective political intervention, always with the aim to keep the shelter functional and the residents living and surviving there. During that year of self-management (till 12/2010) we redeemed properly all expenses- including the electricity bill – by paying 2000€ as guarantee and 3.864€ for electricity consumption.
However, because during this time we were unable to find a relevant public entity willing to undertake the regular and permanent operation of the Refugee Shelter, the Antiracist Initiative was forced at the end of 2010 to pull out of the project as it couldn’t – and should not have to – bear the responsibility to cover the operational costs indefinitely. The Refugee Shelter continued to operate and host refugee families till November 2014 when, at the initiative of solidarity citizens, financial support and apartments were offered for the relocation of the remaining families. The Refugees’ Shelter has since been evacuated and locked down by the building’s owner.
During the period between the Antiracist Initiative’s withdrawal and the final closure of the Refugee Shelter, dozens of refugee families were accommodated and the 24 electricity connections recorded consumption corresponding to 80.000€. At Antiracist Initiative we were aware of the fact that these expenses were being charged to us but we could not request a disconnection as the building was still hosting refugees and children. In our view, the only solution would have been the re-establishing of the shelter as the responsibility of a public entity which would, reasonably, assume the debt, something that obviously never happened.
The Current Situation
After the final evacuation of the Refugees’ Shelter building and the termination of the contract with DEI, there was a total amount of 80.066€ charged to the 23 Ermou street account of the not-for-profit Social Centre – Immigrants’ Place (Steki). To this debt another amount of 4.220€ of municipal fees has been added. Despite our repeated appeals and objections with DEI management, it has been made clear to us that there is no possibility of waiving this debt. If we were not to accept it, then Steki would have been threatened with immediate power disconnection and the debt transferred to those comrades acting as legal representatives of the non-profit organization. Meanwhile, for the past 18 months we have had to pay DEI over 5.000€ in interest to avoid disconnection.
If we don’t settle the debt, it is obvious that Steki will shut down and even then the debt would still be payable. Without Steki all those solidarity activities that are hosted and supported by its existence, such as the solidarity courses for migrants and Greeks, solidarity kitchen, the collection and distribution of basic necessities and many other activities will stop existing. In addition, we believe that this will be also a political failure and a step backwards on the part of the Antiracist Initiative and solidarity movements.
In view of these risks, we had no choice but to decide to collectively assume responsibility for the debt and ask for repayment by instalments, although it is obvious that this debt has not arisen as a result of some action or lack of action on our part, but as a result of our decision to stand in solidarity – without considering the consequences – with a collective need in our city.
As we have mentioned before, the Antiracist Initiative and Steki have made a statutory decision to not request or accept any funding from public or private institutions. The only income which sustains our solidarity initiatives and all other activities, is derived from individual donations, our publicly organised events and the everyday operation of Steki. It is obvious however that without any additional resources it will be impossible to fulfil the repayment arrangement of such a huge debt and this is why we have been obliged to reach out – first and foremost – to all those parties that were participating or supported the old Refugees’ Shelter project, asking that they share the responsibility of repayment of this common debt.
As the debt is in our name, anyone willing to contribute to the repayment can do so only through donations to the legal entity representing Steki. For this reason and for the first and only time in our history, we have no alternative than to accept funding, even from organisations we have never considered as potential backers. It is an extremely unpleasant and soul-crushing situation for us which, unfortunately, we cannot avoid.
It is absolutely clear that all the money received will be directed entirely and exclusively towards the repayment of the 80.000€ debt to DEI. This means that donations will have no impact on Steki and Antiracist Initiative finances and activities. Steki and the Antiracist Initiative will not only abstain from benefiting from this arrangement but – necessarily – will further contribute according to their maximum capacity to service this debt by requesting the urgent contribution of Steki’s friends and supporters. The financial arrangement will be public and transparent. In this regard, we would like to announce, through this circular, the donation of 15.000€ from “Solidarity for All” directed to the repayment of the debt, as in 2010 Syriza was one of the allies of Antiracist Initiative in the Refugees’ Shelter project. On the same grounds, we further announce that we have requested funds from Thessaloniki City Council, DEI and others.
In particular, we reach out to every solidarity collective, every comrade in Greece and abroad, by asking to contribute – always according to their capacity – for the repayment of the debt, because this is the only way to keep Steki alive and continue the solidarity activities that take place there as well as the socio-political interventions of the Antiracist Initiative. In the 20 years since the establishment of Antiracist Initiative and the 12 years of Steki’s operation we have managed to cope with all difficulties and stay alive. We strongly believe that it is worth fighting once more.
Antiracist Initiative of Thessaloniki
Social Centre – Immigrants’ Place
A few word about us
The Antiracist Initiative of Thessaloniki was established in 1998 as an open coordination space of movements for the social and political collectives of Thessaloniki fighting against the cruelty of racism. We’ve been fighting for 19 years now through demonstrations, protests, events and the “Antiracism Festival” for legalisation and social equality for migrants, open borders and asylum provision for refugees as well as for the organisation of solidarity and material support towards all oppressed and excluded social groups. We operate on the basis of a weekly open assembly (every Wednesday at 9pm) and we are based in Social Centre – Immigrants’ Place.
Further Info: antiratsistiki.gr, fb: https://www.facebook.com/antirathess/
The Social Centre – Immigrants’ Place (Steki) was established in 2004 by Antiracist Initiative and since 2009 has its premises in the historic building of Ermou 23, in the city centre of Thessaloniki. Except from Antiracist Initiative, in its 3 floors, Steki hosts nowadays more than 20 political movements, labour, social and immigrants’ collectives, assemblies and initiatives, as well as theatrical and cultural groups. Several activities and collectives of material solidarity have been developed in Steki, like “Ektos Taxis” education group that provides free courses in natives and immigrants, Solidarity Kitchen that provides every weekend meals and company to hundreds of people, Room39 that collects and distributes NFIs and food in refugees and homeless, the Legal Team for the Protection of Refugees’ and Immigrants’ Rights and many other temporary or permanent projects.
Further Info: socialcenter.gr, fb: https://www.facebook.com/socialcenterthess/