SHARE Mayors in the Spotlight: a SHARE Network series featuring short interviews with Mayors making tangible contributions to receiving refugees or supporting newcomers in European smaller and rural communities.
Vasilios Tsiakos, Municipality of Karditsa, Greece
Promoting inclusion for all in a rural area in Central Greece
Vasilios Tsiakos has been engaged in local politics for 10 years. For nine of these, he served as Vice-Governor of the Thessaly Prefecture (Central Greece) as the Representative of the Karditsa Prefectural Unit, and for just over a year has been the Mayor of Karditsa. However, his commitment to the needs of the local community goes far beyond that.He has been a teacher in Karditsa for 18 years, where he works closely with Roma children to ensure their social inclusion. “Education works miracles”, he affirms, having noticed a considerable change in the lives of Roma children when they systematically attend school.
Karditsa is a medium-sized town with close to 40.000 inhabitants, located in the rural Greek region of Thessaly. The town’s economy is based mainly on agriculture and tourism, meaning that people have always played a pivotal role in its development and that the municipality has long been engaged in the creation of a local culture in which diversity is respected and valued.
This is true for Greek citizens with special needs, both in terms of inclusion (the 3500 members of the Roma community under the Karditsa Prefectural Unit, for example) and mobility. “Disabled people are heroes of life and their town should be one they deserve to live in”, the Mayor states. As he also explains, Karditsa was awarded the European Mobility Prize in 2019 thanks to local incentives to use bikes, an extensive network of bike lanes and plans to facilitate the mobility of persons with disabilities. However, Greek citizens are not the only ones benefitting from the promotion of such an inclusive approach: migrants and refugees living and working in the town and supported by the Development Agency of Karditsa (ANKA) are also participating. ANKA is engaged in coordinating and implementing inclusion actions, and working closely with ICMC Europe as a partner in the SHARE SIRA Project.
"We are all locals", he said.
Karditsa is home to 375 asylum-seekers included in the Emergency Support for Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) programme managed by ANKA, and to 19 refugees included in the HELIOS program coordinated by IOM. Additionally, the temporary residence of approximately 4000 seasonal workers arriving each summer to work in the tobacco, cotton, corn and pepper fields has led to the town making integration – and not solely reception - one of its priorities.
Awareness on the topic has been raised among the local population, which acknowledges the importance of working together to sustain the municipality’s economic activities and enhance demographic stability. The municipality stays in close contact with the employment sector to provide assistance for its residents, while also organising cultural activities that foster participation and exchange. The Karaiskakia annual international festival, for instance, provides migrants and refugees with the opportunity to present aspects of their cultural background to the local communitiy, including traditional cooking and dancing, andlocal football and athletics teams are open to all local residents.
In addition, several projects aiming at achieving social inclusion at the local level are mainstreamed by the Development Agency of Karditsa (ANKA). ANKA’s “Crossroads” Intercultural Hub hosts activities for the refugee population, and isalso open to the migrant and local communities of the district. Greek language lessons and different types of training are also offered to project beneficiaries, and schools taught in different mother tongues have been organised. “We try to do our best”, Mayor Tsiakos says, “but more responsibility should be taken at the European level to offer these people opportunities”. “Although more Greek municipalities should participate in hosting refugees, it is clear that a small country like Greece cannot be responsible to host all that arrive and that European efforts in relocation should be stepped up”, he affirms.
In fact, despite the many achievements, projects in the field of inclusion are often not renewed due to a lack of ongoing funding. “There should be continuity”, he states, “and also a common target with regards to integration”.
With the Greek National Strategic Plan on Integration currently under discussion, the Mayor is advocating for a long-term vision that engages smaller local communities, as well as for innovative projects targeting the needs of the populations on the ground and better cooperation.
"It goes without saying that good practices should be exchanged, shared and implemented, and more citize participation should be fostered" he concluded.