Skip to content

Spotlight | Mazí Housing Project : The charity helping to rebuild asylum seeker’s lives

Aidan Szabo-Hall learns about the work of Mazí Housing Project, the housing charity helping to establish a sense of stability in the lives of displaced individuals.

By Aidan Szabo-Hall, Features Editor 

Cosmo Murray is a University of Bristol alumnus and the director of Mazí Housing Project, an initiative which provides safe housing for young male asylum seekers who are homeless and isolated in Athens.  

Unable to speak Greek, legally prohibited from working and frequently without access to support networks, asylum seekers often have a bleak chance of forging a stable livelihood upon arrival in the country.   

Mazí seeks to combat this by providing shared housing and personalised support networks for asylum seekers. Their services are urgently necessary, given Greece’s notoriously hostile treatment of asylum seekers.

The Greek government deploys forceful and inhumane methods to prevent and deter asylum seekers and refugees from entering the country. Speaking to Epigram, Cosmo provides insight into the nature of this brutal state apparatus:  

‘There’s three main ways that the government prevents and deters asylum seekers and refugees. The first and most documented way is through ‘pushbacks’, a euphemistic term which disguises the violence and brutality of this process, given that it has ended up killing people. The essential aim is to push people back from entering the land border in the north of Turkey or  in the Aegean Sea by taking engines off refugee boats and pushing them back towards Turkey.’ 

The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights details how Greek authorities ‘pushback’ migrant boats: 

(1) ‘A Greek Coast Guard vessel appears after sailing toward a migrants’ dinghy with its’ lights off.  

(2) The vessel circles around the dinghy, creating waves or colliding with it and putting the dinghy at risk of capsizing. 

(3) Officers on board the vessel order migrants to tie their boats to the Coast Guard vessel. 

(4) The Coast Guard vessel then drags the boat or dinghy toward Turkish waters, unties it, and leaves those on board at sea.’ 

Cosmo explains how this process of expulsion – which has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for violating international law – is further enacted on land:  

‘It also happens on land in Greek and EU territory. This involves beatings, torture, stripping people down and taking people’s phones and belongings. Individuals are then bundled into vans, put on motorless dinghies and dragged out to the middle of the Aegean wave, where coastguards pick them up.

‘The Greek government is consistent in denying this – but it’s extremely well-documented at this point.’

Last May, damning footage emerged of a group of 12 asylum seekers being forced into a high speed inflatable boat by men wearing balaclavas. They were then transferred to a Hellenic coast guard vessel, which abandoned them on a raft in the middle of the Aegean Sea. The group, which contained children and a six-month old baby, were left adrift before being picked up by a Turkish coast guard. This is just one example of a process of ‘collective expulsion’ which is frequent and systemic.

Alongside these brutal pushback methods, Cosmo explains the other means by which Greece dehumanises and deters asylum seekers and refugees:  

‘Inside the territory across the mainland, the process of detaining people forms another part of  this apparatus. Detention involves authorities — particularly in the lead up to elections — scanning the streets, checking people’s documents and taking them to ‘Pre-deportation detention centres.’ They are kept here indefinitely, but the average length of time someone stays is 6 months. 

‘They are then relocated into different parts of Greece and released, without any form of documentation, into the same situation as they were prior to being detained. This system is a complete waste of time and it tortures peoples’ lives. 

‘In theory, while you’re in detention, you can claim asylum – but there’s lots of instances of people being ignored by the police or the authorities who have detained them.’ 

Rather than assisting vulnerable individuals in rebuilding their lives, Cosmo outlines how Greece's asylum system functions to isolate those seeking humanitarian protection:  

‘The way you’re meant to claim asylum in Greece is by presenting yourself to what are called ‘Closed Control Access Centres’. These are prison-like camps, far from any urban centres, which offer no access to services. Once detained here, you can’t access healthcare, you can’t access legal support and you can’t engage with any communities, because there are none. It’s a system which creates enormous barriers to social inclusion.’ 

Here, asylum seekers and refugees are surrounded by barbed-wire fences, subjected to perpetual surveillance and unable to interact with the local population. For individuals who may have already experienced significant trauma in their lives, this confined existence has a devastating effect on their mental health. Within these centres, residents frequently report experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts.

Touching on how ‘destitution’ (the state of being without money, clothes, food or a home) forms part of Greece’s deterring state apparatus, Cosmo explains that ‘Without cash support, access to the labour market, housing options or the ability to make money, people are vulnerable to being exploited. Many are forced to resort to sofa-surfing or living on the streets.’ 

Bleakly, destitution is likely even for recognised refugees who have been granted protection status. Arguably, this owes to the uncompromising attitude of the Greek government: just 30 days after asylum is granted, refugees are forced to leave the accommodation provided to them. The provision of food and financial assistance is also rescinded.  

As Cosmo explains, ‘Even If you’ve had your claim accepted and you’ve become a recognised refugee, then you need to start building networks and communities, find work or learn how to speak Greek – but it’s impossible to do this from a strong footing. You don’t know any Greek, you don’t know any Greek people and you don’t have any networks. 

‘People need time and space to find stability and assemble the things that we all need to live independently.’ 

For individuals newly arriving in the country, this sense of uncertainty and disconnection is compounded by the acute shortage of affordable housing in Greece.

Unable to secure suitable accommodation, many asylum seekers are forced to live on strangers’ sofas, in hostels which are claustrophobic, unhygienic and unsecure, in cramped refugee camps or on the street. 

Many refugees and asylum seekers stay in ‘Traveller’s houses.’ Cosmo describes the typical conditions in this form of accommodation:  

‘Traveller’s houses cost 5-10 euros a day and are usually run by someone who’s been in the  area for longer. The conditions in these places are generally extremely bleak: they’re very dirty and contain lots of people in very small, cramped places.’ 

Describing how these accommodations can be unsecure and unwelcoming environments, Cosmo says ‘You don't know anyone who's there and you know that everyone's just passing through — so you can't trust anyone. There's no sense of stability at all as everyone in there is hyper-aware and tense.’ 

Conscious of the inadequacy of suitable housing options and absence of support networks for asylum seekers, Mazí Housing Project seeks to establish a sense of stability in the lives of displaced individuals. Primarily, the charity provides shared accommodation spaces for young male asylum seekers to inhabit.

Cosmo explains why their service is crucial in helping displaced asylum seekers rebuild their lives:  

‘Safe and stable housing is the bread and butter of our support — it means people have access to warmth, food and stability from which to recuperate and recover from previous experiences. 

‘It's a necessary base for basic things in life, like feeling safe, being clean and eating and sleeping properly.’ 

Conscious that many asylum seekers may feel an acute sense of disconnection when arriving in a new country, Cosmo explains how establishing a sense of community is central to their service:  

‘All of the housing is shared, and we put a lot of effort into facilitating communication amongst residents, and the communities in each home. It's a constant ebb-and-flow because people from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, will come and go. We support residents to develop their own systems for how to keep the place clean and how to manage food.’ 

Alongside providing housing, Mazí issues personalised support which is tailored to the specific needs of each resident. This may involve helping people to access healthcare, mental health support and Greek or English classes. Mazí also assists their residents in finding work and provides CV and interview preparation. 

Cosmo explains that, while living within shared accommodation is intended as a temporary solution, Mazí aims to establish a lasting sense of stability in people’s lives:  

‘The average length of time someone stays with us is eight months — they leave on their own terms when they're ready to. The basic aim for us is to ensure that when someone leaves for the city, they're able to live a normal life.’ 

While closely collaborating with organisations who help women, Mazí specifically provides support for male asylum seekers. Explaining the rationale behind this decision, Cosmo says ‘If  Mazí were to open now, we wouldn't necessarily establish in the same way. However, it is still  the case that there are a lot of women-only centres and no male-only centres — and that's for a lot of necessary and understandable reasons. But most people claiming asylum in Greece are adult men, without family.’ 

Commonly framed by politicians and media outlets as violent aggressors unwilling to ‘integrate’ into society, young male asylum seekers are a routinely vilified and acutely vulnerable demographic.  

Cosmo explains the effect of this demonization and the reasons why young male asylum seekers are perceived as being less worthy of support than other social groups:  

‘Young men are most likely to be tasked with or able to leave their countries, but they're also least likely to be welcomed in new countries. The rhetoric around asylum seekers and refugees essentialises you into either one or two things: you can either be vulnerable, or you can be a threat. If you’re a woman, child, elderly individual or pregnant, then you're vulnerable and you need support and help. If you're a young male, then you're a threat.

‘When I came to volunteer [with Mazí Housing Project] for a few months in 2019, there was a UN housing programme which housed people specifically with certain vulnerabilities. You would be able to access housing and integration support if you were a single parent family, a pregnant woman, had a chronic illness, if you were an unaccompanied minor and if you were old. So, not by design but perhaps by admission, most young adult men, when they turn 18, are deemed as no longer vulnerable.’ 

The Greek government has lauded the effectiveness of their ‘Tough, but fair’ policies in cutting immigration numbers, which fell by 33 per cent in November 2023. Eager to fulfil their repeated pledges to reduce net migration, the UK has begun to model its' own asylum and immigration policy on Greece’s. 

Cosmo elaborates on the worrying trend of the UK adopting similarly hostile policies in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers:  

‘The general approach of putting people on barges and housing them away from city centres in deliberately poor conditions is exactly the same policy that Greece is enacting. Successive home secretaries have come and toured the Greek camps and border walls and have returned to the UK purring with approval. 

‘The media plays on public anxieties about uncontrolled immigration, which has led to successive governments making bigger and bigger pledges to cut it. Every time they fail to meet these promises, it increases the sense that migration is out of control. This fuels the appetite for more inhumane and brutal reception policies, in spite of the fact that these are really expensive and fail to address the needs of the people claiming asylum. 

‘It was in 2021 that Priti Patel came to Greece and toured the Closed Control Access Centres that had newly opened. Since then, the Rwanda scheme has stolen the headlines — but the Greek-style camps were quietly announced underneath. These exist essentially in the form of Bibby Stockholm and the Napier barracks elsewhere around the UK. These isolate people from communities, from services, from access to serious legal support and healthcare. 

How does Bristol support refugees and asylum seekers?
‘I didn’t know what to do or who I could reach out to’ | How students deal with legal issues

‘In some senses, it is clear these policies do work. If armed forces violently block people from irregularly entering a territory, then the number of people who can claim asylum in that territory will decrease — but that brings a cost to lots of the values we would proclaim to hold.’

Featured image: Mazi Housing Project