Illustration by: Fanis Kollias
Edited by: Iliana Papangeli
Translated by: Gigi Papoulias
“In summary, people in vulnerable groups are not asking for charity: they are asking for a step up to help build a future for themselves and their families.”
The above is an excerpt from the website of Hopeland, a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded “in order to provide social care and protection to vulnerable social groups.”
Their website states, “Hopeland – for the ten things people in need hope for” and continues with “peace, the fulfillment of basic needs, communication with loved ones” ending with “a stepping stone to build a future.”
In addition to their ten “hopes”, the Hopeland website also lists its activities, which include programs to help protect from the coronavirus (offering beneficiaries informational pamphlets in their language, and providing antiseptic, etc). The site also lists their cooperation with a non-profit organization called Merimna (for employee training); Hopeland’s official charter, organizational chart; and rules of operation that must be observed by its employees and volunteers.
In fact, if one was to visit the Hopeland website today, a sense of extroversion towards the audience is apparent. However, this was not always the case for the previously unknown NGO, which is expected to receive more than €5.3 million from the Ministry of Migration & Asylum this year.
An unknown NGO with no revenue
Until recently, Hopeland did not even have a website. This is what appeared on our computer screen in October 2020 when we typed in their web address:
The October 2020 date is not random, this is the period when the government tasked Hopeland − an unknown NGO, which had no prior record of service or experience in providing aid to refugees − with the housing of about 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers through the ESTIA II program.
At that time, what did Hopeland offer? Well, all they had was a Facebook page, which had been created just a few days earlier, on October 13, and only had a handful of likes. The page didn’t list a physical address, only an email address and a landline for a number somewhere in Athens. When we did a search on the phone number, it came up as a funeral home in the Athens suburb of Psychiko. And when we repeatedly called the number, in an attempt to get in touch with the NGO’s management in the context of our report, no one answered. We also tried emailing Hopeland numerous times, asking them how we could best get in touch with them, but we never got a reply.
But why are we interested in Hopeland, so much so that we persisted, in October 2020, on trying to communicate with them and then on publishing a report about Hopeland three months later?
The journalistic interest stems, first of all, from the discovery that the Greek government (which is known for its unfavorable attitude towards NGOs), has chosen to contract the services of this particular NGO – one which has been unknown in previous years and has no prior work in the field.
Our interest in Hopeland only increased when we considered the fact that, according to their financial data, while in 2019 the NGO had zero turnover and €497.60 in its account, it is expected to receive a total of at least €6.5 million, through its contract with the Greek state.
Moreover, the case of Hopeland is the perfect example which highlights a key issue that has permeated the New Democracy government’s refugee management for the last year and a half that they’ve been in power.
This is because it offers the opportunity to show that, despite the frequent announcements by the Greek government asserting “control” over the “bad” NGOs, the reality is that the Ministry of Migration & Asylum is the authority which awards contracts worth millions to questionable NGOs, sometimes even bypassing the conditions that were set by the government itself.
Two factors combine to create a special condition – the fact that the ESTIA II program is no longer controlled by the UNHCR but by the Ministry of Migration & Asylum; and that the European Commission grants the approval of €125 million in funding for the program – which would lead one to believe that the real purpose is not indeed the “control” of NGOs, but the reconfiguration of the field in order to create a space where other organizations can be active as well.
Hopeland establishes itself and signs a contract
Let’s start from the beginning.
The ESTIA program (originally ESTIA, then ESTIA II in July-December 2020, and currently ESTIA 2021) is the program which provides housing to officially recognized refugees and asylum seekers in apartments or buildings (usually hotels) in urban areas throughout Greece.
The first call for tenders to organizations interested in participating in the six-month ESTIA II program (July-December 2020) took place on June 17, 2020.
According to Greek daily Kathimerini, the call was then amended twice, and it was finally stated that “while initially a great deal of supporting documents were required, in its final form the call for tenders on September 15 simply required any interested NGO to have already submitted their application for registration” in the NGO Registry created by the Ministry of Migration & Asylum.
One week after the final tender was announced, on September 22, Hopeland was founded. Note that Hopeland was not established as a new NGO − something which we’ll see is of particular importance. Rather it was created through the transfer of a long-inactive NGO, which was “owned” by a municipal party that was linked to New Democracy; and an executive who had been an adviser to former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, was a member of this municipal party.
One week after it was founded, on September 29, Hopeland submitted an application for participation in the ESTIA II program. And the application was accepted.
Hopeland has undertaken the task of housing of 1,002 refugees and asylum seekers in Attiki and Central Greece, from mid-October until the end of the year. Its total remuneration for these two and a half months exceeds €1.1 million.
Two partners with no previous experience
At Hopeland’s inception, two stakeholders are placed at the organization’s helm: Aekaterini Rouka, also the administrator and legal representative, and Georgios Pouladakis. Mr. Pouladakis has a 90% stake and Ms. Rouka 10%, with the initial capital amounting to €5,000.
What is the relationship of the two stakeholders to the provision of services to refugee populations in Greece?
A relevant newspaper article reveals that Mrs. Rouka had worked professionally in the field of cosmetics in Thessaloniki.
From a parliamentary inquiry by MP Giorgios Kaminis (Movement for Change party) − who in recent months has submitted a series of timely questions to Parliament about the selection, the conditions under which the selection was made, and the suitability of Hopeland for this program − it has been revealed that Mr. Pouladakis works a driver for the Sanitation Department in the Athenian suburb of Maroussi.
As it turns out, these two individuals seem to have had no familiarity with the humanitarian sector, before they created an NGO that went on to seek and win a contract worth over a million euro.
This position is supported by the former owner of the NGO, Alexandros Arvanitakis, who, in an effort to distance himself from the current stakeholders, in an out-of-court dispute against MP Giorgios Kaminis, stated that in the summer of 2020, when he wanted to dissolve the NGO to avoid the financial burden, a friend informed him that “his accountant was looking for, on behalf of his client, a functioning Civil Non-Profit Company to participate in ESPA programs where often it is required that beneficiaries be in operation for a number of years, in order to be eligible to participate.”
Thus, they may have mentioned “ESPA programs” but in the end it seems they meant the ESTIA program for refugee housing. Next, we’ll examine the highly crucial issue of the requirement that participating NGOs be in operation for a number of years.
Hasty interviews and Airbnb apartments
In October, Hopeland took on the task of providing accommodation for 1,002 refugees. But the newly-formed NGO was then faced with carrying out the significant volume of work it had undertaken.
With the successive amendments to the requirements of the call for tender by the Ministry of Migration & Asylum, (which eliminated the need to submit a plethora of documents and certificates, and instead required interested NGOs to simply register with the NGO Registry) it was possible to give organizations without previous experience in the field, the opportunity to apply for the program. However, implementing the demands of the program requires planning, know-how, and most importantly: human resources.
So, during that time, Hopeland began to continuously conduct job interviews for interpreters and social workers. When potential hires asked when their start date would be if they accepted the position, the answer was very immediate: the next working day.
As for the know-how, Hopeland decided to cooperate with the NGO Merimna, which would carry out the staff training. But the question remains: where will the 1,002 beneficiaries be housed?
The information reveals that there are entire buildings, (which were previously used for the housing program of the International Organization for Migration), and that some of the housing offered will be apartments, which were renovated as short-term rentals (Airbnb), but are empty due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This information is confirmed by the photos that have been posted on Hopeland ‘s Instagram account since then. The apartments in the photos clearly have a different layout than the majority of the refugee housing apartments offered through the ESTIA program, which we have visited in recent years, and clearly resemble Airbnb apartments.
Was Hopeland paid without meeting the requirements?
The contract that Hopeland signed with the Greek government to house refugees and asylum seekers for the last two and a half months of 2020 included an automatic renewal of the contract at the end of the year, for 2021.
Hopeland is expected to receive €5,394,517 for 2021. The NGO has already received half of its payment for 2020. On December 16, 2020, Hopeland received €568,612.05, the first installment for the 2020 payment.
One of the points that MP Giorgios Kaminis made to the Minister of Migration & Asylum, Panagiotis Mitarachi, is that while a necessary condition for an organization to receive payment is that they must have completed their registration with the NGO Register, Hopeland received the aforementioned payment although their registration had still not been completed. In fact, their application approval was still pending, according to the Hopeland website.
When questioned by MP Giorgios Kaminis, the Minister of Migration & Asylum, Panagiotis Mitarachi gave no answer in regards to when exactly Hopeland’s registration with the NGO Register was completed. In addition, the Ministry did not respond to any of our questions and requests for information.
Our questions for Hopeland
In the “who we are” section of their website, they state that “transparency, responsibility and efficiency are the three main pillars of the function of Hopeland.”
And in their rules of operation and code of ethics, they state that they function “with responsibility, honesty and transparency” and they are “ready to be accountable to the state, the public, donors, sponsors, associates, employees, etc.”.
In this context, and trusting that their sense of accountability also applies to journalists, we contacted Hopeland in order to ask some questions.
Specifically, we asked to be informed regarding the following:
- What is the employment background of the two Hopeland Stakeholders?
- Do the Hopeland Stakeholders have previous experience in the refugee/humanitarian field? If yes, what does that experience entail?
- When did Hopeland submit their application for registration to the NGO Register?
- On what date was Hopeland’s application to the NGO Register completed?
- How many people does Hopeland currently employ and in what areas of specialization?
- How many apartments are available by Hopeland’s ESTIA II program?
- Hopeland appears to be an NGO with no prior involvement in refugee issues until three months ago. How did you decide to take on such a large-scale project?
- Does Hopeland participate in any other program besides ESTIA? If yes, which program(s)?
- Hundreds of NGOs operating throughout Greece, many of which have years of service, have applied to register with the NGO Register. How do you explain the fact that, of the few NGOs that have been registered, Hopeland is in second place?
Hopeland did not respond to our inquiries within the time we had set. However, two days later an appointment was made with the director of the organization, Nikolaos Vlachos.
The answers we received from Hopeland
The Hopeland office in Patissia doesn’t resemble most of the NGO offices we’ve visited.
Upon entering the reception area, one does not see any posters, drawings or art on the wall, which is what most NGO offices look like – Hopeland’s walls are bare. Nor you do witness the usual “office buzz” ― beneficiaries waiting for their appointments, interacting with employees. On the day of our visit, there were only two people present: an administrative assistant and the director of the organization. This can be explained, Nikolaos Vlachos tells us, by the fact that the organization does not participate in any program other than ESTIA. During our meeting with Mr. Vlachos, we were able to get some answers.
Based on his replies, Hopeland currently employs around 50 people, mainly social workers, lawyers and interpreters. They do not offer individual apartments, but offer housing in 103 apartments in a total of 12 buildings. Some buildings have five apartments, others six, and the building with the most, has 16 apartments. Eleven of the buildings are located in Attiki (Patissia, Attiki, Renti, Metamorfosi, Kallithea) and one is located in Avlida.
Mr. Vlachos confirmed that these units are Airbnb apartments that “were empty, we contacted the owners, and rented them.”
When asked how they managed to reach an agreement with the owners to rent an entire building, he clarified that in some buildings there are other tenants, while in other buildings all the apartments have been rented entirely by Hopeland. As he told us, Hopeland has signed leases for all the buildings it operates with the same property management company.
Hopeland’s preferential application to the NGO Register
As we have written in an earlier report, before coming to power, New Democracy had made an issue against NGOs in Greece which are associated with providing aid to refugees.
Members of New Democracy cast doubt on the role of NGOs, accusing them of squandering money and manipulating refugees, and they promised that once they won the elections and formed a government, “control would finally be imposed.”
Somehow, even though an NGO Register had already been established by the previous government, New Democracy announced the creation of an NGO Register, which was set up by an amendment on February 5, 2020. But for many months the Register remained merely an announcement. For example, this is what existed until recently on the website where registered NGOs should appear:
This is also due to the fact that, as we previously reported in March 2020, despite the government’s rush to publicize the NGO Register, the department in the Ministry tasked with examining the NGO applications was staffed by only one employee. We asked the Ministry of Migration & Asylum how many people are currently employed in the department but didn’t get any answer.
In early 2021, the government announced a list of the first NGOs recorded in the Register. At the top of the list and in second place, among organizations that have operated for many years in the humanitarian field, is Hopeland.
The fact that the previously unknown Hopeland is the second NGO on the list, and whose application appears to have been completed, is even more interesting if one takes into account that, in reply to a question submitted by MP Giorgios Kaminis, the Minister of Migration & Asylum Panagiotis Mitarachi replied that “to date, 108 NGOs have submitted an application and are in the first phase of the examination process, while 88 NGOs are in the second phase.”
Thus, 196 NGOs are waiting for their registration to be finalized, in either the first or second phase of the process. However, somehow, out of the hundreds of refugee NGOs across Greece, the unknown NGO Hopeland, which had no previous experience in the field, was the second NGO to be included on the list of registered organizations.
We asked Mr. Vlachos to give us his interpretation of how this could be possible. He initially argued that the registrations of other NGOs were probably not completed because they had not submitted all the necessary documents. It does not seem very likely, however, that organizations with years or decades in the field were unable to properly submit applications, when a newly-formed NGO was able to do so.
He then claimed that they were not the second ones to be registered, as we have mentioned, but that the document they had received from the Ministry listed them as number 167. However, this could not be, as to date, the Registry has not listed that many NGOs.
What may have happened, based on his own statement and the number of NGOs awaiting registration, according to the Minister, is that Hopeland was the 167th to apply for registration. And thus received the relevant number on the records.
If this is the case, it’s interesting to note that Hopeland had a sort of “priority registration” over the more than 150 other NGOs. After our meeting was over, Mr. Vlachos went to his office to check the exact date when Hopeland was registered with the NGO Registry.
The registration was made official on December 17. The organization’s payment was made a day earlier, on December 16, technically before Hopeland was registered in the NGO Register.
The Ministry was obligated to conduct thorough examinations
We asked the Ministry what criteria were used to decide which NGOs will be registered first.
And the Ministry did not reply.
However, more importantly, in order to submit an application to the NGO Registry (and thus be able to participate in the ESTIA program) an organization must first meet certain conditions.
One of those conditions is the previous service. Along with the application for registration, the interested NGOs must submit:
- A progress report of their projects and activities of the last two years
- Balance sheet figures of the last two years
- Annual reports of projects and activities of the last two years
As we have seen, Hopeland has been virtually inactive in recent years. It existed as an entity, but in 2019 its turnover was zero, and more importantly, until recently its activities were focused on a completely different sector, and they had no previous experience in the field of refugee population management in Greece, or anywhere.
The answers we didn’t receive
Earlier, we reviewed the answers that we received from Mr. Vlachos, on various points we queried. There are some equally important points, however, which were not answered satisfactorily.
As for Hopeland’s stakeholders (Aekaterini Rouka and Georgios Pouladakis), at the beginning of our interview Mr. Vlachos stated that they have no real involvement in the NGO and through a power of attorney, he is the one who basically runs the organization.
He then claimed that Ms. Rouka is directly involved on a daily basis and that he was inspired by her vision to join the organization. As for Mr. Pouladakis (who holds 90% of the NGO), Mr. Vlachos said that “I’ve seen him two or three times.”
We couldn’t get a convincing explanation as to why two individuals who apparently had no previous involvement in the refugee/humanitarian field decided to acquire an NGO in this field, change its focus completely, and to seek and win participation in the ESTIA program, and then not be particularly involved in the NGO.
Mr. Vlachos claimed that in 2018 and 2019 the organization “was involved with refugees, with education” and “volunteered” in this area because it had no money. So, at some point, they figured “we’re doing what we’re doing”, and they might as well create an NGO which would take part in the ESTIA program.
In this regard, on the one hand, activism in refugee issues in previous years didn’t come out of nowhere. On the other hand, and more importantly, we pointed out to Mr. Vlachos that the views of the people who were involved in the NGO at that time did not exactly include concerns about refugees, as Mr. Arvanitakis (former owner of the NGO) had been critical of the ESTIA program.
“And that’s why the NGO was transferred to someone else,” Mr. Vlachos said. He also added that he does not know exactly what happened before he came on board as director of the organization.
Why not create a new NGO?
Hopeland’s two stakeholders could have created an NGO from scratch. But in this case, Mr. Vlachos admitted that they would not have met the condition of having two years of service in order to register in the Ministry’s NGO Register.
By obtaining an already active AFM (tax number), Hopeland, an NGO whose activities are unrelated to the humanitarian field was able to “gain”, on paper, the required two-year experience. If Hopeland had been founded “from scratch” as a new NGO, they would not have been able to participate in the ESTIA program.
Through this maneuver, it can be said that Hopeland “fooled” the examination process of the NGO Registry.
But it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Migration & Asylum to conduct a more comprehensive audit, as the rules governing the establishment of the NGO Register, which were published in the Government Gazette on April 14, 2020 clearly state that “the Special Secretariat for Coordination of Stakeholders of the Ministry of Migration & Asylum is called to verify the information submitted by NGOs for the NGO Registry” and “reserves, in any case, the right to verify the submitted information with any relevant state authorities as well as the right – upon co-evaluation of the aforementioned and in combination with information pertaining to the activities of those NGOs in the submission process – at its discretion, to reject the application for registration”.
Irregularities on the part of the Ministry
Hopeland is not the only NGO that the Ministry did not examine as thoroughly as perhaps they should have. From the Minister’s reply to MP Giorgios Kaminis on November 9, 2020, regarding the participation of organizations in the ESTIA II program, it appears that “all applications were accepted.”
In short, the Minister again admitted that, despite the announcements about thorough examinations of NGOs, in fact, all the organizations that applied for registration were accepted for participation in the program.
One explanation for this is that, in practice, the Ministry needed all the NGOs in order to complete the task of providing accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers.
This is because − after a significant reduction in the estimated reimbursement per beneficiary, per day − many NGOs decided not to participate in the ESTIA program, determining that they could not fulfill its requirements (in addition to providing housing, additional services were required as well – social services, etc.).
Thus, the Ministry found itself accepting virtually all the NGOs which submitted an application to participate in the ESTIA program, precisely because the interest did not cover the demand. However, the Ministry then increased the cost of service per beneficiary (asylum seeker) and per day, which in Attiki for NGOs like Hopeland, accommodating at least 20 beneficiaries per facility, equals to €14.75 per person.
At this rate, for 1,002 beneficiaries, in 365 days of this year, Hopeland is expected to receive at least €5,394,517 in funding by the Ministry of Migration & Asylum for 2021.
This amount is expected to increase during the year. As Mr. Vlachos noted during our interview, Hopeland is expected to acquire three more buildings in the near future, housing about 200-300 beneficiaries − who, until recently, were served by another organization, but that NGO has chosen to leave the ESTIA program.