Urgent need for a real solution for unaccompanied minor refugees in Greece

Minors in Moria Foto Salinia Stroux

The issue of the identification, protection and support of unaccompanied minors in Greece remains of major importance, following the recent negative developments related to the discontinuation of specialised support programs, the withdrawal of NGOs dealing with their identification from the so-called hotspots, the closure of shelters for minors, but also the enormous delays in the process of asylum, family reunification and relocation. Many of these children are basically unprotected – often wrongly registered – and may even end up homeless in the streets of Greek cities, exposed to great dangers.

Greece was always a transit country for refugees – including also unaccompanied minors. Until the EU-Turkey Statement was signed, most of them were not registering with their true age, trying to avoid the extensive detention that children have to face for years because of the lack of enough places in specialised shelters – the so-called “protective custody.” After the gradual closure of the Balkan Corridor (from November 2015 to March 2016), more and more unaccompanied minor refugees began to reappear in the official statistics as well as in the shelters. Today, it is estimated that there are 2,300 unaccompanied minors in Greece. Caught up within Greek borders, they hope that if they declare their real age, they will receive the necessary support and the protection they are looking for, starting with the housing in adequate reception centres.

Few improvements

Overall there have been only few improvements in the identification, protection and support of unaccompanied minors in the last two years. Among other things, the number of places in shelters has tripled since March 2016. However, the total number of places in reception centres reaches only 1,223, leaving almost half the children out. More than that, what has been set up with great effort is in danger of collapsing, due to the very long delays in the identification and asylum procedures and the fact that more and more shelters are closing and programs are completed without further extension.In particular, five hostels for unaccompanied minors are expected to be closed. At the beginning of July, 1.218 unaccompanied minors were in the waiting list for a place in a shelter, while 217 were detained in one of the Reception and Identification Centers (RICs), and another 94 in police stations and pre-removal detention centers. Humanitarian organizations voiced strong concern in a joint statement.

«Ticking bomb»

Experienced professionals of the field characterized the situation in communication with Refugee Support in the Aegean (RSA), as a “ticking bomb”, as these children are trapped in a dead-end situation. There are also quite a few children that the parents themselves were forced to leave back in Greece (as they lacked sufficient funds to move the whole family together) in order to continue alone their dangerous journey with the help of facilitators to central or northern Europe in order to “pull” them later with family reunification as soon as they themselves would apply for asylum in the destination country.

Hundreds of unaccompanied minors are waiting for months due to delays in family reunification or relocation procedures, and in particular because of Germany’s recent policy, the country to which the majority has applied to be transferred. Since April 2017, the German government has reduced the number of people allowed to travel to 70 per month. And this, while it is estimated that there are already over 2,400 applicants in Greece whose family reunification requests have been approved.

Mental health in danger

As Irida Pandiri, who is responsible for 7 shelter for unaccompanied minors at ARSIS NGO, mentions that the mental health of children is at risk due to these delays, and serious psychiatric incidents and suicide attempts are appearing. “The fact that there is this months long waiting for children who have already received the permit to travel and who could have been already reunited with their families abroad, also slows down the opening of places in shelters for the aim to accommodate other children who are waiting for a place or even in custody,» she stresses.

There is also the fear that, due to the change in funding and the newly introduced pre-conditions for the construction of shelters, there will be a reduction of already insufficient places in shelters, and if this happens, the detention of unaccompanied minors will expand again to six months periods, as it was the case in 2013 and 2014. This will have dramatic consequences for the mental health of these children.

Detention under degrading conditions

There are already several unaccompanied minors housed in unsuitable conditions in temporary accommodation centers with adults or they are even homeless. Also the number of detained minors who are locked up for months under degrading and unsuitable for their physical and mental health conditions increased. Indeed in the pre-removal detention center for foreigners Amygdaleza (PROKEKA), as noted by a recent visit of ARSIS, the medical age-assessment of many unaccompanied minors was carried out by incompetent operators, namely the Hellenic Police, and outside any legal framework, guarantees and procedures, as the organization points out.

The real number of children living in Greece now is unknown, and they have almost no support to prove their actual age. With the departure of the NGOs covering this need in the RICs, the respective difficulties are estimated to grow. Additionally, despite a long time existing gap in this need, there hasn’t yet been set up a functioning guardianship system, which would ensure that minors are accompanied, supported and protected through the procedures of identification, asylum, family reunification or relocation.

The only scope is survival

In the worst scenario, and due to a lack of prompt and sufficient legal resettlement procedures to other EU-countries, unaccompanied minors end up unprotected as victims of violence and exploitation on the streets of Greek cities and even in the hands of smuggling networks.

«Many of these kids are on the verge of collapse. The main reason they end up on the road is that they feel trapped lacking a way out, even if they stay in one of the shelters. This phenomenon is increasing since March 2016, following the EU-Turkey Deal, because in fact the only way out is the one that traffickers “sell” to them. These children try to stay unseen and invisible in the hope of finding a clandestine way to leave. Since the beginning of the year, the situation is becoming so difficult that they do not end up only in illegality in order to make money to continue their journey but merely to survive,” said Tasos Smetopoulos from the Social Project «Steps», a small Street Work Group in the centre of Athens. Some reach the point of risking their lives in order to leave initially from the Aegean Islands to the mainland and later on through the port cities of Patras or Igoumenitsa from Greece, while hiding inside trucks or other vehicles – as it has been happening for decades.

Adulthood and then?

Many of these kids know that as soon as they get 18, they are in danger to be deported, to lose their chance on family reunification or also to end up on the streets without any help.  «We have the verbal commitment that children, who are still in the process of family reunification and turn 18 while still in Greece, will be yet transferred to the countries that have accepted them when they were minors. The law leaves it at the discretion of the state of acceptance. We are afraid that eventually these young people will be forced to stay here,” says Mrs Pandiri. The places in shelters or other structures that exist for those young adults are scarce and not enough to meet the big needs, not to mention relevant programs and support services.

Nevertheless, there has been a recent increase in the number of unaccompanied minors, but also those who have reached the age of 18, ultimately deciding to remain in Greece. They fear that if they manage to arrive clandestinely in another European country they might be returned back to Greece due to recent developments. The European Commission had proposed at the end of 2016 the gradually resumption of Dublin III Returns to Greece from 15 March 2017 based on their view that Greece had made sufficient progress in terms of improving reception conditions and registration procedures of refugees and the functioning of the asylum system.

No prospects on integration

The reality, however, is that for these children and young people there is virtually no prospect for integration, nor is there any remarkable state initiative in this direction. For example the pilot program for agricultural training for refugees aged 15-18 who live in shelters in Attica and Central Macedonia, which was announced recently by the greek government, was severely criticised by many organizations.

Amman* from Afghanistan is 17 years old. “I lost all my rights in Greece. I was locked up for more than a year on an island in the Aegean, in a tent, and I struggled to correct my age until there was place for me in a shelter for minors and to record my asylum application with the correct personal data. In a few months I turn 18 and I will be on the streets. Where will I go? What am I going to do? Who will help me?” he asks.

* Name changed

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