At the end of 2018, an estimated 570 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children who reached Greece seeking safety, find themselves homeless and exposed to the cold and uncertainty in Athens or other big cities in the mainland.
Many others live in dire and unsafe conditions in one of the islands’ refugee camps; while others are being detained – often among adults – in police cells or detention centers until a place is found in a shelter.
There have been long-standing challenges in the protection of these vulnerable children in Greece – before, during and after the refugee crisis. The insufficient number of places in shelters, the absence of a guardianship system and problematic age assessment procedures are some of the main protection gaps.
At the end of November 2018, there were 3,786 unaccompanied or separated children registered as such in Greece. Out of those, 2,038 were out of long-term or temporary accommodation including 657 unaccompanied children staying in Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) on the Aegean islands or Evros and 72 in protective custody. In addition, 570 children were reported homeless and 292 as living in informal housing arrangements. Not to mention that the real number of unaccompanied children still remains unclear as many of them may not have been identified by the authorities as such or did not have access to them.
The exposure of so many children to homelessness, protective custody or the squalid conditions in hotspots and often to exploitation and abuse is linked to a great extent to the insufficient number of places in special shelters. The current number of such places is 1,213. Despite an increase since last year, the number is seriously inadequate for the existing needs and these shelters often face the risk of closure as a result of lack of funding. Meanwhile, Law 4554/2018 envisages a system of guardianship that may be able to provide more effective support to unaccompanied or separated children. However, this legislation has not yet been implemented.
Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) / PRO ASYL have been following and supporting through social and legal work unaccompanied or separated children on the islands and mainland for many years. Eleni Velivassaki, RSA lawyer who represents unaccompanied children before national authorities and international human rights bodies said: “The national authorities have been failing for years to increase sufficiently accommodation places and develop an effective protection system. The result is seeing so many unaccompanied children living in the streets or being placed in ‚protective custody‘, a form of detention that cannot be justified under international law and violates the right to liberty and security of the children”.
The stories in this article aim to shed light to the plight of hundreds of unaccompanied boys who found themselves homeless or in informal housing arrangements as a result of persistent serious gaps in the protection system for this vulnerable group. In the absence of long-term accommodation, one child was offered the option of protective custody to escape homelessness.
Aryo will continue being homeless and exposed to all kinds of risks to his physical and mental health this winter.
Aryo* is a 15-year-old unaccompanied boy wishing desperately to be reunited with his mother who is in Germany. They have experienced a forceful and traumatic separation since Aryo was quite young. Before seeking safety in Greece, the boy grew up in Afghanistan and then Iran and has been subjected to many forms of maltreatment. He has never been able to attend school. Since his arrival in Greece, this young and vulnerable boy has been homeless in Athens. RSA has assisted him with finding some warm clothing and food and informed the Greek authorities about his request for asylum and need for shelter. Unfortunately, there has been no news so far regarding the application for shelter. This means that Aryo will continue being homeless and exposed to all kinds of risks to his physical and mental health this winter.
»I remember the images of people bleeding and people dying. Nobody could help them.«
Mohammed* is a 17-year-old unaccompanied boy from Afrin in Syria. He arrived in Greece in the spring of this year through Evros river. Despite undergoing reception and identification procedures by the competent government agency, he was not identified as a minor. As a result, he found himself homeless in Athens and then managed to find informal accommodation with the help of his cousin. He was assisted by volunteers and was able to get an appointment for the registration of his asylum claim five months after his arrival in Greece. The Greek Asylum Service provided him with a referral note along with a list of 3 hospitals in order to present himself and ask for an age assessment, yet, without any further guidance or help. Mohammed* was referred by volunteers to RSA and then our staff assisted him during the age assessment procedure. Six months after Mohammed’s arrival in Greece, the Asylum Office finally decided that he is indeed a minor.
Mohammed suffers from partial disability but so far has not been provided with a social security number that allows him to have access to state medical care. An application for accommodation has been submitted three months ago to the competent government agency (the National Centre for Social Solidarity) but Mohammed has yet to receive a reply. He is still in temporary informal accommodation, while he cannot stop thinking about his family and their safety.
He told us: “…I suffer from nightmares. … I remember the images of people bleeding and people dying. Nobody could help them. I still see these images in my dreams… I feel scared about my future and I am worried about my family.“
The Greek authorities said that in the absence of places in a shelter, the main option would be for Azzat* to be placed in protective custody in a detention center.
Azzat* is a 17-year-old unaccompanied boy from Afghanistan who has found himself homeless in Athens. In a period of two years since his arrival in Greece, Azzat has experienced life in an island refugee camp where conditions are dire and there are many safety risks such as violent fights and sexual abuse. He has also experienced detention and now homelessness in the streets of Athens.
The boy’s family fled Afghanistan and moved to Iran shortly after he was born. He fled Iran to escape military conscription and reached one of the Greek islands some months after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect.
One of Azzat’s siblings is in Germany but the boy’s family reunification request was rejected by the German authorities. They cited late submission of the request and absence of humanitarian grounds. Azzat’s application for a review of the reunification request was also rejected.
In desperation, Azzat left from the shelter he was placed and tried to reach Germany by attempting to travel irregularly out of Greece. He was arrested by the Greek police and was held in detention in inhuman conditions in Northern Greece for a whole month. Since his release in the summer of 2018, he has been homeless.
When RSA met the young boy about three months ago, he arrived in the meeting with summer flip flops despite the decreasing temperatures. He was suffering from intense pain in his stomach and RSA staff accompanied him to the hospital where there were no interpreters. Due to the urgency of the case, RSA informed the National Centre for Social Solidarity about his situation in order for him to be placed in a shelter. However, a disconcerting response was received by the Greek authorities. They said that in the absence of places in a shelter, the main option would be for Azzat to be placed in protective custody in a detention center until a place in a shelter was found.
Marianna Tzeferakou, RSA lawyer working on the case stressed: “Azzat’s case shows not just the failure of the Greek authorities to protect unaccompanied children but also that of other EU States such as Germany that evade their responsibility by applying Dublin rules in a very narrow manner. We call the Greek Asylum Service to send a new request under Dublin Regulation to Germany and for the German authorities to allow Azzat* to reunite with his family. More time in Greece in such conditions will have a detrimental effect for the life of this young and traumatized boy”.