Little has been improved with the accommodation and protection of unaccompanied minors since this picture of the hotspot Moria in September 2016. Photo: Salinia Stroux

The issue of the identification, protection and support of unaccompanied minors in Greece remains urgent. Many of these children are essentially unprotected, often incorrectly registered, and may even end up homeless in the streets of Greek cities, exposed to grave dangers.

As the recent fin­dings of Refu­gee Sup­port Aege­an (RSA) and PRO ASYL show, pro­tec­ting and sup­por­ting unac­com­pa­nied minors in Greece con­ti­nues to be a pres­sing issue, espe­cial­ly fol­lowing recent nega­ti­ve deve­lo­p­ments rela­ting to the dis­con­ti­nua­tion of spe­cia­li­sed sup­port pro­gram­mes, the with­dra­wal of NGOs dealing with their iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on from the so-cal­led hot­spots, and the clo­sure of shel­ters for minors, as well as signi­fi­cant delays in asyl­um, fami­ly reuni­fi­ca­ti­on and relo­ca­ti­on processes.

Greece has always been a tran­sit coun­try for refu­gees – inclu­ding unac­com­pa­nied minors. Until the signing of the EU-Tur­key Deal, most of the­se young peop­le were not regis­tering with their true age, as they were try­ing to avoid the exten­si­ve detenti­on (the so-cal­led »pro­tec­ti­ve cus­to­dy«, which can last for years) that child­ren have to face due to a lack of pla­ces in spe­cia­li­sed shelters.

After the gra­du­al clo­sure of the Bal­kan Cor­ri­dor (from Novem­ber 2015 until 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 some 2,300 unac­com­pa­nied minors in Greece. Being caught wit­hin the Greek bor­ders, they hope that if they decla­re their real age, they will recei­ve ade­qua­te sup­port and the pro­tec­tion they are loo­king for – star­ting with being housed in ade­qua­te recep­ti­on centres.

Few improvements

Over­all, the­re has only been a small num­ber of impro­ve­ments in the iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on, pro­tec­tion and sup­port of unac­com­pa­nied minors in the past two years. For examp­le, the num­ber of pla­ces in shel­ters has tripled sin­ce March 2016. Howe­ver, the total num­ber of pla­ces in recep­ti­on cen­tres still amounts to only 1,223, i.e. less than half the requi­red number.

More than that, what has been set up with gre­at effort is in dan­ger of col­lap­sing, due to very long delays in iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on and asyl­um pro­ce­du­res and the fact that more and more shel­ters are clo­sing and pro­gram­mes are com­ing to an end without being exten­ded. In par­ti­cu­lar, five hos­tels for unac­com­pa­nied minors are expec­ted to be clo­sed. At the begin­ning of July 2017, 1,218 unac­com­pa­nied minors were on the wai­t­ing list for a place in a shel­ter, while 217 were detai­ned in one of the Recep­ti­on and Iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on Cen­tres (RICs) and ano­t­her 94 in poli­ce sta­ti­ons and pre-remo­val detenti­on cen­tres. Huma­ni­ta­ri­an orga­ni­sa­ti­ons have voi­ced their strong con­cern in a joint state­ment.

Torn apart from families

The­se child­ren are trap­ped in a dead-end situa­ti­on, and in a recent com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on with RSA, expe­ri­en­ced pro­fes­sio­nals in the field have cha­rac­te­ri­sed their situa­ti­on as a »ticking time bomb«. The­re are also qui­te a few child­ren who­se par­ents were for­ced to lea­ve them behind in Greece, as they lacked suf­fi­ci­ent funds to move the who­le fami­ly tog­e­ther. The par­ents would con­ti­nue their dan­ge­rous jour­ney to Cen­tral or Nort­hern Euro­pe by them­sel­ves, with the help of faci­li­ta­tors, and would try to reco­ver their child­ren through fami­ly reuni­fi­ca­ti­on at a later sta­ge, as soon as they had app­lied for asyl­um in their desti­na­ti­on country.

Due to delays in fami­ly reuni­fi­ca­ti­on or relo­ca­ti­on pro­ce­du­res, hund­reds of unac­com­pa­nied minors have been wai­t­ing for mon­ths; a situa­ti­on exa­cer­ba­ted by Germany’s recent poli­cy chan­ges (i.e. the coun­try to which the majo­ri­ty has app­lied to be trans­fer­red). Sin­ce April 2017, the Ger­man government has redu­ced the num­ber of affec­ted peop­le per­mit­ted to tra­vel from Greece to Ger­ma­ny to a mere 70 per mon­th. This chan­ge came at a time when it was esti­ma­ted that the­re are alrea­dy over 2,400 app­li­cants in Greece who­se fami­ly reuni­fi­ca­ti­on requests had been approved.

Mental health in danger

Iri­da Pan­di­ri – who is respon­si­ble for seven shel­ters for unac­com­pa­nied minors at ARSIS NGO – reports that the men­tal health of child­ren is at risk due to the­se delays, and serious psych­iatric inci­dents and sui­ci­de attempts are on the rise. »The fact that the­re are the­se mon­th-long delays 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 pro­cess of fre­eing up pla­ces in shel­ters, which could in turn be used to accom­mo­da­te other child­ren who are wai­t­ing for a place or are even in cus­to­dy,« Pan­di­ri points out.

The­re is also the fear that due to chan­ges in fun­ding and the new­ly intro­du­ced pre-con­di­ti­ons for the con­struc­tion of shel­ters, the­re will be a fur­ther reduc­tion of the alrea­dy insuf­fi­ci­ent num­ber of pla­ces in shel­ters. If this hap­pens, the detenti­on peri­od of unac­com­pa­nied minors will be exten­ded again to six mon­ths, as was the case during 2013 and 2014. This would have dra­ma­tic con­se­quen­ces for the men­tal health of the children.

Detention under degrading conditions

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

»Many of the­se kids are on the brink of col­lap­se. The main rea­son they end up on the streets is that they feel trap­ped, without a way out, even if they stay in one of the shelters.«

Tasos Sme­to­pou­los, Social Pro­ject »Steps«

The real num­ber of child­ren cur­r­ent­ly living in Greece is unknown, and they have almost no sup­port when try­ing to pro­ve their actu­al age. With the depar­tu­re of the NGOs that were dealing with this par­ti­cu­lar issue in the RICs, the­se dif­fi­cul­ties are only thought to incre­a­se. Fur­ther­mo­re, a func­tio­n­ing guar­di­anship sys­tem – which would ensu­re that minors are accom­pa­nied, sup­por­ted and pro­tec­ted through the pro­ce­du­res of iden­ti­fi­ca­ti­on, asyl­um, fami­ly reuni­fi­ca­ti­on or relo­ca­ti­on – still has not been set up, des­pi­te the fact that this is long overdue.

The only scope is survival

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

»Many of the­se kids are on the brink of col­lap­se. The main rea­son they end up on the streets is that they feel trap­ped, without a way out, even if they stay in one of the shel­ters. Sin­ce the EU-Tur­key Deal in March 2016, this phe­no­me­non has been incre­a­sing, due to the fact that the only way out is the one that the traf­fi­ckers »sell« 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 has beco­me so serious that they do not end up in ille­ga­li­ty just to make the money they requi­re to con­ti­nue their jour­ney, but merely to sur­vi­ve,« says Tasos Sme­to­pou­los of the Social Pro­ject »Steps«, a small out­re­ach orga­ni­sa­ti­on in the cent­re of Athens. Some reach the point of ris­king their lives in order to first­ly lea­ve the Aege­an Islands for the main­land and then later on to lea­ve Greece via the port cities of Patras or Igo­u­me­nit­sa, hiding insi­de trucks or other vehi­cles – as has been hap­pe­ning for decades.

Adulthood, and then what?

Many of the­se child­ren know that as soon as they turn 18, they are in dan­ger of being depor­ted, of losing their chan­ce for fami­ly reuni­fi­ca­ti­on, or of ending 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 still be trans­fer­red to the coun­tries that accep­ted them while they were still 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 the­se young adults are scar­ce and insuf­fi­ci­ent to meet the over­all need – not to men­ti­on the lack of rele­vant pro­gram­mes 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. Due to recent deve­lo­p­ments, they fear that if they do mana­ge to tra­vel clan­des­ti­nely to ano­t­her Euro­pean coun­try, they might be retur­ned back to Greece. At the end of 2016, the Euro­pean Com­mis­si­on pro­po­sed the gra­du­al resump­ti­on of Dub­lin III Returns to Greece from March 15th, 2017. That decisi­on was based on their view that Greece had made suf­fi­ci­ent pro­gress in terms of the impro­ve­ment of recep­ti­on con­di­ti­ons, regis­tra­ti­on pro­ce­du­res for refu­gees, and the func­tio­n­ing of the asyl­um system.

No prospects for integration

The rea­li­ty, howe­ver, is that for the­se child­ren and young peop­le the­re are vir­tual­ly no pro­spects for inte­gra­ti­on, nor are the­re any rele­vant sta­te initia­ti­ves worth men­tio­ning. For examp­le, the pilot pro­gram­me 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 organisations.

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 will 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

About Refugee Support Aegean

Refu­gee Sup­port Aege­an (RSA) is a Greek non-pro­fit orga­niz­a­ti­on focu­sing on stra­te­gic liti­ga­ti­ons in sup­port of refu­gees, moni­to­ring human rights vio­la­ti­ons, as well as the pro­vi­si­on of legal, social and huma­ni­ta­ri­an sup­port in indi­vi­du­al cases. Mem­bers of the orga­niz­a­ti­on are based on the islands and on the main­land and visit dif­fe­rent parts of Greece in order to docu­ment the situa­ti­on the­re. RSA is the imple­men­ting part­ner of the PRO ASYL foun­da­ti­on pro­ject RSPA-Refu­gee Sup­port Pro­gram Aege­an in Greece.