There are an estimated 18,500 migrant children in Greek refugee camps,more than 2,500 of whom are unaccompanied. The country is facing a tremendous challenge to support them; there is no specific legal framework or adequate public support after years of austerity. Insufficient funding means there are only 1,130 places in shelters on the mainland while 1,650 children wait in camps, reception centres, safe zones and detention – or are reported to be homeless.
In preparation for a seminar we hosted this week to address approaches to meet the needs of unaccompanied children, I visited Greece to meet municipality officials in Athens and NGOs working with the children to assess the situation. After the end of the EU relocation scheme, the failure of the Dubs scheme and the pitfalls of the Dublin regulation, the situation is grave.
Many unaccompanied children are under the protective custody of the police, meaning that in the absence of an alternative, they are detained in cells. To address this, the police have been liaising with NGOs working in hotspots [pdf] to create safe zones as an alternative to detention and to integrate all procedures – from asylum to education. Transfers to the mainland were previously done by the police but this was traumatic for the children, so NGOs such as Metadrasi have stepped in.
“Some of these children may be in a camp for up to a year until they are transferred, subject to smuggling, drug abuse or violence,” says Lora Pappa, president of Metadrasi.
There are more than 600 complex cases in camps, including children in need of drug rehabilitation and those experiencing sexual abuse or violence. The situation is particularly difficult on Samos, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea near Turkey, where there is a strong trafficking network.
“An increasing number of children are coming to Athens but NGOs do not have the professional expertise to address psychological and challenging behaviours,” says Pappa.
Greece’s National Centre for Social Solidarity (Ekka) is responsible for taking unaccompanied children from the islands to shelters on the mainland, but there are not enough shelters to meet the need. Recently, Unicef agreed to fund an online database that will highlight the situation of children in reception centres and the waiting time for referral. Relevant professionals will also have access to the children’s referral documents containing their social history and vulnerability criteria, such as age, gender, health issues and place of stay – especially if they are in detention.
NGOs say the Dubs scheme to bring 60 children to the UK has failed – not one application succeeded. They are particularly critical about the case of a child with cystic fibrosis [pdf] – an illness that is difficult to treat in Greece but easily treated in the UK – who had an uncle and could have been transferred under the reunification principle.
But I have also heard positive stories. Under Article 17 of the Dublin agreement, NGOs have reached a deal with the Portuguese government to take a number of unaccompanied children. Some 35 of them have already been placed with foster families, mainly in Athens and Thessaloniki. But this is a small number compared with the thousands still waiting.
The numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in Europe have not peaked. In fact, there has been an increase in arrivals on the Greek islands in the past few months. On Samos and Lesbos, the camps are overstretched with more than 200 unaccompanied children, 170 over their average capacity.
Without proper frameworks and services, many children disappear when they reach mainland Greece. It is essential that EU governments support Greece in caring for and relocating these vulnerable children.
- Alfonso Montero is policy director and deputy chief executive of the European Social Network
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