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Young, alone, abused

Unaccompanied minors wish they’d never come to Greece

On 25 May 2016 in Greece, children play in the docks area of Piraeus, Greece’s principal port. Tomislav Georgiev/UNICEF

Sixteen-year-old Hamza, an Afghan refugee, can't shake the memory of another teenager's bloody, dying body on the ground metres from his tent. The victim, also an Afghan refugee aged 16, suffered severe stab wounds and head injuries in a massive brawl.

Fights are a daily occurrence at Elliniko, a sprawling camp complex where 3,200 migrants and refugees, mostly Afghans, shelter in the Greek capital's crumbling former airport and moribund 2004 Olympic venues. It is an overcrowded, squalid space plagued by a lack of adequate food and medical services.

The teen, thought to be staying at Elliniko with relatives, died in a nearby hospital. According to Greek police, three Afghans who had been living in the camp are under investigation for his murder.

"In my country, I saw dead people in the streets," Hamza told IRIN. The young Afghan hadn’t thought that a new life in Europe would bring him more of the same.

In January, Hamza and his uncle had set out for Europe from Kunduz, the northern city briefly overtaken by Taliban insurgents in October.

The pair parted ways in Greece after they encountered a closed northern border. Hamza's uncle paid a smuggler to continue onward, but Hamza’s funds were running low and he had no choice but to stay put. He owns one set of clothes, sleeps on a tattered blanket, and usually eats just once daily.

Alone at Elliniko, Hamza is an "unaccompanied minor", the legal term for those under 18 who have crossed borders without their parents or caregivers. They tend to be males aged 14 to 17, often sent to Europe by their parents as beacons of hope for the family from conflict-torn nations like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea.

Detentions and beatings

Human rights groups and Greece's own health agency have declared conditions at many Greek refugee camps unfit for humans. They're especially improper for children and teens.

Their status as minors is supposed to entitle them to special international protections and rights. But in Greece, a safe haven is often nowhere to be found.

Months after braving dangerous voyages by land and sea to reach Europe, they still face threats more akin to warzones. A Human Rights Watch report last week showed that Greek authorities regularly detain unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children in police cells, often for weeks and months. Fifty-six were in police custody as of last weekend.

In Greece, keeping unaccompanied minors in police stations is meant as a temporary, protective measure until a bed can be found within the chronically overstretched shelter network. But the children in HRW's report described the conditions as "unsanitary, overcrowded cells, including dirty blankets and bugs, and lack of access to information or services such as counselling and legal aid." Some had been held longer than 45 days, the legal maximum.

On the Greek islands, hundreds are kept in large detention centres where they cannot come and go freely, and there are accounts of them being beaten by police. A group of Greek lawyers has filed a case with the European Court of Human rights on behalf of four Afghan unaccompanied minors, including one in police detention.

How big is the problem?

Almost 90,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum across the EU last year, according to Eurostat – part of the wave of some one million souls to reach the continent by sea.

Slightly more than half of unaccompanied minor applicants were Afghan. Sweden received the largest share with 40 percent, followed by Germany with 16 percent. Just 420 applied in Greece, traditionally a transit country to northern Europe.

But the near-total shutdown of the Western Balkans migration route changed everything. Four months on, Greece is just beginning to take stock of the unaccompanied minors among the 57,000 migrants and refugees stranded within its borders.

“Pre-registration", a joint programme by the Greek Asylum Service and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, went camp by camp this summer to get everyone in line for an asylum appointment. It uncovered at least 690 unaccompanied minors previously unknown to the government and living among the general refugee and migrant populations.

At present, Greece counts more than 2,000 and only has beds in permanent, long-term shelters for 407, according to the National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA), the government agency responsible. The wait is at least three months.

"This is the longest waiting list we've ever had, by far, and it's gone up by 30 percent because of the pre-registration procedure," Christos Hombas, who manages accommodation requests for EKKA, told IRIN. "We are expecting it to go up further."

Greece is scrambling to care for the hundreds of unaccompanied youths no longer able to continue their onward journeys so easily. The country's protracted financial crisis has crippled its ability to scale up.

International aid groups such as UNHCR and Save the Children, along with Greek NGOs Praksis, ARSIS, and Metadrasi, have stepped in to provide temporary "transit shelters" for some 270 minors until they can be placed in a more permanent setting. Another 360 spaces are in the pipeline, including Greece's first foster care programme, which has placed 12 children with families so far. Five open camps on the Greek mainland contain 'safe spaces' for minors. Elliniko, slated to be cleared, is not one of them.

The next phase will be planning for unaccompanied youths' long-term care, as legal options to leave the country are scarce. Only 29 unaccompanied minors have so far been relocated to other EU member states as part of the EU's official relocation mechanism. Afghans and Iraqis are excluded from the programme.

The repercussions

With support still lagging, and without enough access to specialised care in Greece's open camps or the streets, unaccompanied minors suffer greatly in the meantime.

Many experience symptoms of psychological trauma from graphic violence they witnessed back home or during their voyages to Europe. Their current living situations – often overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe – do not allow for them to start healing, let alone integrate into a country that could become their new home.  

"There's this idea that you can come to Europe and seek refuge, that you can finally take a sigh (of relief)," Shala Gafary, an American lawyer of Afghan descent who came to Greece as a volunteer, told IRIN. "They have not sighed yet. So all of this trauma is not only there, it's bottling up and pressurising."

Their vulnerabilities as youths living alone open them up to threats to their personal safety. Some are being sucked into a seedy underworld of child prostitution, performing sex acts in Pedion tou Areos park in Athens for as little as five euros, according to one recent report.

Formal camps are not much safer. Social workers with the Greek office of Médecins du Monde, as well as ARSIS, told IRIN they had received several reports of physical or sexual abuse among young refugees in camps throughout Greece.

"They come to us and say they're afraid to go back to their camps because someone is abusing or harassing them," said Nancy Retinioti, who heads MDM's social work department in Athens.

Often, the victims are reluctant to share details due to a deep sense of shame. Some attacks are fuelled by alcohol or drug use, which doctors and social workers report is on the rise in both formal and informal refugee shelters. The most common drugs are marijuana or heroin, Retinioti said. Many picked up the habit since arriving in Greece.

"The thing is that in these camps there is no recreation and no operational structure," Retinioti told IRIN. "There are no rules. People come and go. No one knows what is prohibited or allowed."

Anywhere else will do

For many unaccompanied teens, help likely won't come fast enough. Many will turn 18 before the Greek state gets to them, meaning they'll lose their status as minors and any special rights that came with it. This includes the right to shelter in a safe, protective environment as well as a right to family reunion with any immediate family members residing in the EU, via the Dublin III Regulation.

This is the danger for Abbas Ali Nazaree, a 17-year-old living out of a tent in Elliniko's parking lot. He will turn 18 in five months. In Afghanistan, his older brother had worked as a cook for a US contractor on Kandahar airfield. Taliban fighters then threatened him due to his affiliation with the Americans. Eighteen months ago, Abbas said, his brother reached Austria. But Abbas, who set out seven months ago, after the Taliban threatened him too, saw his own trip cut short by the border closures.

"I lost my phone, so I lost my number," Abbas said. He is not sure how the Greek authorities will notify him once it's time for his asylum interview – or if a shelter bed becomes available.

EKKA's Hombas admitted that on his 1,400-strong accommodation waiting list were some 400 like Abbas: youths with whom, for whatever reason, the state has lost contact.

"A lot of them are totally homeless," Hombas said. "They could be in unofficial camps or living in basements. Maybe they have fled Greece."

Not every child has a phone, and those who do sometimes run out of money to buy new SIM cards, so often there is no way for EKKA to follow up on initial requests for shelter.

Many unaccompanied minors end up taking matters into their own hands. Greece's shelters see high rates of runaways. Some are turning to Balkan smugglers, a lucrative business in the wake of tighter European borders. Others are turning to old smuggling routes out of western Greek ports, where refugees and migrants hide under lorries bound for Italy by ferry (A second Human Rights Watch report last week showed that Italy is illegally returning migrant children to Greece).

"Here, there is no hope. No one cares about us. I see it clearly."

Hamza, however, just wants to go home, and has sought out so-called voluntary return programmes.

"They told me because I'm a minor, they can't let me go back because I have special rights in Europe," Hamza explained, with no trace of irony in his voice.

Back in Kunduz, Hamza's father is trying to gather a few hundred euros to smuggle his son back to Afghanistan. At least there, despite the constant threat of violence, he can be with his family.

"Here, there is no hope," Hamza said. "No one cares about us. I see it clearly."

(TOP PHOTO: Migrant children play in the port of Piraeus in Athens, where many arrive from the Greek islands having crossed the Aegean. Credit: Georgiev/UNICEF)


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