Sixteen-year-old Fahime fled her abusive family in Iran only to fall foul of a Greek asylum system that has allowed hundreds of unaccompanied minors to go missing or end up living in jeopardy on the streets.
Eighteen months after Fahime arrived in Greece, her asylum process hasn’t even begun – she doesn’t go to school, she doesn’t live in an official shelter, and she could soon be homeless.
“I've applied for (shelter) accommodation and I'm now staying with a friend and her dad,” said Fahime, who is identified only by her first name to protect the identity of a minor. “But I'm not comfortable living with my friend's dad,” she said. “He constantly talks about the cost of having me.”
In recent months, she has found some relief attending daily Greek and English classes at Elix, a local NGO that helps migrant and refugee children to integrate.
According to official statistics, Fahime is one of 5,000 unaccompanied minors in Greece: three out of four have no access to a state-funded shelter; one quarter are missing, homeless, or living in precarious conditions; while 260 are living in government-run detention centres.
Fahime is considering a woman’s offer on Telegram, the instant messaging app, to host her as long as she looks after her children. Social worker Savvas Kalokairinos has warned Fahime of the dangers of going to a stranger’s home and advised her to be patient, until she is allocated a place in a shelter.
“This law opens the door to children being treated like adults, which of course is illegal.”
Kalokairinos worries what might happen to her on the street. “She doesn't have papers yet, and she'll be arrested and put in jail,” he said. “They might even start the procedure to send her back.”
Under a new Greek law passed last month to counter a surge in arrivals from Turkey, Fahime's application could be fast-tracked for deportation since unaccompanied minors over 15 and from countries Greece considers safe – like Iran – will no longer be treated as vulnerable.
“This law opens the door to children being treated like adults, which of course is illegal and may result in the country's conviction by the European Court of Human Rights,” said Eirini Gaitanou, Amnesty International's Greece campaigner. “The government added it literally at the last minute, before the vote.”
The exceptions – victims of trafficking, torture, rape, or other forms of psychological, physical, or sexual violence – might not apply to Fahime since she cannot access public healthcare to get recognised as a victim of torture, even though she says her stepmother regularly tied her up and beat her up.
A July amendment to the new Greek law deprives asylum seekers of access to primary public healthcare, forcing NGOs to turn to private doctors and donations.
Greece’s treatment of unaccompanied minors has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in five rulings in the past year, which found that some children are being detained illegally and in inhuman and degrading conditions that violate their rights to liberty and security.
Families, guardians, and detentions
More than a third of unaccompanied minors in Greece have asked to be reunified with family members in other EU countries. But cutting through the red tape to make this happen can take eight to 24 months. And if the Greek Asylum Service doesn’t send the request within three months of arrival – as is sometimes the case – the child can lose the right to reunification under EU asylum law.
The Greek government said it would step up calls to the rest of Europe in the next few weeks for help on the issue.
“[Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis] himself plans to appeal to his EU counterparts to speed up family reunification procedures and help Greece with the unaccompanied minors,” Domna Michailidou, the deputy minister of labour and social affairs, told The New Humanitarian this week.
Earlier this month, Greek Minister of Civil Protection Michalis Chrisochoidis told the EU Parliament that only Holland – of the 27 EU countries – had responded to his letter asking them to voluntarily accept unaccompanied minors.
Dimitra Linardaki, a lawyer with Arsis, one of the NGOs that took Greece to court over its treatment of unaccompanied minors, complained that none of the children have been appointed a guardian.
“It's obvious that the detention of minors isn't due to a crisis, but is a systematic practice.”
Michailidou told TNH that a guardianship system could only start operating when the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and a local NGO, Metadrasi, had finished preparing ministerial staff to train 180 guardians, by around March 2020.
Linardaki also hit out at the number of unaccompanied minors being detained by police or in government-run centres.
“From the documents the Greek police sent to the ECHR, it's obvious that the detention of minors isn't due to a crisis, but is a systematic practice,” he said. “Despite all this, the number of children detained is rising.”
In one case, detailed by Linardaki, 20 children were jailed at Kolonos police station, in central Athens, with no natural light, no fresh air, no walks in the courtyard. They were sleeping on the floor without mattresses, only blankets. The children were fed only once a day, and they had no soap, toilet paper, or toothbrushes.
The children had no way of contacting their parents as police officers confiscated their cellphones.
Similar conditions, the lawyer said, prevail in detention centres across the country, where hundreds of children are being held, some for up to three months.
Mental health problems
Vassilis Michailidis, a psychologist who is chief of staff of The Home Project, an NGO focused on helping unaccompanied minors, said children already traumatised by the conditions that forced them to flee their homelands are at renewed risk of depression, anxiety, and even self-harm due to their poor treatment in Greece.
“Imagine that one out of four of our kids is under medication with severe mental disorders,” Michailidis said, referring to the status of a quarter of the 220 unaccompanied minors living in The Home Project’s 11 shelters in Athens.
Conditions are often worse on the Aegean islands where many first arrive and have to wait for months or years before their asylum claims are considered. A teenage boy was stabbed to death by another unaccompanied minor inside an overcrowded camp on Lesvos in August. In September, unaccompanied children there protested to demand transfer to the mainland, setting fire to rubbish bins before being dispersed by police firing tear gas.
Michailidou, the deputy social affairs minister, said the government's priority is to find or create shelters for 1,500 unaccompanied children stuck in camps and detention centres on the Aegean islands.
There is still money available to build 10 shelters, she said, but added: “We'd need to create 100 more, and that's without taking into account the children that will arrive in the next few months.”
A new report on the exclusion and exploitation of unaccompanied minors in Greece hits out at “the lack of an efficient guardianship system to guide the child through the extremely complex reception and asylum procedure”, and “the extremely poor identification and reception conditions”.
This and the “stark incoherence between the legislative framework and the practices followed in day-to-day reality… has led to a fragmented ad hoc child protection system, filled with shortcomings”, concluded the “Children Cast Adrift” report, published on Monday.
Despite the constant obstacles, Michailidis said unaccompanied minors can thrive if they find a safe environment to grow up in.
For 19-year-old Nargis Rahimi, who fled the war in Afghanistan three years ago, things are looking up.
Michailidis helped Nargis – who stayed in a shelter run by The Home Project even after she turned 18 and finished high school – find work as a housekeeper in a five-star hotel on the popular tourist island of Santorini.
After spending two summers there, she now works in an Athens hotel. There, to mark 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and World Children’s Day today, the Acropolis will light up blue in celebrations led by UNICEF.
“I'm happy now,” Nargis said, smiling during a party at the shelter. “Today was my first day at my new job and the first day in my new apartment. I will soon start my training as a nurse.”
Her words brought tears to Michailidis’s eyes. “Nargis is the embodiment of The Home Project,” he said. “This is what we should be doing for unaccompanied children.”