Greece has announced it is ending its longstanding practice of holding unaccompanied migrant children in police custody, but critics say it is still failing to support thousands of minors who often undertake dangerous journeys to flee instability and war and seek asylum in Europe.
Human rights advocates hailed the government’s move last month to end detentions as a major victory for child rights, but cautioned that the supposedly protective practice is only one of many Greek policies that leave children in danger and unsupported even after reaching the EU.
Since 2016, 33,166 unaccompanied children – mostly between the ages of 14 and 17, and from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria – have been registered in Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea or entering the country by land from Turkey. Under Greece’s system of protective custody, which began in 2001, many of the children ended up being held in police stations for weeks, even months, until there was space in a shelter where they could be transferred.
The cells were often unsanitary and overcrowded, and Human Rights Watch documented cases of children being made to share with unrelated adults, exposing them to higher risks of abuse and sexual assault.
Migration detention for children is prohibited by international law, and Greece was sued and condemned for the practice multiple times in the European Court of Human Rights – an international court in Strasbourg, France that hears cases related to the European Convention on Human Rights.
At the end of March 2020, there were 331 unaccompanied minors in police custody in Greece. That number was gradually reduced to zero by the middle of November as children were transferred to shelters, according to the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum. But the National Center for Social Solidarity, a quasi-governmental Greek social support organisation, recorded 36 children in protective custody at the end of November. A bill will soon be introduced to parliament to formally end the practice, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum has said.
Migrant children detained in police custody in Greece experience feelings of extreme fear and anxiety, according to Alexandros Konstantinou, a lawyer who represented several children in cases at the European Court of Human Rights. “They cannot understand why, while they are identified as unaccompanied minors, they are detained in the police station under inappropriate conditions,” Konstantinou told The New Humanitarian.
The end of the child detention policy comes as Greece’s right-wing New Democracy government is facing scrutiny from rights groups over other aspects of its migration policies, especially as arrivals have fallen back to levels critics say should have allowed plenty of room for improvement.
Since March, human rights groups have documented widespread pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants from Greece’s land and sea borders – a charge dismissed by the Greek authorities as “fake news”.
The New Democracy government has also weakened Greece’s asylum system and curtailed the independence of NGOs, while presiding over a dismal humanitarian situation in a temporary refugee camp on the island of Lesvos set up to replace Moria, which burned down in September.
Against this backdrop, the end of the child detention policy is a rare positive step, but other issues – ranging from a lack of safe shelter and educational support to the lack of guardianship or a mentoring system – still make Greece an inhospitable place for asylum seeker and migrant children, according to Konstantinou.
“Unaccompanied minors cannot understand why they have been treated this way,” he said of the broader situation they face in Greece. “They thought that, coming to Europe, they would feel protected.”
Victims as perpetrators
For many unaccompanied minors, the difficulties in Greece begin as soon as they arrive. With extremely limited legal pathways to enter the EU, people seeking international protection have to cross borders irregularly, and children travelling alone are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by the smugglers who help facilitate the journey, according to Konstantinou.
Smugglers sometimes use unaccompanied minors to pilot small boats across the Evros River, which runs along much of the land border between Turkey and Greece. “In Greece, we have a very strict law when it comes to smuggling, a law that doesn’t separate the smugglers, who are members of an international criminal network, from [people] who are victims of this network,” Konstantinou said.
As a result, unaccompanied minors who pilot boats are often arrested on smuggling charges. This is what happened to Badih, an Afghan asylum seeker who was 17 when he entered Greece in 2019, and whose name has been changed to protect his identity. Smugglers told him he could pay a discounted price for his trip if he paddled a small boat across the Evros River. Badih agreed.
After crossing the river, he was detained by police without realising that what he had done carried a criminal penalty. It wasn’t until he was in prison and heard other inmates talking about facing 15- to 25-year prison sentences that Badih understood the seriousness of the situation.
“My heart broke,” he told TNH during a prison visit in 2019. “It’s hard when you first come here. You get mad. You want to take pills and sleep.”
Badih, who said he had wanted to come to Europe to be free of the conflict back home in Afghanistan and to complete his studies, has been left regretting that decision. “If I knew what would happen to me, I would have stayed [in Afghanistan],” he said.
Struggling to integrate
Unaccompanied minors who avoid problems with the smuggling networks and the Greek legal system still face a lack of support.
Even as the Greek government has moved away from holding children in police stations, one of the biggest issues is the absence of safe housing alternatives.
Around 25 percent of the more than 4,000 unaccompanied minors in Greece live in squats, shared apartments, or on the streets, according to the National Center for Social Solidarity.
Housing insecurity exposes children to numerous dangers, including violence, sexual abuse, and various forms of exploitation, according to a 2019 report by the Germany-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Social workers see the impact on unaccompanied minors as they transform from shy children to angry teenagers left by the state to fend for themselves, it says.
Learning Greek and getting an education are the most important tools for unaccompanied minors to be able to integrate into society and begin leading a normal life, according to Dimitris Verginis, a coordinator with the Greek NGO ARSIS, which provides emergency shelter and support to unaccompanied minors.
But the public school system in Greece doesn’t make it easy for newcomers to integrate.
Children who are just beginning to learn to speak Greek are also required to take Ancient Greek classes, which is often discouraging. Many unaccompanied minors – who are also under pressure to find jobs and earn money to send back to their families or pay off debts to smugglers – end up dropping out of school.
Alisina, an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan who arrived in Greece in 2018 when he was 14 years old, said his first Greek class made him want to quit school. “This language is so difficult. One word is 20 letters,” he remembered thinking at the time.
Prior to reaching Greece, Alisina had not received a formal education. After realising the practical importance of learning the language, he was able to communicate in Greek in less than a year – with the support of Maria Karadoulama, a teacher at a school in a shelter run by ARSIS where Alisina was living. “As hard as this might sound, I believe that if a kid wants to learn, and he has a clear target, he can make it,” Karadoulama told TNH. “However, the system doesn’t make it easy at all for them.”
Unaccompanied minors who complete the first year of high school and receive asylum are able to apply for apprenticeship programmes at vocational schools and begin earning some money.
Otherwise, job prospects are limited.
Many people who arrive in Greece as children end up in exploitative labour situations – in agricultural fields, or in factories earning 20 euros ($24) or less for 10-hour work days, or getting pulled into criminal networks selling illegal cigarettes or drugs, according to Verginis.
Pushed to leave
Many unaccompanied minors never planned to stay in Greece in the first place. Others find out what the situation is like and then try to leave. Among asylum seekers and migrants, Greece has a reputation – stemming from its debt crisis and economic collapse in the early to mid-2010s – for offering poor social services and few future work possibilities to people seeking protection.
Many people want to move on to join family members or friends in other parts of Europe. But the process for family reunification – even for unaccompanied minors – is slow, and the securitisation of the EU’s external borders makes it difficult for children to move on their own.
“Each week, we have a case of a child who leaves the shelter. Only one out of 10 though make it to cross the borders,” Verginis said.
When TNH met Sulaiman on a hot August day in 2019 at a cargo train station in the northern city of Thessaloniki, he was 16 years old. He said his father, a doctor, had been abducted by the Taliban and had now disappeared, and that he had left Afghanistan because the Taliban were recruiting young boys from his village to fight.
It took him eight gruelling months of travel to reach Greece. When TNH met him, he was hiding under a railway car trying to find some shade from the morning sun. He was waiting for a freight train heading north towards the Macedonian border, hoping it would stop long enough for him to try to sneak on board and hitch a ride.
The train station smelled of urine and burnt plastic, and Sulaiman said he hadn’t been able to sleep well for days, surrounded by strangers and disturbed by snakes and mice at night.
Sulaiman never saw staying in Greece as an option. After crossing the land border from Turkey, a police officer at a detention centre wrote on his papers that he was 18. Sulaiman said he tried to correct him, but the officer refused to change the number. The message was clear. “I need to leave this country,” Sulaiman remembered thinking at the time. He wanted to go to France.
Sulaiman knew numerous people had died trying to hop the trains and was afraid of what might happen to him. But as a train rolled slowly into the station, a number of asylum seekers and migrants snatched up their few belongings and ran to jump onboard. Sulaiman ran along with them and grabbed the hand of a man who had already made it onto one of the cars, flashing a smile as he was pulled aboard and the train gained momentum heading north. “I don’t want to sleep in the station,” he had said before running for the train. “I want to have a home.”
Two hours later, Sulaiman was arrested – along with the other asylum seekers and migrants who had boarded the train – before making it to Macedonia. It took him more than a year to finally get out of Greece and trek across the Balkans, where he said he was detained, beaten, and pushed back at borders dozens of times. He finally reached Paris in August.
Alisina was eventually able to leave Greece through family reunification and now lives with his uncle and cousins in London. Around 500 asylum seekers have been relocated through legal channels from Greece to other EU countries this year.
Badih, however, is still behind bars. He was convicted on people smuggling charges and sentenced to 17 years in prison. He has filed an appeal and is waiting for the outcome.
Badih still hasn’t told his mother, back in Afghanistan, that he is in jail. When he talks to her from a payphone in the jail, he lies and says he is in a closed refugee camp and video calls are not allowed. “If she learns that I am in prison, she will die,” he said. “The first day I get out of here, I will make a video call to see my mother’s face.”
This reporting was supported in part by a storytelling grant from the National Geographic Society.
Videos by Theofilos Dadis/TNH