Die Welt: Prison time for unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece

Die Welt: Prison time for unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece

Article in Die Welt by Flora Wisdorff  (27/10/2016)

Specialised establishments are overwhelmed. The authorities and NGOs are doing everything they can, under difficult conditions, to improve conditions. This is part two in our series of exclusive reports on migrant minors.

When Ahmed set foot in Greece, he immediately felt safe. The last thing this young 17-year old Syrian expected was to find himself in prison. Yet that is what happened. A few steps from the Macedonian border, close to Idomeni, he was stopped by the Greek police. They took him to a prison where he was detained with adults for 40 days. “One day, I wanted to watch television, like the adults. All of a sudden, the guards grabbed me and led me to an interrogation room. They yelled at me, hit me in the back.” Today, he still does not know the reason for this punishment.

“Why was I locked up? “

 “No one explained to me why I was locked up”, states this Syrian, who has been living in a centre in Athens since March. This adolescent with the slender frame comes from Daraa, in the south of Syria. Before the war, his parents fled to Lebanon, and his brother to the United Kingdom. “I was alone and I wanted to find my brother”. At that time, in February, the border was still open.

According to Greek law, when the police stop an unaccompanied refugee minor, the police become responsible for him until a spot in a suitable centre becomes available. Yet, centres are at capacity. That’s why, supposedly for their own protection, minors are first taken by the police to closed institutions and must often live alongside adults. There are currently 1,100 slots in centres adapted to the needs of minors travelling alone, but at the same time 2,500 young people are awaiting housing in Greece, according to the numbers from local authorities. The “chronic shortage of suitable centres” creates a situation where children must “endure prolonged arbitrary detention”, “often in degrading conditions”, revealed the Human Rights Watch report published last September. In mid-October, 381 unaccompanied minors were living in detention centres, often for months, according to Human Rights Watch, a human rights organisation. Thirteen of them were even being officially temporarily detained in a police station. Another 1,246 lived in precarious camps or centres with nationals of their country of origin, without any protection or care. Seventy-nine percent of them come from Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Especially vulnerable

Most are young people, but children are also among them. One unaccompanied minor out of five is under 14. Foreign unaccompanied minors are considered to be especially vulnerable. Without protection or care, they quickly fall victim to sexual violence, criminal networks and human trafficking. Human Rights Watch considers that it is vital not only that they be able to live freely, but especially that they benefit from psychological counselling and legal aid, and that they have the possibility of engaging in recreational activities. However, it appears this is often not the case. Most have not even met their guardian yet, observed the human rights organisation.

Other organisations could not find harsh enough words to describe the situation: Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and the Greek NGO Praksis highlighted in a joint report that Greece was failing in its mission to allow minors to enjoy their fundamental rights. The European Commission also finds the situation problematic: Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, recently asked during his State of the Union speech that the EU and Greece “take swift and effective measures to protect unaccompanied minors. Should Europe fail to do so, it would betray its historic values”.

But why specifically is the question of refugee minors in Greece now coming up again in the news? Simply because the problem has become particularly blatant over the course of the summer. Prior to March, most minors – but also adults and families – passed through Greece to go directly to central Europe. But since the closure of the Balkan Road in the spring and the entering into force of the EU-Turkey agreement, asylum-seekers who arrive on the Greek islands in the Aegean cannot continue on their way, and children and adolescents, like the others, remain stuck in Greece, where centres to accommodate them have quickly filled up. The Greek authorities, already overloaded, must now take care of this group, which must be looked after in a specific way, and they are unable to.