About the author: Jonny Willis is the director and co-founder of Velos Youth, an Athens-based organisation and EPIM grantee which provides a safe space for children and youth on the move to access essential services and a varied program of participatory activities. The original article, which includes various images and supporting graphs, can be accessed here.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind? (Where Are All the Homeless Children?)
As of May 15, 2020, there are an estimated 967 homeless children residing outside of formal state care in Greece. Regardless of the strategies implemented by the Greek state to curtail this, a significant amount of time therefore continues to be spent trying to find secure homes for lone children. This work is undertaken by organisations and individuals alike, including Velos Youth.
Velos Youth: Supporting young people to restart their lives
Velos Youth’s goal is to support unaccompanied children and young people to restart their lives either where they are or, safely – and legally – to reach a destination that is better for them.
Day to day, this is done through a youth centre for 16-21 year olds. The centre is a safer space offering a range of basic services as well as tailored 1:1 support for a population that is transitioning to adulthood in circumstances that most of us could never begin to understand.
This age group does not only have universally unique needs that call for experienced youth workers and role models, but are also often excluded from services aimed at children (due to their capacity) as well as those aimed at adults (due to their non-existence or because family units are prioritised for access).
Velos Youth supports a primarily urban population, with a limited number of young people visiting from nearby refugee camps and shelters.
A situation in flux
The presence of homeless migrant and refugee children in Greece is sadly not a new phenomenon. However, in Athens at least, the landscape has changed significantly in recent years.
It is safe to say that the first 12 months of Velos Youth (founded in June 2017) were unprecedented in terms of the number of children coming through the doors with nothing – no family, no belongings and above all, no plan for how to overcome these dire circumstances.
Concerns ranged from homelessness, to skin and respiratory infections, to fears surrounding suspected sexual and labour exploitation. Homelessness was particularly common, with between 25 and 35 children directed by Velos Youth to places where they could make applications for state funding housing every week. Today, this figure is closer to five.
Hiding the problem
It is important to address the reasons for this, to avoid misunderstandings. It’s easy to assume that fewer children sleeping rough on the streets of Athens is a good thing, but in reality this represents little more than an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. This approach has tragically underpinned many of the strategies deployed to address migration issues in Greece.
So, where are all the homeless children? Two key themes provide a framework for answering this question: migration policy and diaspora. The first can be supported by data, but does not give the full story.
Greece, with backing and pressure from the European Union, has tried a number of headline hitting tactics to stem the flow of migration into Europe from Asia and Africa. Most of these have been widely criticised for their ineffectiveness and even non-compliance with international human rights law.
It is not possible to say objectively whether these tactics, which combine poor sanitary conditions with immense overcrowding, are deployed to create a bottleneck scenario that deters more people from attempting sea and land crossing into Greece. It is however widely accepted among the grassroots community that if this is the case, it has been unsuccessful.
Tactics have also included illegal push backs of boats carrying migrants attempting perilous journeys from Turkish to Greek shorelines – journeys that have caused a significant number of deaths in recent years. However, as a well-used maxim goes, “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. It is probably for this reason that attempts to stem migratory flows have been so unsuccessful.
Regardless of this, the strategies implemented to deal with relatively mass migration into Europe via Greece have created significant pressure points at borders, and maintained pressure on the fledgling systems designed to support asylum seekers.
Protective Custody: More like detention
Perhaps the most severe form of deterrence and the greatest neglect of children’s wellbeing is the use of Protective Custody. In reality this is not very protective, but is definitely custody: detention is a more accurate term.
The detention of asylum seekers has always been a controversial issue, but there have in the main only ever been arguments against the detention of children. At least one case tried at the European Court of Human Rights concluded that nine children had been detained for prolonged periods of time in police cells that were entirely inappropriate for minors. It was also discovered that the lack of time limits set for protective custody could lead to further arbitrary situations of prolonged minor detention in violation of domestic Greek law and, in particular, Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The reality is that, if Protective Custody was used to protect children, it would be implemented for a matter of hours while authorities source suitable long-term shelter. Instead, these hours frequently turn into days, weeks and sometimes months.
Unsafe zones in Reception and Identification Centres
Next on the infamous list of most unacceptable methods of housing children are Reception and Identification Centres (RICs). These are more commonly referred to as Refugee Camps, but are unique in that they are intended only for short stays while longer-term accommodation is secured.
Within many of these camps there are Safe Zones for unaccompanied children. As in the case of so-called “Protective” Custody, the “safe” part of the term Safe Zone must be handled with care. In no way do these meet the requirements prescribed to conventional shelters (shelters designated for the long-term housing and integration of lone asylum-seeking children).
Inadequate space, inadequate services
Freya Mergler, Field Manager for UK-based organisationHelp Refugees in Greece explains:
“The capacity of these shelters is incredibly lacking, forcing thousands of children to remain in RICs for unspecified amounts of time. Children living in centres such as Moria (Lesvos) and Vathi (Samos) receive limited psychosocial support and experience sanitary conditions that no parent would willingly place their child in. These children seem to be invisible to those who have a tangible say in their future.”
The number of children in RICs outstrips the number of spaces available in their Safe Zones, and many are forced to fend for themselves amongst the general population, or in informal overspill sites outside of the RICs formal boundaries. Children can live in these camps for several months while they await transfer to long-term shelters.
The statistics show that the number of children hosted in RICs has increased from 368 in June, 2018, to 1431 in May, 2020, rising from 9.7% to 28.4% of the total number of unaccompanied children in Greece. It is also clear that although a number of new long-term shelter spaces were created between 2019 and 2020 (from 1163 to 1699), the percentage able to access these rose by only 4%.
If one were to be cynical, they may ask whether the neglect of two thirds of Greece’s lone children had been informally agreed upon as acceptable, somewhere behind the scenes.
Uncovering the reality of lone children in Greece
Figuratively speaking then we have partly uncovered where the homeless children on Athens’s streets have gone. But we have also witnessed that the number of unaccompanied children residing in Greece as a whole has increased, and that 967 remain living in Insecure Housing Conditions.
This term, amidst the dystopian taxonomy of possible accommodation options for lone children, covers those living in informal or insecure housing conditions such as living temporarily in apartments with others, living in squats, being homeless and moving frequently between different types of accommodation.
This means that 967 children have made formal applications for shelter and protection which are currently being denied.
The number and percentage of children denied any support for the state has however fallen considerably between 2018 and 2020 (from 59% to 19.2%), but not as much as the observations made and data collected at the Velos Youth Centre would imply.
Even taking conservative figures, the number of children directed by Velos Youth to make applications for shelter each week is just 20% of what it was in 2018: the estimated number of children living in insecure housing conditions is at 43% of June 2018 figures.
Of course, this could be due to a changing profile of the young people who attend Velos, but the services provided remain the same, as do the tangible demographics of the user base. Attendance at the centre has also increased year on year, and has tracked closely with migratory flows into Greece.
Communities filling gaps left by the state
Instead we believe that the ever growing diaspora of migrant communities settling in Athens is filling in the gaps left by state services. This is not necessarily something we celebrate. Although we applaud these efforts, we must also observe and monitor with caution.
Value for the family unit in these communities (both the diaspora community and in the country of origin) is often seen to be greater than in European cultures, and can therefore explain the informal adoption of children who have been separated from, or have lost, their families. Yet we must not ignore the opportunities for exploitation that increased migration has created.
Over the years, children have reported to us that they live with unrelated adults, in overcrowded apartments, and are expected to either pay above market rents or offer labour in its place.
An ever-present question: Where are all the homeless children?
We are in a privileged position at Velos Youth to support children to make applications to receive their entitlements, and to be part of a network of organisations that may eventually see the child enter a protective accommodation structure.
However, those absorbed into the darker side of these communities may never make it through our doors, and may find themselves in any number of exploitative circumstances, with no way out.
We must, therefore, continue to ask ourselves the difficult question, where are all the homeless children?