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Human Rights Watch Tells Greece: Release Jailed Migrant Children

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Migrants walk on the road near the Ipsala border gate in Edirne, at the Turkish-Greek border on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

ATHENS - The 276 unaccompanied migrant children being held in police and detention cells in Greece should be released, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis in a letter, citing the COVID-19 Coronavirus.

“The Prime Minister should act on his pledge to protect unaccompanied children and make sure that hundreds of vulnerable children are freed from dirty, crowded cells, sometimes alongside adults, where they are exposed to the risks of COVID-19 infection,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is no excuse for failing to give these children the care and protection they need.”

The group said that the National Center for Social Solidarity detailed the numbers of migrant children being held and who have no parent or guardian as they await transfers to shelters as the pandemic winds down.

The 276 is 19 more children behind bars than when Mitsotakis announced, in November 2019, the No Child Alone plan to protect unaccompanied children, the group said, adding that it had documented arbitrary and prolonged detention.

Under Greek law, unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, but Greece has a chronic shortage of space in suitable facilities, it was also noted, leaving the children to wait for weeks or months for suitable accommodations.

HRW said they are being held in small police station cells and detention centers where following social distancing guidelines is impossible and some are put in cells with adults being held.

“They often have little access to basic health care and other services, hygiene supplies, or even natural light. In many cases, they do not receive information about their rights or about how to go about seeking asylum, and many experience psychological distress,” the HRW letter said.

The government said it had reduced the time of detention from 45 to 25 days but HRW said holding children for immigration reasons is prohibited by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A 2019 UN global study on children deprived of liberty reported even if detention conditions are good, detaining children worsens existing health conditions and causes new ones to arise, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.

On April 14, Human Rights Watch opened a campaign to #FreeTheKids, urging people to press Mitsotakis to immediately release unaccompanied migrant children from detention and transfer them to safe, child-friendly facilities.

Transitional options could include hotels, foster care, and apartments under a Supported Independent Living program for unaccompanied children ages 16 to 18, the group said, urging more European Union aid.

HRW said government data found that since April 30, only 1,477 out of the 5,099 unaccompanied children in Greece were housed in suitable, long-term facilities. The rest are left to fend for themselves in overcrowded island camps or on the streets or are confined in police cells and detention centers on Greece's mainland.

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hrw letter mitsotakis