Separated Refugee Children on Greek Islands: Fear, Insecurity

Αssociated Press

In this early Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 photo, an Iraqi girl is wrapped in a thermal blanket after being transferred from a dinghy onto a Greek coast guard patrol boat during a rescue operation near the eastern Aegean Sea island of Samos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

There’s more than 78,000 refugees and migrants in Greece – more than 28,000 on islands near Turkey alone – and more than 4 ½ years after they began coming, fleeing war and strife in their homelands and going to Turkey as a jumping-off point, tragedies have abounded, and many of those finding themselves in a new land are minors separated from their parents.

In a report, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office declares that their experience has been traumatizing, at times brutal, even fatal. Citing the story of a 15-year-old from Afghanistan who landed on Lesbos and was packed into the notorious Moria detention center with more than 12,800 others in a place built for 3,000, it detailed how grim it was.

On his first night, thieves stole his bag. The loss compounded his sense of loneliness. “They took everything,” he said. “I had no one to talk to,” the report said. It got worse despite the presence of squadrons of police trying to keep calm between ethnic groups, refugees from Syria’s civil war, economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, people from as far away as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

A few nights later, three men attacked him. He woke up, fought them off and escaped to a police patrol at Moria’s main gate. He said he spent the night on the sidewalk, safe but unable to explain to the officers what had happened because there was no interpreter, said UNHCR, which has chronicled how difficult life is for the minors, as have other NGO’s and activist groups.

There are some 1,000 children, most of them teens in Moria, without parents or relatives, left to fend on their own against older predators in a place teeming with so many that it’s hard even for volunteers and activists to protect the most vulnerable.

Half the unaccompanied minors are housed in four protected sections marked A through D and a Safe Zone, but the rest sleep in a tent-like warehouse, known as a Rubb Hall, where adult asylum seekers also stay, said the report, making them accessible.

The number of children asylum-seekers without their parents in Greece has increased to over 4,600, the highest since 2016. Only one in four stay in shelters appropriate for their age and more than 1,000 have become homeless or stay in informal housing, such as squats. UNHCR has stepped up its call for Greece to protect the unaccompanied children. The organization has appealed to European states to make it a priority to open places for their relocation and speed transfers for children eligible to join family members.

“The situation in Moria has become critical and the risks for unaccompanied children are very high,” says Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece. “The Greek government with crucial support from European countries must take urgent measures to ensure that these children are protected.”

Across Greece’s Aegean islands, over 1,600 unaccompanied children are staying in government-run reception facilities such as Moria, including the Vathy center on Samos, closest to Turkey and a prime landing spot for refugees and migrants.

Conditions are so bad that some of the youngest sleep on container roofs, the type of shelter that is being provided while the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA hasn’t explained where some EU funding to help the refugees has gone while it was under the control of the defense ministry.

Unaccompanied children can live in unsafe conditions for months while waiting for an authorized transfer to shelters and it affects them mentally and physically, the agency said, the 15-year-old who was given a pseudonym to protect his identity saying that, “We all feel useless…I have so much stress. I am losing my memory. Every time I sleep I have nightmares. All I want is to see my family again.”

He fled Afghanistan with his family after the Taliban killed his older brother for cooperating with Afghan authorities. He was separated from his parents on a Turkish beach when smugglers made them and a group of 50 others board a dinghy bound for Lesbos in the middle of the night. Some were unable to climb in quickly enough and were left behind.

“Mother? Father? Where are you?” Zemar said he yelled in the darkness, but there was no response.

The morning after he was attacked in his sleep. Authorities, with help from UNHCR partner METAdrasi, found a place for him in one of the secured sections for unaccompanied children at Section A, where 150 boys from Afghanistan and Syria are staying.

“Section A is better, but the boys get angry,” he said. “Sometimes they fight. If they see me they harass me. The other night there was a knife fight and one boy was hurt,” he said, waiting, as they all are for the decision on whether they will be allowed to stay in Greece with asylum or shipped back to Turkey and from there, to where? Nobody knows.

“European countries have super powers. They should do something about Moria,” he said.