Our partner RefuComm's Director Sharon Silvey just posted these reflections on the increasing numbers of "missing children" in Europe.
Tens of thousands of migrant children are “missing” in Europe, victims of both criminal gangs and the EU’s failing refugee policy.
Unaccompanied minors crossing into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere often have nowhere to turn. That makes them easy prey for traffickers and smugglers and prone to resorting to drugs and prostitution to survive.
The streets of Athens are full of child prostitutes, and drug use amongst children is a growing problem. A volunteer doctor providing outreach on the streets of Athens reports that there are many child prostitutes who came to prostitution out of desperation and fall into the hands of criminal gangs because they are not protected. Many children are taking hard drugs.
“All I can do is offer condoms and needle exchange. No one is helping them here. It’s tragic. These are children and this is Europe”.
There are strict rules for EU member countries when it comes to unaccompanied children but the system here is seriously flawed. A lack of effective outreach on the streets, disorganisation amongst the services, failure by the services and the police to act swiftly and track these children on the streets is common. The EU has left Greece with a problem and it is clear that they are not coping well.
10,000 missing children
Europol reported that there were 10,000 migrant children unaccounted for in Europe last year. A recent trip to Athens provided an insight into just how easy it is for the children to go missing and fall foul to predators and be exploited, and how easy it is for their fundamental human rights to be violated.
X is 16 years old. He is an intelligent, thoughtful and helpful boy who speaks good, self-taught English. He tells wonderful stories of ghosts and spirits handed down through the generations shared with him by his father. His father works very hard in Afghanistan to support the family and comes home with very tired legs and feet. X used to take pleasure in rubbing his father’s legs back to life by the fire of their small home. He loves his father very much, he tells me this often. X is very special and has made many friends.
X comes from the Hazara community, one of the most persecuted minority groups in Afghanistan. He made the perilous journey from Afghanistan after both his elder brothers were killed by the Taliban. His parents knew that if he didn’t go, he would be next. He is afraid for the safety of his younger siblings who are still in Afghanistan.
X arrived on Chios on the 3rd March 2016, after a journey from Afghanistan that he says was “very scary and very sad”. He saw children as young as ten being beaten by smugglers because they cried. He saw a man die and be left in the desert unburied. He showed me a video of how the kids are transported across Iran. He says that every time he watches it, he cries. He stayed on Chios in a “camp by the sea” for just 24 hours before being given a ferry ticket to the mainland and being told to leave.
He landed at Pireaus Port and that is where he lived, on the pavement, outside, for the next few months until the authorities cleared it. Desperation drove him into the arms of traffickers. Unregistered Pakistanis who are recruited by Greek farmers to provide child labour on the farms offered him work, even made it sound attractive. He was taken to a farm a few hours outside of Athens, forced to work in the field all day without food, water or pay and locked in a small room with 60 other people at night. After two weeks of this he begged them to let him leave. Their response was to take him somewhere else and lock him up again. Eventually he managed to call the local police. They told him they were coming to rescue him, instead they arrested him and the Pakistani traffickers. The Pakistanis were released after a few days, X however, spent a month in the cell before being released.
“ Why did they arrest me? I did nothing wrong. I was a slave. I thought they were coming to rescue me. I made a statement against some very bad people but they let them go. Why didn’t they arrest the bad men? This is wrong. None of them have papers. They were working for the Greek farmers. The Greek farmers must know they don’t have papers and what is happening to us people working on their fields.
When I quizzed him as to whether he has been charged, he is unsure. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. He doesn’t understand that any charge brought against him would affect his asylum claim.
The road to Athens
After his release, he made his way to Athens. He was refused entry to a squat five times before someone intervened and found him a small space on a floor. He only went to the squat to sleep, spending time instead with friends until late at night, then leaving early in the morning. Efforts to find a lawyer to deal with his case through normal channels have been impossible. Greece has a shortage of lawyers who are overwhelmed with the number of cases they have to deal with. We finally managed to get him an appointment with lawyers attached to a local NGO. He waited for three hours before being told that his lawyer would not be coming.
He came to stay with me in my Airbnb while I tried to find assistance for him. I managed to make contact with a local UNHCR team that is just forming. They have now managed to get him a lawyer who can find out what he has been charged with. It is essential that the charge is removed and he begins to prepare for his asylum interview. He is one of the lucky ones. He found people who will help him.
A 17 year-old living on a piece of cardboard.
A. A 17-year-old teenager from Pakistan, lives on the streets on a piece of cardboard. Pakistanis generally are not allowed to stay in the squats. They are at the low end of the ‘caste’ system for refugees that appears to be thriving in Athens. Syrians first, then Afghanis, then everyone else can get to the back of the queue. He reports that the only assistance he gets is from grassroots organisations who come sporadically or random individuals who turn up in the night offering food. If they don’t come, he goes hungry.
Yesterday he contacted me because he has no coat or shoes and is reporting that winter is coming and he is cold
He is also unregistered which means that under EU and Greek law, he is considered to be living here ‘illegally’ and has no access to becoming ‘legal’ because it is impossible for him to register for his asylum claim. The registration system for Urdu speakers does not work. People spend weeks on Skype trying to register. No one answers.
There are many young unaccompanied minors like him living on the streets or working for Pakistani ‘traffickers’ who enslave them and make them work for no money in harsh conditions. This week, I spoke to a UNHCR protection officer in Athens about the problems faced by the Pakistani community on the streets, who said
“Yes, we know this is a problem but we have no solution. Even if they are registered, their asylum bids are likely to be rejected and they are likely to be immediately deported when they are identified, therefore we don’t encourage them to register”.
He had no answer as to why a protection agency like UNHCR is unable or unwilling to resolve this problem. There are simple and quick solutions for registering people and these people have a right, by law, to ask for asylum.
Children detained with adults
J is a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan. He arrived in Lesvos in December 2015 with his brother. I found him and 6 other children living on the floor of a squat in Athens. They are gentle children, innocent, sons of weavers, country boys. Only two of them can read and write but they are keen to learn. He told me their story.
“There are seven of us living in this squat. We do not feel safe. There are fights between different groups and sometimes knives. We are often hungry and sleeping on the floor is not good for our health. We want to leave but we have nowhere to go, please help us.”
We learned that the seven boys had been detained in pre-removal, detention centres at Moria in Lesvos for an unknown length of time. They had no way of knowing how long they were there and they didn’t know the dates. They are not used to working with our calendar. The stories they told about Moria were nothing short of horrific.
Human Rights Watch recently reported that “children often face degrading conditions in police station cells and in Coast Guard facilities, and unsanitary conditions in pre-removal detention centers. In some cases, children said they were made to live and sleep in overcrowded, filthy, bug- and vermin-infested cells, sometimes without mattresses, and were deprived of appropriate sanitation, hygiene, and privacy. All of the children interviewed in police stations, including those who had been detained for more than a month, said they were not allowed to leave their cells.”
“Human Rights Watch interviewed nine children whose status as children was undisputed, but who nevertheless said they had been detained with adults despite the fact that this practice increases the risk of abuse and sexual violence and violates international and national laws requiring the separation of adults from children in detention. We also interviewed seven self-identified children who had been deemed adults after cursory age assessments and placed in adult detention. Human Rights Watch interviewed four children who had said the police had abused them. Children also described being handcuffed by the police during transfers.”
J reported, “We were sent to a children’s home in Athens by a Greek organisation in Mytalini many months ago. Conditions in the minor’s home were very bad, there was an old Greek woman in charge, she hated us. We never had hot food, it was always cold. When we complained, she told us to leave and that we would never get asylum in Greece, so we had no choice but to go. We lived in a park for one night and we were very afraid. The next morning we contacted the organisation in Lesvos that sent us here and asked them what we should do? They told us to go to a place in Exarchia (Athens) to a squat. It was this place where we are now. It is bad here. It is bad that no one cares about us here. Is this Europe? We are very sad and very afraid, I really miss my parents.”
No one took charge of these boys, especially the services who are paid to protect them. They were left to fend for themselves. As far as we know, there was no attempt made by the children’s home, or by the employees at the service in Lesvos, to report them missing or to bring them back. They are unregistered on the mainland despite being here for months. The chance of arrest by police is high. Not having papers in their possession could mean deportation and at the very least could mean that they could get to the age of 18 before being registered which would almost certainly mean deportation. Perhaps this is the plan?
Taking it on myself
I visited the home on the mainland that they were ejected from. I took one of the boys with me so we could find it. I wanted to identify the home and identify its location and to ask them to take the boys back into their care. Not only did those running the home refuse but they allowed me to leave with the boys without asking who I was. Once again, there was a failure to protect. I could have been anyone. They didn’t even ask for my name. I then had no choice but to take the boys into my care until I found a solution. I knew that I could also be arrested for trafficking as I had minors in my care who had no legal right to be on the mainland. I was almost hoping that I would be and could have a day in court to tell their story.
I rented an apartment in Athens, which ironically is owned by a UNHCR protection officer who rents it out to tourists at a hundred euros a night while UNHCR complains that they can’t find properties in Athens for emergency shelter.
I reached out to the local UNHCR team about the boys. They told me that the boys had come to their attention 2 weeks beforehand but that they had been unable to find a solution to emergency care for them or any other children on the streets in Athens. When I asked about pathways for referring vulnerable children I was told that the working group was still creating a ‘template’ for services to use. Until that time we are expected to guess what to do.
Without any kind of outreach service, these kids are unidentified. Even if they are identified by the services, they are placed on a waiting list with an organisation called EKKA and the list is long. While the kids wait, they stay on the streets with no support. This is the “pathway”, which clearly isn’t adequate and doesn’t work. This is not protection.
Just by turning up at UNHCR offices I managed to get an interview with UNHCR and the Greek Minister responsible for Unaccompanied minors in Athens. Thanks to their intervention, places have been found for all of them in children’s homes in Athens, and they may be placed in the coming days.
This is good news but leads to serious questions around the provision of protection for these children. If I could do it all in a week, why can’t the people whose job this is get this done? Why have they failed to keep these children safe? Why haven’t they got outreach teams to identify them? Why haven’t they got emergency shelters? And why is it left to one lone person like me to identify no fewer than 13 children living on the streets. If it took me just a few days to find them care, why can’t the Greece authorities, with an 80-million-euro budget and UNHCR resources?
In addition to these boys, friends and I have subsequently found another five boys: three boys who were ejected from their accommodation by a Greek organisation who say they suddenly ‘ran out of funds’ and two more boys living in the squats. We expect to find a lot more.
Under Greek law, protection of minors falls under the Greek Protectorate and despite there being many organisations receiving large amounts of funding for providing care and protection for these children, the reality is, they are not. My contact with these children suggests that nobody really wants to be responsible for them and so the children continue to live on the streets.
The situation is serious; the number of missing children is probably much higher than we can imagine and the problem needs addressing if we are truly concerned about the welfare of these children.
According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, 35 percent of migrants who have entered the EU in 2016 are children, many of them traveling without an adult. That’s up from 31 percent in 2015.
In 2015, 88,265 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the EU, three times as many as in 2014. Nearly half of those were from Afghanistan, while 13 percent were from Syria. Greek authorities registered over 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children arriving in Greece in the first seven months of 2016.
If we do not put robust systems in place quickly, many more children will join the list of those missing in Greece.
Our conscience must not allow this to continue.
Sharon Silvey is Director of RefuComm and is based in Athens and Greece