The Long Journey to Greece:
the Tragedy of Unaccompanied Refugee Children
Azzurra Meringolo 18 January 2017

Kusai only talks about returning home to Syria. Navigating the Islamist checkpoints and shoot-to-kill Turkish border guards to reach the destroyed city of Aleppo is preferable to waiting for the border to open. The slight and pensive 16-year-old boy had hoped to join his brother in Germany, but had spent two months stranded in a refugee camp at Eleonas, Athens, praying for the Macedonian gateway to central Europe to reopen.

Kusai is not alone; with no relatives, he finally entered Greece with Andil and Amr, two other unaccompanied minors also waiting for asylum. Effectively abandoned by Europe, these children are trapped in a wretched state of suspended animation, exposed and vulnerable, the vast majority having lost their families and their entire social support systems, and now deprived of any adequate care, nutrition, and even basic healthcare; all factors which have an impact on their socio-emotional wellbeing as well as their ability to integrate into new communities and find a place in life.

“They arrive here without any relatives, sometimes with only some family friends, but with lots of hope”, explains Kennan, a social worker at Faros. “In the majority of cases they just want to join their father, mother or brothers who are already in northern Europe”.

Supported by Stiftung Mercator, a number of think tank representatives travelled to Athens to analyse the consequences of the March 2016 EU-Turkey deal in Greece, a country that has just experienced one of the most turbulent summers in its recent history. In fact, the 2015 migration crisis reached its peak a couple of weeks after the painful bailout deal with the ‘troika’. “We were suffering an economic crisis when thousands of people arrived on our islands. The same European institutions that were asking us to implement austerity measures, were not providing any assistance for migrants. The EU-Turkey deal was a last-minute plan that did not solve the problem”, says Kristine, an Action Aid volunteer on the Greek islands.

Following the EU-Turkey agreement, 22.000 children are currently stranded in Greece, detained in inhumane conditions for extended periods of time. “The loss of their loved ones, exposure to violence, displacement, and isolation are some of the contributing factors to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. PTSD symptoms include severe depression, panic attacks, feelings of guilt, grief, sleep deprivation, acute and graphic nightmares and feelings of hopelessness. Without proper medical treatment and psychological support, PTSD significantly alters a child’s ability to interact with others, making adaptations and learning extremely challenging, if not impossible”; explained Maria, another Greek social worker. “The long-term outcome for untreated children with PTSD is likely to be anti-social behaviour, anger outbursts, and aggressiveness, which significantly impacts their quality of life and prevents today’s refugee children from realizing their full potential. Conceivably, PTSD could deprive them of the basic right to live a happy and fulfilling life. These children don’t go to school; they are part of a lost generation. They have missed two or three years of school and even if the state is trying to provide them with education, it is not easy”.

“With a lot of free time and a lack of focus, children can easily become victims to human trafficking”, added Kennan, quoting Europol, an agency that has documented different cases of child refugees who have been sexually exploited. This mostly happens to boys, the majority being unaccompanied minors reaching Greece, but there are also girls who are victims of a new and worrying trend: early marriages. “A sharp rise has been registered in the camps, above all in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but we have heard some stories in Greece too. Young literate Syrian girls who were once educated to study hard to become professionals, are now being given in marriage to older men who can guarantee them a future. Families can neither keep them, nor guarantee an education”, added Maria.

Pointing the finger at the EU-Turkey deal, Kennan added: “in the end, children who are fleeing bombs, bullets and torture in war zones, find themselves stranded and living in desperate conditions, lacking the protection, information and services they so desperately need”. In her opinion, the agreement does not work and reflects the fragility of the EU’s common asylum system. In fact, the agreement does not adequately take a collective and shared approach to the problem, nor does it take sufficient action to facilitate family reunification, even if the right to family life has long been protected by international human rights standards and laws. From January to September 2016, only 283 people who had asked for reunification had been transferred from Greece to countries in which they had close relatives. Another 2.200 were from divided families waiting to finalize their asylum applications. Action Aid in its last report on relocation and family reunification for refugees arriving in Greece, decried that, “The European Commission’s proposal to reform the common European asylum system needs to address these issues. The overall framework should be the creation of a fairer, more efficient and more sustainable system for allocating asylum applications among member states.

In the past year, over a third of new arrivals in the country were unaccompanied children. Beyond the issues already examined, they are also affected by another problem; insufficient legal remedies to appeal against a negative decision on family reunification applications. Consequently, it is up to Greek institutions, not the applicant, to reopen and resend the application for family unification to the respective member states for reconsideration. In practical terms, this means that it can be postponed for years, or never take place at all.

As with reunification, relocation is not working. In September 2015, the EU and other member states agreed on a two-year plan to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Greece and Italy, to other European countries. Up to June of this year, a total of 4.637 asylum seekers had been relocated from Greece, priority having been given to vulnerable people – in particular minors, unaccompanied minors, the disabled, elderly people, pregnant women or victims of human trafficking. But at this rate, it will take almost 15 years to relocate all those who have been referred. In addition, this scheme applies only to asylum seekers who entered Greece between September 2015 and March 24th, 2016 – later arrivals are not eligible for this programme, nor are certain nationalities or those with an average recognition rate for asylum in the EU of at least 75%. “This inevitably creates discriminatory issues on grounds of nationality. Initially, nationalities that met this requirement were Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis – added Khristine – last June, Iraqis were excluded, because their rate of recognition had fallen below 75%. Those most discriminated against are Afghans, who, after the Syrians, are by far the largest nationality of refugees stranded in Greece. They have never had access to the relocation scheme because of their low recognition rate”. Like Syrians, they left their country because of war, but they are not being taken into consideration. “Even though Afghans account for 25% of over one million refugees and migrants who have arrived in Greece since January 2015 – explained Enza Roberta Petrillo, researcher at the Sapienza University of Rome -under current EU migration rules, they have few alternatives other than voluntary repatriation or a forced return to Turkey. This does not come as a surprise to some; the astonishing reclassification of Afghans as economic migrants is additional proof, if such proof were needed, of Europe’s intention to reverse the wave of migrants from war-torn countries, by weakening their chances of being able to stay in Europe legally. For those Afghans already stranded in Greece, the message could not be clearer:  ‘don’t come here, you are not welcome!’ This is exactly the same message that has been delivered to the 3,300 unaccompanied child migrants who have arrived in Greece in the first seven months of 2016”.