On the 6th of November the Committee for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs welcomed the Minister of Citizen Protection in Greece to the European Parliament to discuss the Dublin Agreement and the conditions faced by refugees in Greece. As a part of this the Minister was asked questions about the conditions facing unaccompanied minors and separated children in Greece. The Minister admitted that over 4000 unaccompanied minors live in unsuitable conditions in Greece (the current figure is 4962), but suggested that when he had contacted his counterparts in the 27 other member states to ask for support, he had only had a reply from 1, and that solidarity was sorely missing!
So, what does the situation look like here on Samos, for 330 of those unaccompanied minors the Minister was talking about, and what should be done to improve it? The Vathy Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) currently houses over 6.000 refugees in a space built for only 650. The majority of the people housed here can no longer be accommodated within the containers used inside the camps barbed wire borders, instead they are left to find spaces in the external area of the camp, what has come to be known as ‘the jungle’.
Often people find themselves being told to find a tent, a sleeping bag, a space and are unsupported in doing so, until they meet the NGOs on the island who work tirelessly to fill the gaps left behind by state provision. This situation is bad enough as an adult, arriving on an island where you don’t know the language, being taken to a camp that is surrounded by barbed wire, where you are told you will have to queue for food (possibly for 5 hours for each meal), where you see rats running between tents, toilets (the few there are) smashed up and filthy, rubbish everywhere, including water bottles filled with urine, and you hear stories of only 1 doctor for 6.000 people, of fire and of violence.
Imagine then, arriving here as a child, under the age of 18 either unaccompanied or separated from family and support networks. There are currently 330 unaccompanied or separated minors on Samos and the situation for them is supposed to be better. They are supposed to be protected from the worst of the camp conditions. Yet this is very rarely the case. When the numbers were lower unaccompanied minors would have been guaranteed a space in a container, in a reserved section of the RIC. They were supposed to be protected from the violence, from the queuing and from the harsh weather conditions of either 35 degrees in the summer or torrential rain in the winter. Now they are not. One 16-year-old boy lived for 10 months, in ‘the jungle’ in a tent without a mattress. He slept every night on cardboard before finally, after complaining about backache, he was helped by an NGO to find a mattress. Other young boys tell stories of the night that adults tried to break into their containers! Still more, stories of violent acts committed against them, of scabies, of bed bugs, of chicken pox and other skin diseases, with only that one doctor to treat them.
There is very little space set aside for unaccompanied girls in the RIC (because generally speaking there are less of them), but when the numbers did increase a space that could just about accommodate 5 people lying down to sleep had to house 20 and when there was no room left inside the girls had to sleep outside. There is no way to secure the few belongings they have and unaccompanied minors often talk about having their valuables stolen from them, so every day they carry them with them, trying to protect their few valued possessions.
The state plays the role of an unaccompanied minors guardian in Greece. Samos currently has 1 guardian for 330 children; there used to be 2 as well as a lawyer focused on their cases. Even then children over 15 arriving after September 2019 were unable to have legal representation as the system was over capacity. Without a guardian to turn to, when young girls face acts of sexual violence against them, they have only limited support. Now there is no longer a lawyer and only 1 guardian and this situation will only get worse.
Yet it is not only unaccompanied minors that struggle on Samos. There are currently more than 1.200 children on the island of school age (5-15 in Greece) and whilst an agreement had been reached for children to attend school in the last academic year this agreement has not been honoured this academic year. Whilst two NGOs offer informal schooling on the island, Praxis taking children from the ages of 6-11 and Still I Rise from 11-17, even between the two of them they can only support 230 children. That means that there are nearly 1.000 children unable to go to school, stuck in the RIC bored and with very little access to education. Other organisations like Samos Volunteers, Refugees for Refugees and the Flying Seagulls do fantastic work creating activities that are both fun and educational to support the children with basic language learning and to stave away the boredom. But this is not an alternative to formal education, this will not fill the gaps for a generation that has been let down by a political system that should protect them, this will not lead to the qualifications needed for the next stage in life.
So what needs to change, for Europe to do better by these children and to give them a better chance of a future? Firstly, children can no longer be housed in tents and overcrowded containers, stuck on islands waiting to move on. There needs to be a proper system of transfers from the islands not only to mainland Greece but to other European states, the Dublin Agreement can no longer be used as an excuse to ignore the rights of children to a safe environment. Secondly, a proper system of guardianship and support needs to be put in place to ensure that once an unaccompanied minor is transferred from the islands they do not find themselves falling through the cracks in the system, lost in big cities, often forced into drug selling and at risk from predators, like the 91 whose location is currently unknown by Greek authorities. Thirdly, a proper system of education needs to be put in place to give not only children, but adults seeking and receiving asylum a chance to move on with their lives, to progress to the next stage, and to maybe, one day, be able to put behind them the horrific conditions they were forced to live in on a small island in the Aegean Sea.