The reception system of unaccompanied minors in Greece
14 February, 2022
Greece is one of the most affected destinations in Europe by the arrival of unaccompanied minors – UAMs – who mainly reach the country transiting through the Eastern Mediterranean route passing through Turkey and coming from Asian and African countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Palestine. The National Center for Social Solidarity estimated that, on the 15th November 2021, 2.131 unaccompanied children live in Greece and between January 2016 and October 2021, 37.535 unaccompanied minors reached the country. It clearly is a crucial phenomenon that requires attention and specific care, not least given the vulnerable condition of many of the migrants involved. This article will analyse the reception system for unaccompanied minors in Greece, together with its flaws and potential ameliorations. Special attention will be given to the housing of unaccompanied minors.
The reception system for unaccompanied minors
International organizations define a UAM as “a person under 18 years who is separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who, by law or by custom, is responsible for doing so”. With separated children, instead, is meant “children under 18 years of age who are outside their country of origin and separated from both parents or their previous legal/customary primary caregiver”. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO), through the EASO Guidance on reception conditions: operational standards and indicators, outlines the conditions under which countries can best accommodate unaccompanied minors, given their fragile and vulnerable situation, supporting the implementation of the conditions that have been outlined by the Commission. The guide explains the specific common standards that are applicable to national reception systems in all EU Member States and the indicators by which these standards should be measured.
Unaccompanied minors live far away from their country of origin without their families. They are continuously exposed to different risks, like forms of violence, exploitation and trafficking, or psychological and sexual abuses. Together with other vulnerable categories, such as pregnant women, migrants with disabilities or victims of torture or sexual violence, unaccompanied minors should therefore receive special protection from the receiving states. They should undergo a “vulnerability assessment”, an element foreseen in the EASO guidance. This is crucial to respect its “best interest”, which is the founding pillar of the reception system of unaccompanied minors and one of the declared priorities of EU. Member States should particularly strive to take the following important aspects into account: the possibilities for family reunification, the well-being and social development of the child and most importantly his/her background, considerations about his/her safety and security, and finally the view of the child in accordance with his/her age and maturity.
Source: EASO, 2018. Guidance on reception conditions for unaccompanied children.
In addition to the international conventions governing child protection, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, there are numerous guidelines at the level of the European Union and then of individual states. As it can be understood by the figure above, there are also several directives and regulations, such as the Dublin III Regulation, that provide the legal path that the States have to follow in this field. In 2017, the Council adopted the Conclusions on the protection of children in migration, defining in this way a series of actions that the member states should consider for ensuring the best protection of migrant minors. In addition to the “best interest” principle, other four principles are furthermore outlined in the EASO guidance: confidentiality, participation of the children, non-discrimination and accountability and transparency, with the latter referring to the fact that the provision of reception conditions should rely on transparent rules and procedures, a responsibility that falls on the respective receiving authority.
While not dwelling on the details of the various principles highlighted by the EASO that regard the issues to be taken into account when dealing with the reception of unaccompanied minors, a number of crucial aspects will be analysed in order to understand the shortcomings and strengths of the Greek context with regards to the housing policies. The various possibilities of housing for unaccompanied minors range between private houses to shelters. The types of housing available to them may depend on the phase of their asylum procedure – progressively transit centre, initial reception centres, special facilities for applicants for international protection within the Dublin procedure – changing in this way accordingly to the length of their asylum process. Along with the definition of the accommodation itself, there are secondary elements to be taken into account, such as its infrastructure, that should follow precise indicators and good practices, all of them going in the direction of protecting the child and his/her needs. Among the aspects considered for the infrastructures dedicated to unaccompanied minors are aspects such as sufficient room size, a maximum number of minors per room and separation of the sexes to protect privacy, the presence of furniture and appliances and the proper functioning of the sanitary infrastructure.
An overview of the phenomenon in Greece
Before analysing the specific flaws of the Greek context, an outline of the local situation with regards to unaccompanied minors will be presented. This phenomenon is continuously growing and affects countries like Italy and Greece, who welcome thousands of UAMs every year. Between January and December 2019, according to UNCHR – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – 33.200 children arrived in Greece, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta. Of them, 9.000 (27%) were unaccompanied or separated children (UASC).
The following graph shows accompanied, unaccompanied and separated children by country of arrival between January and December 2019.
Source: Barn, R., et.al. 2021. Unaccompanied Minors in Greece and Italy.
As reported by the National Centre for Social Solidarity, Greece is now hosting more than two thousand unaccompanied minors. 1791 of them are living in long term accommodation facilities, while 340 live in temporary accommodation facilities. The demographic composition of unaccompanied and separated minors in Greece is here outlined, to give an overall idea of who is involved: 60% of them are boys, but in countries like Italy and Malta the percentage goes up to 92-95%. In Greece, 37% male children are aged 0-4 years, one out of two are aged 5-14 years, and the remaining 13% are teenagers, between 15 and 17 years. Female children are instead older. In general, only 21% is aged 0-4 years. It is crucial to underline that Greece is not the final destination desired by the minors; most of them wish to reach Central or Northern Europe, where they sometimes have members of the family or friends to be reunited with.
The number of unaccompanied minors may seem insignificant compared to the numbers of migrants in Europe, but they should make us pause when we consider that each of them is a child, forced to face an already traumatic situation without the support of parents and family. Indeed, those children face many problems, starting from the separation from the family to the difficulties of adapting to a new social and cultural environment. Although Greece, and all EU Member States, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including issues of non-discrimination, family reunification, and protection from harm and exploitation, the European Commission has reported that children who arrive in Europe are continuously exposed to risks such as violence (including in reception/transit centres), physical abuse, exploitation, sexual abuse and trafficking for sexual or other purposes, and disappearance or separation from their families. In addition, national standards and practices are not sufficient and not suitable for the children’s needs and rights. In particular, the reception system in Greece is not adapted to the needs of UAMs: various NGOs, such as Save the Children, have underlined the irregular and critical conditions that minors have to face, conditions that have been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. As far as Covid-19 is concerned, mention can be made of the fact that, with the arrival of the pandemic, all hosting places for refugees were quarantined and the staff was reduced to emergency staff, thus resulting in the interruption of creative and recreational activities, as well as sports activities, and greater difficulty in attending school classes, all aspects that are of great importance for children and their growth.
One of the most concerning weaknesses of the Greek reception system
One of the arguments most often put forward against the functioning of the reception policies of countries such as Greece is the fact that they are based on an interventionist philosophy. The services that are offered to migrants are basically emergency services, that don’t help migrants to fully integrate in the host society; migrants are, instead, forced to live in the margins of the society, where they can be exploited and victimized. For example, we can think about the fact that they often have to live in camps or emergency structures for a long time before being moved to a more permanent structure, and once in those structures, it is more difficult for them to have access to school, to occasion of social interactions, and to recreational activities. The Great Recession of 2008 reinforced this interventionist trend, which was already underway, accelerating the shift towards a residual model of state intervention. However, this management attitude is fundamentally insufficient when it comes to the social integration of vulnerable groups.
Housing and social policies targeting unaccompanied refugee children in Greece have become residual over time, and has been exacerbated by related dimensions such as social protection gaps. The general weakening of the Greek welfare system has therefore also had effects on the management of migration flows in the country. Until the 2015 refugee management crisis, the treatment of unaccompanied minors was assimilated to that of refugee adults; thus, the vulnerability and specific needs of the category of unaccompanied minors was not considered, or rather was neglected. There was, in fact, a total absence of special reception facilities at the border, forcing unaccompanied minors to share spaces with adults, or sometimes to be detained in police stations. The only housing structures present in the country were operated by NGOs, that, given the lack of money, could only offer poor housing conditions with lack of qualified staff and absence of social integration actions. Following the 2015 migration crisis, Greece has been compelled to create an emergency system, that regulated the housing in the following way: the first place where children were hosted are emergency housing facilities, then they are moved to long-term shelters, then the fostering or appointment of a guardian is pursued and, finally, the minors could be moved to semi-autonomous housing (SIL) flats. It is very difficult for minors to become accommodated in long-term shelters, given the long waiting list and the reduced number of available places in general, even though these structure could give the minors better opportunities in terms of access to school, to health services, to occasions of social interactions. This means that emergency housing facilities remain the main option for minors, creating overcrowded facilities. In addition to being overcrowded, the structures that welcome unaccompanied minors can sometimes also violate the human rights of the children, as there are cases of unsuitable building infrastructures and noncompliance with hygiene rules, but also of inadequate legal aid services. Research have shown how the majority of unaccompanied minors in Greece live in temporary structures, that often end up being long-term solutions, making their integration complex and difficult.
The current system of housing for unaccompanied minors leads, given its characteristics, to the lack of connection with proper social integration services; for example, being forced to live in camps or temporary facilities, several unaccompanied minors do not have access to education, mental health services, legal aid and, in general, social support activities. If we think, for example, about the access to education, it is possible to cite numerous problems, like the absence of preparatory reception classes, the language in which the classes are held and the lack of cross-cultural educational material. With regard to access to health care, some aspects of personal care are linked to the possession of country documents, thus making it impossible for children to access some services. Furthermore, legal aid to the child must be channelled through a well-organised structure that offers the child legal representation through a lawyer who is in charge of the case; moving from one structure to another may for example make this more difficult.
When dealing with the reception of unaccompanied minors, it is vital to keep in mind that they represent one of the most vulnerable categories of migrants and that, therefore, they require special care and special services to have their rights and needs protected and fulfilled. In addition, it is important to notice that housing is only one out of nine crucial issues contained in the EASO Guidance; only when all these aspects are offered and guaranteed to the child will he/she truly receive the support he/she needs. Due to the continued high number of unaccompanied minors reaching Europe, this remains crucial to address. The lack of suitable services to guarantee the entire population of unaccompanied migrant minors that their rights in terms of education, access to health, opportunities for personal growth will be respected illustrates how insufficient the European and national policies for their support are. Although numerous conventions and directives exist that impose certain standards, the situation can be very different in practice. At the root of this are not only problems of an economic nature and the lack of available funds, but the lack of political will to deal with this phenomenon; this could be due to the lack of strategic interest in the topic or to the fact that an emergency approach is more impactful in the eyes of the population and voters than a reception approach that is truly structured around paths of integration on the ground and in local society. Given the thousands of children involved and impacted by the discussed deficiencies, these issues, however, should be subject to much greater attention.
 These data refer to a research conducted in 2019 by the UNCHR, the IOM and UNICEF.