Theoretically, “24-hour care and emergency protection” is provided to the unaccompanied minors in the safe zones of the refugee camps. But the cases that Solomon brings to light show that reality is often far from what is expected in theory.
It was not the first time he’d seen him on the street.
Walking around Omonia Square, where, six afternoons a week, the STEPS team provides assistance to people in need, the organization’s street coordinator, Tasos Smetopoulos, had met the young boy from Afghanistan on other occasions in recent months.
On that afternoon, however, when he saw him on Socratous St, the first thing the boy did was show him his injured hand, in a sling, and ask him if there was a doctor who could look at it. Smetopoulos led him down a few blocks, to Kapodistriou Street, where the Medical Volunteers International team was located.
While the doctors removed the splint and changed the bandages, they had the opportunity to talk with the boy. He told them he was involved with drugs. He was also involved in prostitution because he had to send money to his family back home.
Since the outbreak of the so-called “refugee crisis”, Smetopoulos has been a steady presence on the streets of Athens − so this was far from the only time when he had encountered a minor, a refugee involved in substance abuse or sexual exploitation.
But this case was different. The boy told them, as he devoured one of the two portions of food they gave him (he would keep the other portion for later), that he lived in the safe zone at the Skaramangá camp.
And in a month, when he turned 18, he’d be forced to leave the camp.
“Are we just kidding ourselves?”
“So why do we call this place a safe zone?” Tasos Smetopoulos wonders, when a few days after the incident we met him in downtown Athens, before the “street work” of the day began.“Are we kidding ourselves, or is it done just to get subsidies?”
He adds, “Essentially, we have a child who is addicted to drugs, is a victim of sexual exploitation, and has health issues. He’s exposed to a highly abusive environment, on the streets, with dangers ranging from becoming infected to anything else we can imagine.”
“And this minor,” he continues, “happens to live in an environment under the responsibility of the state, which in theory, should be protecting him from exactly these kinds of situations.”
After his injured hand is taken care of, the 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan tells them that every day he comes downtown from the Skaramangá camp and returns to the safe zone in the evening to sleep. This is something that Smetopoulos notes is “even more infuriating.”
“It means that someone is responsible for this boy and that person is just not doing their job. They see it, they can not see it, and yet they do nothing about it?” he asks.
One more case in Attica region
Solomon contacted the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
We made them aware of the minor’s case, asking if they were familiar with it and if the Ministry had taken measures for him, and asked to get informed about how many minors live in the safe zone of Skaramagkas, which was in lockdown since October 4th and until October 12th, and which is the average time spent in it.
Until publication of this piece, the Ministry did not answer our questions.
However, this is not the only worrying incident that took place in the same week, involving an unaccompanied minor living in a safe zone. Around the same time, the case of another teenager, who lived in the safe zone at a different shelter in Attiki, was brought to the attention of Solomon by NGO workers involved in the case. After other residents removed the teenager from the shelter against his will, they attempted to sexually assault him, causing him severe injury.
A few days after the incident, the shocked teenager was finally transferred to another facility in the provinces, however serious concerns remain: how safe, after all, are the so-called safe zones?
“24-hour care” within the safe zones…
According to the latest report of the National Center for Social Solidarity, which is responsible for housing unaccompanied minor refugees in Greece, as of September 30, 2020, there are 354 children living in the safe zones of 13 open shelters.
The first safe zone was set up in April 2016 at the facility in Diavata.
The opening of the safe zone was preceded by the closure of the border by North Macedonia and the creation of the informal refugee camp in Idomeni. After the clearing of the informal refugee camp, when it was apparent that the existing space for unaccompanied minors at the new facilities was not enough, there was pressure from Unicef, the UNHCR and ARSIS, to provide better solutions within open hosting structures.
Thus, initially a safe zone within Diavata was set up, followed by safe zones in other open shelters in mainland Greece and on the Aegean islands.
The safe zones, where minors are placed via court order, are separate areas within the refugee camps around the country where minors live separate from the rest of the population for their own safety.
Based on the original design, they are provided with “24-hour care and emergency protection”. But reality is often far from what was expected in theory.
A wire fence reinforced with wire mesh separates the respective safe zone from the rest of the shelter.
However, holes that are often made in the fence allow for the free and unrestricted passage to and from the safe zones: this, in reality, means that minors can leave the protected area at any time, but also, that adults and other camp residents have access to the safe zone.
Staff who work at the Skaramangá camp, speaking to Solomon on condition of anonymity, said such makeshift passages are also used by the children to move to and from the safe zone.
Similar phenomena have been observed at other shelters, employees in other structures confirm in Solomon. Meanwhile, while safe zones are considered places where unaccompanied minors can live temporarily, with the National Center for Social Solidarity setting a maximum stay of three months, in reality, minors stay for much longer intervals, as projected capacity is also exceeded.
Adolescent refugees who, as unaccompanied minors, have stayed in Aegean islands’ safe zones (Lesbos, Leros, Kos, Samos, Chios) until they were transferred to hostels in mainland Greece, told Solomon that the average length of time in the safe zone could reach nine months for children aged 16-18 and four months for those under 16.
…and overcrowded conditions
In addition to the duration of the stay, the operation of the safe zones is governed by specific specifications and in terms of the people who can be accommodated in the zone.
Based on these specifications, for example, up to 30 minors can live in a safe zone. However, there are cases, such as at the Samos facility, where in recent years, the number of people living in the safe zone has consistently been more than 100 unaccompanied minors. Similarly, in the RIC of Moria, where the capacity was up to 150 people, more than 500 children lived in the zone at the same time.
The issues of extended stays and limited space are not the only ones. According to the specifications, children in safe zones are provided with psychosocial, psychological, legal and educational aid.
For the vast majority of children living in safe zones on the Aegean islands, however, access to education is virtually impossible, as the UNHCR estimates in bulleting last August that “6.400 children in school age are in the Aegean islands, but just a handful attends school”..
As for food, minors are provided with meals which are brought in to the facilities by catering companies – but many times the quality of the food has come into question, but also its suitability for such young ages.
The contrasts between Leros and Malakasa
“Safe zones are small communities where things are learned, either because a kid will talk to the care workers about what is happening to him/her or other children will talk about it. So it is a fact that very often we are informed about acts of violence”, Panagiotis Nikas told Solomon.
Nikas is the founder of Zeuxis, an NGO providing services to unaccompanied girls and boys, and has an accurate picture of how safe zones function due to two totally different cases: the one of Leros, and that of Malakasa.
As he notes, when his organisation started operating in Leros, they met children living in problematic conditions.
Children were nervous, and their tensity was expressed among them as well as against the organisation’s employees. But over time, and after they addressed their needs, they calmed down.
“These are the children that later on were transferred to Kamena Vourla. We now know them, one by one, and this is why we don’t accept anything of what was heard, that they might have caused troubles or provoked locals’ reactions”.
While infrastructure improvement works are in progress, which Nikas says are satisfying, Zeuxis now offers services to minors in the refugee facility of Malakasa too.
“There we talk about a totally different reality, the conditions are even better by what the standards are”, Nikas said. A big tent (like the ones used for events) is in place, and inside it plasterboards have created common spaces, toilets, and five rooms that host six people each.
Children are satisfied and tensions among them have calmed, as their everyday life has vastly improved. Capacity is strictly respected, fact with two aspects: on the one hand, it means that proper conditions are ensured and, on the other hand, that other unaccompanied minors have to remain among the rest of the camp’s population, which on October 9th, 2020 were 2.966 people.
A second issue, Nikas comments, concerns the planning of the transfers, as defined by EKKA. On the day of our meeting, the proxime transfer of a child that was detected in north Greece to the safe zone of Malakasa was communicated.
“I imagine there are facilities in north Greece, where the child could be transferred”, Nikas says. “But as it enters the safe zone, children already living in Malakasa with the general population, and learn that a space has become vacant, complain to us and ask themselves: why do they not want me?”
European hypocrisy, Greek indifference
On November 24, 2019, a few months after winning the national election, the New Democracy government presented their “No Child Left Alone” plan for the approximately 4,000 unaccompanied refugee children who were in Greece at the time.
During the presentation of the plan, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, noted that the responsibility towards the refugee issue lies with EU states and Turkey, but “there is, however, a wound that we alone can heal immediately. It is imposed on us by our culture, our humanity, sensitivity, our own traditions. I am referring to the protection of minors who are here, unaccompanied.”
The Prime Minister stated that he would personally see to the issue of unaccompanied minors, repositioning all the relevant responsibilities under the Office of the Prime Minister, while the plan he presented included the immediate establishment of hostels for minors who, until then, were living in miserable conditions across the country.
According to the National Center for Social Solidarity’s bulletin published on November 30, 2019, (around the time of the Prime Minister’s statement), there were 1,092 places available for unaccompanied minors in shelters across the country. Today, according to the latest bulletin, on September 15, 2020 there are 1,372 available places in the hostels.
One can view this data from two perspectives. The first is that this is an increase of 25,64% of the available spaces. The second is that, compared to the total number of unaccompanied minors in the country, which on September 15, 2020 was estimated to be 4,416 children −nine months after the Prime Minister’s statement, the available places in shelters are only enough to accommodate 31.07% of the total.
Additionally, the Greek government has not received substantial support from EU countries on the issue of unaccompanied minors.
On September 10, 2019, a new plan for the relocation of unaccompanied minors was submitted to 28 European governments (24 in EU, as well as Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway).
A team of journalists from Investigate Europe shed light on the new plan, and revealed that the responses of the European governments were entirely negative, and seven months after the plan was submitted, no unaccompanied minors had been relocated to other European countries.
In recent months, unaccompanied minors have been relocated to other countries (mainly Germany, Portugal, Luxembourg), and more are expected to be relocated to other countries (e.g. 350 unaccompanied minors to France) but this is a very limited number in relation to the total number of children who remain in Greece living in impoverished conditions.
When SYRIZA vowed to abolish the safe zones
The government’s announcements to resolve refugee issues are as old as the issues themselves.
The SYRIZA/ANEL government also made assurances that all necessary measures would be taken, in order for unaccompanied minors in the country to live in safe shelters, but even then, the promise was never kept.
On February 20, 2019, the Minister of Immigration Policy at the time, Dimitris Vitsas, in a statement to Euronews said:
“As far as unaccompanied minors are concerned, currently 2,000 unaccompanied minors live in shelters run by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and about 1,000 live in hotels, as we are improving the institutional frameworks as well as our efforts to ensure that no unaccompanied minors remain in safe zones. I’m not referring to detention centers, where there are no minors, but to safe zones.”
A year and a half after the statement of the Minister (at that time), unaccompanied minors continued, and continue to live, in safe zones, in extremely precarious conditions.
There were, and are, children who are detained for a period which often exceeds six months, as was the case on February 20, 2019 − the day the Minister made that statement, when, only five days earlier, on February 15, 2019 the National Center for Social Solidarity published its statistics, recording 82 children in protective custody.