Like most teenagers in Europe, they should be waiting for their 18th birthday with excitement and impatience. But for the thousands of asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors, the day they turn 18 – when they go from being minors in need of protection to being regarded as "men" and even "foreigners" – is a day accompanied by anxiety about what tomorrow might bring and by the fear of deportation.
After several unsuccessful attempts to work as an interpreter for an NGO, he decided to try his luck at a construction job. This was also the first time he managed to earn his own money, after living in Greece for three years.
The night before his first day at work, the information he had about the job was still incomplete. He didn’t know the exact location of the construction site. He didn’t know what was expected of him, who he’d be working with and in what capacity, or what the daily wage would be.
Mahdi*, a 17-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan, only knew that very early in the morning a car would pick him up from a meeting point, and would also pick up Zaki, the friend who had told him about the job.
And that’s how it went. A pick-up truck arrived, the two teenagers got in the back, and the vehicle drove about an hour outside of Athens to Magoula, Attikis. They worked at a construction site for ten hours with other men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, young and old, and at the end of the day the boss gave them €20 each.
In the pick-up truck, on the way back to Athens, Mahdi decided he wouldn’t be returning the next day. Although he felt his patience was running out, he thought it would be better to keep looking for something that would provide him with some money, but could also be useful in the kind of life he wanted to build in Greece.
Zaki went back the next day. After the third day, however, the boss told him not to come again. “They only want you to do the hard work,” he says, frustrated. “Then they tell you ‘I don’t need you anymore, bye’.”
Adulthood: A cause for excitement or anxiety?
Usually, teenagers in European countries look forward to the day they officially become adults, as the transition to adulthood implies that a range of new opportunities becomes available to them.
They can get a driver’s license, and work legally. For many, student life begins, sometimes far from the city or even the country where they grew up. They feel that from now on, they’re moving towards their independence.
It is difficult to argue that the same is true for many of the unaccompanied minors who have made it to Europe after escaping their countries due to war, persecution, or poverty, and are not accompanied by an adult family member.
Thodoris Bogeas is the coordinator of the integration service of the NGO Human Rights 360. One of the target groups of the programs he coordinates are young asylum seekers and recognized refugees, between the ages of 18 and 21. “Adulthood is accompanied by stress, pressure and anxiety to find a job and earn an income,” he told Solomon. “At 18, they are called upon to meet the difficulties faced by a 30-year-old, and in a context that may not be at all supportive and friendly.”
In 2014, a survey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in four European countries found that “unlike many teens who look forward to turning 18,” unaccompanied minors “have little reason to celebrate.” In their case, the researchers concluded, they experience waiting for adulthood with anxiety and nervousness, due to a series of challenges that adulthood implies in terms of their acceptance by society as a whole, but also by government agencies that are investigating their right to remain in the country.
Between 2014 and 2020 (the last year for which data is available), in the 27 countries of the European Union, approximately 247,000 unaccompanied minors applied for international protection and it’s estimated that for every child undergoing the asylum process, there are others who are “off the radar” of the authorities.
European countries, including Greece, receive significant EU resources to support minors. In theory, unaccompanied minors also have the same rights as any other child in the host country.
But often theory is different from practice.
In 2021, as part of a journalistic investigation into the realities that unaccompanied minors in Europe experience, Solomon traveled in Greece and abroad, and met minors and people who work in the field. We recorded the agony that minors experience living on the periphery and expected to exist in an environment in which they are suddenly regarded as young “men” and also “foreign” men.
Sometimes they experience the pressing need to work, mostly in exploitative labor conditions. Others find that their asylum applications have been rejected, as the request is processed years after their arrival, when they themselves are now adults. In other cases, the minors run away from the hostels where they’ve been living, shortly before they become “men”, as they fear their asylum request will be rejected or that they’ll be deported.
These are their stories.
Mahdi: “What reason do I have to celebrate?”
Mahdi was born at the end of August, at the end of the summer season. Last August he turned 18. For weeks, as his birthday approached, Mahdi seemed nervous. Many times, for no obvious reason, his mood would change abruptly and he’d be overwhelmed by anxiety. When asked how he planned to celebrate that day, Mahdi replied: “What reason do I have to celebrate?”
Mahdi arrived in Greece in 2018, as an unaccompanied Afghan minor who had spent his entire life in Iran, and applied for asylum the same year. In the document he received, the date for his asylum interview was set for the second half of 2022, four years later and when he would be an adult. He knew that the Asylum Service treats the application of an unaccompanied minor − a category of people recognized as one of the most vulnerable according to the guidelines of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) − completely differently than the application of a young, single man.
But his insecurity was also related to more immediate issues. Now 18, he assumed he’d be asked to leave the unaccompanied minor hostel where he lived, in the center of Athens.
As his birthday approached, and he had no information, his anxiety grew.
His experience dealing with public services was another anxiety-causing factor. In theory, Mahdi could get a Greek tax number (AFM), which was necessary in order to work, but after his successive visits to public service offices concluded without any results, he was distraught.
Mahdi felt that he had exhausted every possibility in his job search. He had created and re-edited his CV several times, and sent it in all directions. He looked for a job for months, but apart from occasional (and informal) work as an interpreter at organizations, he had not been able to find anything.
This is how the construction job came about.
The greatest challenge that people in the field come up against, in their effort to support young people like Mahdi, is managing the frustration they feel, Bogeas comments.
“They have the impulsiveness and the expectation of that age, that they want things to happen here and now. So when they realize that some things take time, perseverance and patience, it frustrates them and very often they give up.”
Zaki: “It’s just you. And only you.”
Zaki arrived in Greece by boat from the Turkish coast to Lesvos.
For nine months he remained at Moria camp’s safe zone, where unaccompanied minors lived separate from the other residents “for their own safety“. He was there when 16-year-old Reza Ibraimi was killed inside the safe zone. He met Mahdi later, in a hostel in Nea Makri.
Today, Zaki lives in the camp of Thiva. But, realizing that his prospects there are slim, he regularly comes to Athens, stays with friends, and looks for work.
The first job he managed to get was as a postman. That’s what they told him. He would earn €4 per hour for letters and €3 for small packages. “But in the end, it was something completely different,” he tells Solomon.
The job was to hand out supermarket leaflets at subway stations. A supervisor would look on from a distance, to ensure the job was done properly, and as soon as he went through one stack of leaflets, the supervisor would bring over the next one.
After that was the construction job. “We all have the same story,” he says, adding that today he must worry about exactly what he was worried about while he was in Moria: his survival.
“There’s no one to help you, there’s no family, there are no siblings. You have to think for yourself what to do. It’s just you. Once you leave home, you have to think about everything yourself.”
“Young people at this age come with a need to support themselves, but also to support those who are left behind,” says Bogeas. “They realize that they are the lucky ones in the family who left and were saved, so they feel obligated to help the others back home survive,” he adds.
This is the case for a lot of kids that Mahdi and Zaki know. But not for themselves. Their parents know they’re having a hard time where they are, and they don’t expect them to send any financial aid.
The phenomenon of runaways
A common phenomenon associated with the stress of adulthood, and which is often faced by people who work at shelters for unaccompanied minors, is that of runaways.
Data from Greek authorities show that from 2012-2016, between 13% and 33% of unaccompanied minors ran away within 24 hours of arriving at a hostel.
This phenomenon has also recorded in reports by the National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA), the state body that supervises the operation of hostels. In 2017, the last year (!) for which relevant data is available from EKKA, 44% of minors ran away from the hostel within the first month, and almost one in ten within the first 24 hours.
One reason minors run away from hostels is that hostels may be located in remote areas, away from major urban centers. Most minors want to live in Athens, because they believe that’s where the opportunities are, and they want to be closer to their friends or members of their extended family.
The issue of opportunities is mainly about the best chances of finding a job, even if the employment is under exploitative terms. In addition, Athens is sometimes the stopover before attempting to cross to another European country, often through the port of Patras.
One such case is that of Mahmoud, a 17-year-old teenager from Afghanistan. Pursuing better prospects for his life, in 2021 he left the hostel where he had been living in Athens and went to Patras to try his luck at the “game”. However, the conditions he found there were so miserable that he returned to the hostel in Athens the very same day.
He’s friends with Mahdi and Zaki and when they mention the incident, they burst out laughing. Mahmoud reacts in the same way when he tells us the story from where he is now – more than 2,000 kilometers away from Athens.
Germany: Adulthood a reason to leave the hostel
Last June, Solomon met Mahmoud in Hamburg, where he ended up a few months after the failed Patras attempt, after leaving his hostel for the second time. This time, however, hiding in a truck that was boarding a ship to Italy wasn’t one of his options. He found another way and got to Germany by plane.
While in Greece, Mahmoud was deeply worried about his future. In Germany, he seems to have found the stability that his life previously lacked. He attended school, and within a few months, he was able to communicate fluently in German. Most importantly, now he could dream.
So we asked Mahmoud to explain to us why the phenomenon of runaways is also occurring in Germany, where the German authorities recorded at least 7,806 minors missing between 2018-2020.
As he explained, those who run away are often minors from Afghanistan, Morocco and Algeria. Asylum requests by people from these countries are often rejected, so they run away from their hostels before they turn 18 (while they’re still minors and thus are still under protection), often to try their luck in another European country.
Gabi Arthur, a social worker who has been working with unaccompanied minors in Hamburg for the past 27 years, confirmed that this is something she often encounters.
“It happens to a large extent. For some minors, we may know that they have run away because they want to go to other countries where they have relatives, and Germany was just a stop along their journey. Another issue, which mainly concerns asylum seekers from North African countries, is that they believe their asylum application will not be accepted and so they decide to try their luck in another European country.”
The minors leave the hostels for fear of their asylum application being rejected, which in some cases could even mean their deportation.
“If young people can’t see any path for themselves in the system and all they hear is ‘you’re not wanted here, whatever you do’, they are in great danger – not only of disappearing suddenly but also of slipping into illegal activities and into parallel systems”, said Tobias Klaus, from the German Federal Association for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.
The cases of teenagers from hostels for unaccompanied minors who fall victim to exploitation by networks that use them for drug trafficking or smuggling illegal products, are not unknown in Greece − especially in the hostels in central Athens, where minors are more exposed to such criminal networks. In recent years several incidents have been recorded, which in some cases even led to authorities carrying out inspections at hostels.
Mahdi says he had not considered making money that way, but he knew others who did. However, when he saw that one of them was arrested, any thought of taking part in something like that completely left his mind.
What did the UNHCR report find?
In March 2014, the UNHCR published a study based on interviews with unaccompanied asylum seekers in Austria, France, Hungary and Sweden who were either just under 18, or who had recently turned 18.
The findings are worrying.
The study confirms, for example, that with adulthood, access to higher education and employment can be significantly jeopardized.
The study also found that minors who reach adulthood before a decision is made on their asylum application lose a number of guarantees, which is likely to affect the support of their case and, therefore, the outcome of the process itself. They also lose their right to family reunification with a family member in another European country.
In addition, an important finding (which has also been confirmed by interviews with minors conducted by Solomon), concerns the inadequacy of the information provided to them about their coming of age.
The researchers point out that “in many European countries minors lose almost all the special guarantees that were given to them because of their status as unaccompanied minors”, and note that “in fact, even if they are no longer children, they still need support and guidance during this critical transitional phase.”
The story of the “tiger”
Hamza or “tiger”, as his friends call him, is from Pakistan. Hamza was born with dwarfism.
After many years of living and working in Greece, Hamza’s father visited Pakistan, and saw his son for the first time. He realized his son’s condition, and told his wife that he would bring him to Greece to have a better life.
At the time Hamza was in his early adolescence.
But when they returned to Athens, his father’s actual plans were revealed: every day he forced Hamza to beg in the streets for many hours, and to hand over the money collected.
Hamza couldn’t endure it. After a few months, he ran away and cut off all contact with his father.
At the end of 2019, when we first met him, his need to escape his father’s exploitation had led him to another type of exploitation: Hamza worked ten hours a day at a car wash in Athens.
He was paid €10 a day and washed dozens of cars each day. When he asked his boss for a raise, he was told: “You get as much money as the size of your hands.”
Hamza’s story falls within the definition applicable to unaccompanied minors, as the term also is defined as a minor who is found to be alone after entering the territory of a European state.
And indeed, there was progress in finding organizations that could help in the case of a child who ended up in Greece without it being his choice, and then found himself trapped in two successive instances of exploitation.
In the meantime, however, Hamza became an adult. And, as it turned out, there was nothing that could be done anymore.
To the people who came in contact with his story, he was a young man in an extremely unfortunate circumstance. According to the Asylum Service, he was now simply considered a man from Pakistan.
* Names have been changed to protect identity.
This article is published in the context of Solomon’s in-depth series of reports on “Migrant workers in Greece in the time of COVID-19” and is supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office in Greece