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Unaccompanied children at the gates of Europe. A report from Samos

What is the real situation of unaccompanied minors on the island of Samos, Greece? Refugee Rights Europe and Still I Rise investigate this subject in the new report “Unaccompanied Children at the Gates of Europe – Voices from Samos”. The picture outlined is gravely disheartening.

From the testimonies of the children and staff working with them, the organisations focus their attention on the many challenges that UAMs have to face every day, in conditions of extreme insecurity.

“Unaccompanied children are currently not safe on the hotspot islands and their situation will only deteriorate if placed in closed and isolated Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs), in a remote and unmonitored space with highly limited access to NGOs and media”, the organizations say.

Despite the considerable change of the situation on the hotspots in 2020, due to Covid-19 restrictions and transfers to the mainland, the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Samos remains over capacity. In addition, about 2,500 people reside in the “jungle” outside the RIC in flimsy self-made shelters which are frequently damaged by wind and flooded by rain.

These desperate conditions affect the unaccompanied minors, the most vulnerable migrating population, profoundly. The report underlines the immense risks they are facing of multiple forms of abuse and violence, trafficking, mental ill-health and physical illness. UAMs are meant to be accommodated in the RIC “safe space”, but the number of minors wrongly registered as adults and awaiting an official age change is larger than the number of minors currently living in the “safe space”. During Covid-19, physical age assessments have been suspended, leaving children living with unrelated adults or alone until their case can be processed.

Furthermore, one of the six major fires in the hotspot during 2020 destroyed half of the containers in which unaccompanied children live, and cases of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation have been reported by local actors. As a result, many UAMs demonstrate mental health problems, and local actors are aware of cases of self-harm. Numerous testimonies by UAMs highlighted violence and abuse at the hands of the police and arbitrary detention in degrading conditions.

Moreover, UAMs that become sick in the Samos RIC often find it difficult to access medical care. There is only one doctor available, and they cannot receive visits by external medical NGOs. As a consequence, even simple medical issues, when left untreated, can cause months of preventable pain and anxiety. The report underlines that some UAMs have been isolated due to Covid symptoms, in 4×2 metre containers by themselves. One child, for instance, had no access to running water or shower facilities during the full confinement period, and had to be escorted by police to a public toilet when needed. Despite having a fever, muscle aches and a sore throat, he was given no medication or regular medical supervision.

“UAMs are being further traumatised by the conditions in which they live. RIC authorities don’t provide rehabilitation services to children who have been victims of any form of abuse, neglect, exploitation, torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, or armed conflicts, as required by Article 23 (4) of EU Directive 2013/33/EU. As a result, there are multiple recorded cases of self-harm and at least one attempted suicide by a child”, Refugee Rights Europe and Still I Rise denounce.

Lastly, there is a great concern about the future. The new camp on Samos has already been prepared to receive unaccompanied minors, but it is far removed from the town of Vathy and five kilometres from the nearest village. This “ghettoisation” will only cause more problems and leaves no room for integration. It is still unclear whether children will have access to local schools or informal education outside the camp.

“We call on the Greek Government, the European Commission, the UNHCR and IOM to consistently apply the principle of the ‘best interest of the child’ and work to ensure the wellbeing of all children under their care”, the organisations conclude.

“Unaccompanied children must be immediately transferred to the mainland and to appropriate and safe accommodation in Greece and other EU states in line with the EASO relocation programme. Indeed, the European Union and the Greek government are now faced with an opportunity to change their course and to rectify an approach to asylum and migration which systematically violates the rights of children”. (Press Release)

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