The influx of lone refugee children in Greek camps are a concern for the government but calls for solidarity between EU Member States had fallen on deaf ears. With the COVID-19 pandemic, some States have been spurred into action – but the pace of the evacuation process has been extremely slow.
The deterioration of the camps
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, the situation in Greek refugee camps was a huge concern for NGOs, journalists and European policy-makers. Over the last couple of years, human rights defenders have denounced the appalling deterioration of living conditions in camps such as Moria, where even basic sanitation is missing. Considering how the containment of COVID-19 relies heavily on hygiene practices, it was clear that the pandemic could spread like wildfire across overcrowded refugee camps in Greece.
For years, the EU basically ignored the situation in Greece and the refugee camps quietly disappeared from headlines across Europe. Whenever a news report did attract attention, it always depicted scenes of absolute horrors, such as the suicide of children or sexual violence.
Greece repeatedly asked for EU countries to share the burden and in November 2019 it specifically requested Member-States to help take in up to 2,500 of the 4,500 unaccompanied minors present in Greece at the time. Unaccompanied minors are children traveling alone at a heightened risk of abuse and exploitation, widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable groups of migrants which require special attention. Yet, the request was ignored.
The situation of lone refugee children
In February 2020, there were 5,424 unaccompanied minors accounted for in Greece. Almost half were living in Greek camps such as Moria and Ritsona, and others were either in temporary apartments, squats, homeless or in protective custody. The vast majority of the children are from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Syria.
For years, Human rights defenders and international organizations have warned about the dangers faced by children seeking refuge alone. In a December 2019 report, Human Rights Watch exposed the terrible living conditions of these children. It stated: “Children, unable to secure a place in the overcrowded specialized accommodation for unaccompanied children, face unsanitary and insecure conditions sleeping rough, sometimes in the open, in other formal and informal parts of the camp on the island. (…) Children who cannot find space in the Rubb Hall are living in open areas in the camp or outside the camp, where they are exposed to frequent fights and other violence. Human Rights Watch interviewed and observed children sleeping on the ground without shelter, or sharing tents with adult strangers.”
One 14-year-old Afghan boy shared a particularly wrenching testimony: “We are around 50 people sleeping in the big tent. It smells really bad, there are rats, and sometimes they die inside the tent and it smells bad. There are so many.”
Crisis as a catalyst for (a bit of) action
In early March, a new refugee crisis was underway. As Turkey opened its borders in defiance of EU agreements as political retaliation, a new wave of refugees poured into Greece. This border opening was followed by weeks of unrest, during which the camps were routinely attacked by far-right militias. Playgrounds and centers were burned and the Greek camps were becoming increasingly dangerous places. By mid-March, five EU countries had already agreed to take in a total of 1,600 unaccompanied minors due to the heightened tensions in camps.
When the pandemic struck Europe, everyone in refugee camps in Greece was fearful of an impending health disaster. Human rights organizations called for a full evacuation of the Greek camps, stating they were not prepared to contain a pandemic. However, the transfers of children were delayed and the first group only left the camps by mid-April. Twelve children were evacuated to Luxembourg and although there are now seven countries that have pledged to receive children, Lithuania, for example, is only available to take in two minors.
Although civil society is mobilizing through the “Safe Habour” initiative and several cities in Norway and Germany have already stated they are ready to receive lone refugee children, the entire process is tangled up in political negotiations and bureaucracy.
The pandemic might have inspired solidarity where it was previously inexistent among the Member States, but countries which have pledged to take in children, such as Portugal, are also having trouble managing asylum-seekers within their own borders. Difficulties in finding suitable living arrangements could also be postponing the evacuations, considering how most refugee centers are dependent on shared accommodations and lack conditions for containing the virus.
The instability in Greek camps is growing. Fires and violence are on the rise in camps made for 3,000 people which are currently hosting thousands more. With a looming economic crisis, it is uncertain whether the EU will consider the humanitarian disaster in Greece as a priority anytime soon or if it will let the camps to self-destruct.