The number of people who were forcibly displaced around the world as of the end of 2015 hit a record high of 65 million. Among them, half were children, including children who might be traveling alone or were separated from their parents. The image of these children has become familiar to us, as more than one million people have crossed the shores of the Aegean Sea seeking safety in Europe, since the beginning of 2015. The majority of these people were forced to leave their countries due to war, violence and persecution. What makes the book “Monologues across the Aegean Sea” so valuable is perhaps the opportunity it gives us to take a step beyond the dominant image, which might be emotional, irritating or even shocking. It is also one step beyond the statistics of displacement, but closer to the personal story of each one of these children.
Every story is unique and reveals with the most direct way the dead-end that these children found themselves in before, or even after, reaching our country. Dead-ends related to the long-standing root causes of displacement, still unaddressed by the international community; to the limited legal pathways available in order to reach a safe place without resorting to smugglers and risking their lives in the perilous Mediterranean crossing, that has cost 7,000 lives since 2015; to the high risk of their exposure to exploitation, violence and abuse during every moment of their journey; to the potential shortcomings of protection and reception conditions in the countries where they will eventually settle.
This is also the case for the protection framework for unaccompanied children in our country. It is a system facing long-standing and serious gaps in the field of reception and accommodation, largely resulting from the unavailability of sufficient facilities and support services. The National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA) has registered 3,500 unaccompanied children in the country in 2016, mainly boys over 14 years old. Half of them are on a waiting list to be referred to one of the few shelters for unaccompanied children like the ones managed by NGO PRAKSIS. As a result, some of these children end up in highly inappropriate places such as police stations or sleeping rough, while lacking access to crucial psycho-social, medical and legal support services.
At the same time, the processes to apply for asylum or to reunify with their family members in other EU member states, might be so lengthy, that children tend to confront their future with even more uncertainty and insecurity. It is thus of utmost importance that the EU reinforces and speeds up family reunification and relocation procedures for unaccompanied and separated children, while the national reception and asylum framework should also be enhanced.
It should be noted that many efforts are underway towards this direction by the Greek authorities as well as the UN Refugee Agency and other organisations. These efforts have led to the doubling of available accommodation places for unaccompanied children to more than 1,100, while more are already planned. However, more needs to be done, not only in this field but also regarding the long term reception and integration of the children that will remain in the country.
On the other hand, we couldn’t stress enough the importance of our efforts as host community and the progress achieved through small but crucial steps. We are daily witnessing such efforts in the community, in our neighborhoods and schools through initiatives and groups that are trying to create safety and solidarity networks. It is also very promising that the children’s stories highlight the support and strength they have found through the “significant others” in their life. It is through their testimonies that we can understand their high expectations from their studies – how happy they are when they are able to go back to school. How much they gain in empowerment and resilience when the others think positively of them. After all, these children are just teenagers who do not want to be treated with pity or suspicion. It is really important to hear a boy saying “I love Greece” and “people here are kind”.
All these small but crucial steps that can make the difference in the life of unaccompanied children are described, among others, through the following stories. They remind us that these minors, regardless of their legal status and their country of origin, are first and foremost children. Whether they come from Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan, they are children who need safety and a life in dignity; children who are entitled to protection, acceptance and support.
Communications and Public Information Unit UNHCR Representation in Greece
Athens July 2016