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[Audio report: One young boy tells Human Rights Watch why he left Afghanistan for Greece. He says the Greek government didn't want to hear his story. Jessie Graham reports.]

(Athens) - Some 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children who have entered Greece in 2008 without parents or caregivers struggle to survive without any state assistance, Human Rights Watch said in a new report issued today. Although a member of the European Union, Greece flouts its most basic obligations when it comes to meeting the rights of these children, many of whom come from war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq, with special protection needs.

The 111-page report, "Left to Survive: Systematic Failure to Protect Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Greece," documents the plight of the majority of unaccompanied children who have entered Greece and end up in a daily fight for survival.

"Greece completely fails to protect these children. They work in dangerous and exploitative jobs, they beg, and they live in squalid places or sleep in parks," said Simone Troller, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of making sure they're being cared for, officials leave them living on the street without any assistance whatsoever."

The Human Rights Watch report also documents abuses of these children at the hands of Greek officials, including coast guards, regular police and port police officers. Unaccompanied children are at risk of incidents of torture, such as mock executions, and inhuman or degrading treatment, including routine kickings and beatings. Officials routinely detain unaccompanied children, including girls as young as 10. Children are often held with adults in detention, adding to their vulnerability.

Most children face huge obstacles to seek asylum in Greece and their chances of being recognized as refugees are close to zero. Furthermore, should children ask for asylum but decide to travel on to another European country, they might be sent back to Greece under the EU's Dublin II regulation, which permits EU member states to transfer an unaccompanied child to the EU country where the asylum application was first filed.

"These children find themselves trapped in Greece. They don't receive state assistance, they can't leave the country legally, they are without regular status in Greece, and they can't return home," said Troller.

In such a desperate situation, unaccompanied children face the additional risk of becoming prey to trafficking gangs. A 14-year-old boy who lived without state assistance told Human Rights Watch how a stranger had approached him in a park with a promise to take him abroad: "One person told me he could take children to Europe. ... He told me there is a lady from another European country and she wants to bring children to another country. That lady would come and bring other children abroad if they didn't have their fingerprints taken. They asked me if I wanted to go. He told me it would not cost anything. ... They only want children who are alone. He told me that lady was from a refugee organization, maybe UNICEF."

"These children often flee war and violence and have nobody to take care of them. They are among the most vulnerable groups in Greece and the government's indifference hits them hardest," said Troller. "A meaningful and direct message from the EU that it will not tolerate such practice is long overdue."

The report contains recommendations to the government of Greece and the European Union, including:

  • EU member states should suspend sending unaccompanied children back to Greece under the EU's Dublin II regulation and the European Commission should consider infringement procedures against Greece for failing to meet its legal obligations regarding adequate reception conditions for unaccompanied children and minimum standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status;
  • The government of Greece should immediately prioritize these children's protection by keeping track of every child and by making sure children are safe and well looked after, and it should refrain from detaining them, except as a proportionate measure of last resort;
  • Greek officials must stop ill-treating unaccompanied children; and
  • Authorities must promptly investigate any allegation of violence at the hands of state officials, hold perpetrators accountable, and publicly condemn such acts.

Selected Accounts by Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Sixteen-year-old Jafar F. from Afghanistan told Human Rights Watch how he and two other boys were subjected to ill-treatment by four port police officers in Patras:

"They arrested me. First, they threw my bag into the sea, and then [us]. They took us out and beat us. I was thrown inside the sea, taken out, and beaten, thrown into the water again, taken out, and beaten again."

A 12-year-old Afghan girl, Sharzad P., was detained in a border police station in the Evros region for 11 days without being allowed outside. She described that place as follows:

"I didn't have a bed, only a blanket. The blanket was dirty and there were a lot of bugs - bugs that bite. We were bitten during the night. We couldn't sleep. We were scratching our skin all the time."

Fifteen-year-old Adisa P. from Nigeria had applied for asylum but was left on his own. He was sleeping in public parks when Human Rights Watch met him:

"I still don't have a place for me to live. ... Now I sleep out on the streets. I don't live anywhere. I have cold to my body. I don't feel safe. I walk around to after 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. Then I find a park to sleep in."

Fourteen-year-old Wali P. from Afghanistan told us how he earns a living by working in hazardous jobs in the construction sector:

"I walk up on wooden beams, as high as five floors. The [scaffold] is dangerous to walk up on and it's difficult to keep the balance with one big bucket on a small beam. My friend fell down from the second floor onto the scaffold [underneath]. He injured his hand. ... He went to the hospital and was in hospital for two weeks."

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