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Dispatches: Italy Illegally Returning Migrant Children to Greece

Children Held Arbitrarily in Degrading Conditions

“Akram,” a 17-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq, hid under a truck on the ferry from Greece to Italy for 18 hours without food or water. When he arrived in Italy, the police locked him in a small room on the ferry and sent him right back to Greece.

Trucks of the sort unaccompanied migrant children stow away on hoping to reach Italy, ready to be loaded onto ships at the Patras port. Children stow away between the axles, inside fuel tanks, or inside refrigerated containers. © 2012 Human Rights Watch

“I showed my passport and that I’m under 18 but the Italian police told me to ‘go back, go back.’”

This unlawful practice is not new. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented the failure of Italian border police to screen adequately for people in need of protection, including unaccompanied children, who stow away on ferries from Greece to Italy’s Adriatic ports. Placed in the custody of the captains of commercial ferries for the return journey to Greece, adults and children were sometimes subjected to abusive confinement and treatment. Back in Greece, unaccompanied children faced police abuse, degrading detention conditions, and xenophobic violence.

In October 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that summary returns from Italy to Greece violated the rights of migrants to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment, protection against collective expulsions, and to the right to appeal against their return.

Despite this ruling, and the fact that Italian and international law prohibits the removal of unaccompanied children without a determination it is in their best interest, Italy is still sending unaccompanied children back to Greece.

Akram was held for three days in the dark basement of a Coast Guard facility in the Greek city of Igoumenitsa before being handed over to police. When I met him, he had already spent two weeks in a squalid police station, awaiting transfer to a children’s shelter. A lack of shelters and other alternatives to detention in Greece has led to arbitrary and prolonged detention of children in places that are unfit.

Both Italy and Greece face significant challenges from boat migration. But there is no excuse for treating Akram or any other child this way. Italy should stop summarily sending children back to Greece, and Greek authorities should stop detaining children in degrading conditions in police station cells. 

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