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Unaccompanied children line up for an evening meal at a detention facility run by the Greek police.

Witness: “They Always Say ‘Tomorrow, You’ll Be Free.’”

Unaccompanied Children Behind Bars in Greece

Unaccompanied children line up for an evening meal at a detention facility run by the Greek police.   © 2015 Kelly Lynn Lunde

Filiates, Greece, is a small, picturesque town of white stucco houses topped with red tile roofs, and begonias in full bloom. But “Babrak,” a 16-year-old who fled Afghanistan to seek safety in Europe, experienced a much darker side of the town, spending much of his time there locked up in a cramped, dirty cell.

He is one of thousands of children who left their home countries for various reasons – violence, armed conflict, discrimination, poverty – but now find themselves trapped in Greece.

Unaccompanied children line up for an evening meal at a detention facility run by the Greek police.   © 2015 Kelly Lynn Lunde

When Babrak lived in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters killed two of his classmates, at which point Babrak quit going to school. Then the Taliban sent a threatening letter to his home. Babrak’s brother was in the police force, making his family a target.

He fled Afghanistan and arrived in Greece earlier this year – February or March, he’s not exactly sure. Babrak originally hoped to make his way to northern Europe via the Balkans, he told Rebecca Riddell, a Human Rights Watch fellow, but he changed plans when the countries north of Greece closed their borders.

Nothing went as expected, though, and ultimately, Babrak was detained – first in a dreadful Coast Guard facility in Igoumenitsa, then a basement cell in a nearby police station, and most recently in the Filiates Police Station. When Riddell interviewed him in July, he had spent about three weeks in detention, ostensibly for his own “protection,” while he awaited transfer to a shelter.

Greek authorities routinely detain unaccompanied children in police stations and detention centers while they await transfer to shelters, where space is limited. This means that instead of staying in safe, suitable accommodations, children live in unsanitary and at times degrading conditions, Human Rights Watch found in a new report, “‘Why Are You Keeping Me Here?’: Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece.”

Greek law permits detaining children for up to 25 days, and for up to 45 days in certain circumstances. But children are regularly detained longer than these already excessive periods. Authorities should only detain unaccompanied children as a last resort, in exceptional circumstances, and for the shortest appropriate period.

When the countries north of Greece closed their borders to migrants, Babrak decided to travel to the western port city of Patras, in hopes of reaching Italy – part of a well-traveled path for migrants.

He snuck onto a ferry headed for Italy by hiding in the undercarriage of a truck. He said he felt thirsty when he arrived in Italy hours later, so he went to a store to buy something to drink. But Italian police stopped him and told him he had to return to Greece, even though Babrak showed them documents stating that he was under 18. It is unlawful for Italy to send anyone straight back to Greece, particularly unaccompanied children, without any kind of screening or appropriate procedure. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the practice violated migrants’ rights.

A police officer took Babrak back to the ferry, confiscated his phone, and told him to change his dirty clothes in a room on the boat. But when Babrak went into the nearby room, the officer locked the door. “I tried to open it. I tried to kick the door,” Babrak said, describing his fear and confusion. He spent hours locked in this room aboard the ship bound for Greece.

When they arrived, Babrak got his phone back. “I remember the time” right before they took my phone, he said. “It was 10 in the morning, and when I got out, I got my phone. It was 12 at night.” He was given nothing to eat during the journey.

When the ferry landed at the Greek port of Igoumenitsa, Babrak was taken to a Coast Guard facility where he said he spent the next 14 days in a dirty 2-by-6-meter cell with three other children. The Coast Guard is supposed to transfer children to police, so Babrak was eventually moved to a nearby police station.

Babrak drew a sketch for Riddell of the 4-by-4-meter basement cell where he was held for the next five days. The crowded cell held four people who shared three mattresses on the floor. Babrak said it was rat infested and had a toilet in the room, but no door to the bathroom. An old sink provided the only source of water. To drink, Babrak repurposed an old food container to use as a cup. The little food they received was tossed through a hole in the door. Babrak said the officers treated them badly – they would come by only twice a day and kick the door, and wouldn’t respond to the children’s calls. Because there were no windows, Babrak lost track of time.

 Babrak was next moved to another police station. He’s not sure why – language barriers mean that children are often unable to communicate with the police holding them. When Riddell interviewed him three days later, he was sharing a cramped 1.5-by-3-meter cell with two other boys, also from Afghanistan. They were held behind metal bars. The cell was dark and dirty, but he had access to a bathroom with a door.

“At least it has a small window, though it’s hard to see out of the room,” Babrak said. The holding cell was not suited to hold adults for more than a few days, much less children for days on end.

Babrak had to wait far longer than any child should. The country’s longstanding shortage of shelter space for children meant there wasn’t anywhere else for him to go – a problem that could in part be alleviated if European Union countries would support efforts to relocate children outside of Greece.

Despite everything, Babrak remained upbeat, friendly, and even resilient, although he was understandably weary and guarded. He hadn’t been able to go outside, or study, or play. He had no idea how much longer he would be locked up, or what would come next. A few days before the interview, an officer told him, “tomorrow, you’ll be free.” But he had heard this before: “Every time...they say, ‘tomorrow, you will be free.’”

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