In his State of the Union address this morning, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked the EU and Greece to take strong and immediate action to help unaccompanied children: “without protection of these children, Europe is betraying its historic values.” On September 10, the European Commission announced €115 million in new emergency funding to improve conditions for refugees in Greece, including for facilities for unaccompanied children.
On a visit to Athens on September 12, the EU’s commissioner for justice said the creation of 1,500 places for unaccompanied children was a “matter of urgency.”
Rightly so. These welcome steps came just days after Human Rights Watch released a report on the plight of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and other migrant children detained in terrible conditions in Greece. We interviewed a number of children, including 16-year-old Wasim, who fled Iraq after the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) invaded his hometown of Mosul and killed his father. Wasim ended up detained round-the-clock in a dirty police station cell in Greece.
Hundreds of children who are traveling alone have been locked up in so-called “protective custody” this year while they await a place in Greece’s overburdened shelter system. Children are routinely detained in small, cramped, and dirty cells, sometimes for weeks and months and sometimes with adults. They have little access to basic care and services.
The European Commission’s leadership on the issue is welcome, but for the children who are currently detained awaiting shelter, more must be done.
Greece should use emergency funding to provide suitable short-term alternatives to detention, increase the number of places in long-term shelters, and establish a foster family system.
But financial support to Greece should not be Europe’s only response. EU member states’ stubborn refusal to share responsibility makes the problem worse. Transfers of asylum seekers from Greece to EU countries under the EU emergency relocation plan are proceeding at a torpid rate. As of September 2, only 49 unaccompanied children had been relocated.
EU countries should make relocating unaccompanied children a priority, speed up family reunification, and endorse a proposal to broaden eligibility for the relocation plan.
Leaders in Greece and other EU countries should heed Juncker’s call, and act in concert to put an end to the unjustified detention of children and ensure these children get the care to which they are entitled.