The European Court of Human Rights recently confirmed what many have long known: that Greece’s practice of locking up unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children in police cells and detention centers leads to serious rights abuses.
But despite that ruling, as of March 30, 82 unaccompanied children were still detained in so-called “protective custody,” held in police station cells or immigrant detention centers across the country.
Human Rights Watch has found that detained children are forced to live in unsanitary conditions, often alongside adults they do not know, and can be abused and ill-treated by police. Detention can also have a serious long-term impact on these children, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, and harm to their development.
To make things worse, because they are in detention, these kids – who may have suffered horrific experiences while escaping from war zones – are often unable to receive medical treatment, psychological counselling, or legal aid. Few even know the reasons for their detention or how long they will be behind bars.
That’s what happened to the nine unaccompanied children – six from Syria, two from Iraq, and one from Morocco, aged between 14 and 17 – who brought a case, protesting both their detention and the conditions of it, to the European Court in 2016.
The court has now finally ruled and found that the children’s detention violated their right to liberty and the conditions in the various police stations exposed them to degrading treatment. It rejected the argument that the detention was necessary to protect the children. And it ruled that Greece had violated the kids’ right to challenge their detention and seek a remedy for the detention conditions in the police stations.
Unaccompanied children in Greece should not have to spend another day locked up in filthy police cells. The Greek government should respond to the court’s ruling by immediately transferring kids who are currently in police custody to open and safe accommodation. Greece should also work to increase its shelter capacity, find alternatives to detention, and implement a comprehensive foster family system introduced in 2018, which would benefit Greek children as well.