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A child places his hands on a fence as Greek police officers stand guard at a makeshift camp for migrants and refugees in Greece. © 2016 Reuters/Marko Djurica

(Athens) – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis should free hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children detained in unhygienic police cells and detention centers in Greece, Human Rights Watch said today in opening a campaign to free the children. Their release from abusive detention conditions would better protect them from infection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The campaign to #FreeTheKidswhich starts on April 14, 2020, urges people to press Prime Minister Mitsotakis to immediately release unaccompanied migrant children who are in detention, and to transfer them to safe, child-friendly facilities. Human Rights Watch is initiating this campaign after years of research and advocacy on Greece’s practice of locking up children who are in Greece without a parent or relative in police cells and detention centers, urging successive governments to end these serious rights abuses.

“Keeping children locked up in filthy police cells was always wrong, but now it also exposes them to the risk of COVID-19 infection,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek government has a duty to end this abusive practice and make sure these vulnerable kids get the care and protection they need.”

According to the National Center for Social Solidarity, a government body, as of March 31, 331 children were in police custody awaiting transfer to a shelter, a sharp increase from January, when 180 unaccompanied children were behind bars.

Infectious diseases like COVID-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions such as jails and immigration detention centers. These institutions have often been found to provide inadequate health care even under normal circumstances. In many detention centers, overcrowding, shared bathrooms, and poor hygiene make it virtually impossible to put in place basic measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

Greek authorities describe the detention of unaccompanied children as a “protective custody regime” and claim it is a temporary protection measure in the child’s best interest. In practice, it is anything but protective. Under Greek law, unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, but Greece has a chronic shortage of space in suitable facilities such as shelters for unaccompanied children.

Human Rights Watch research has documented that as a result, children face arbitrary and prolonged detention and abusive treatment in unsanitary and degrading conditions, including detention with adults and ill-treatment by police. They are often unable to get medical treatment, psychological counselling, or legal aid, and few even know the reasons for their detention or how long they will be behind bars. Detention has serious long-term impact on children’s development and mental health, including higher levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled twice against Greece’s abusive practice of detaining unaccompanied children, finding that their detention violated their right to liberty, and that conditions exposed them to degrading treatment.

On November 24, 2019, Greece’s prime minister announced a plan, No Child Alone, to protect unaccompanied children, including by creating more shelters. But the plan does not end the “protective custody” regime and would still leave children at risk of harmful detention.

To fulfill its obligations to these children during the COVID-19 pandemic, Greece should create more space in open, child-friendly facilities for children who are currently in custody, such as hotels, foster care, and apartments under a Supported Independent Living program for unaccompanied children aged 16 to 18.

Greece should also be working to increase its long-term shelter capacity, and establish a functional and comprehensive foster family system, which would benefit Greek children as well. Greek law and practice should be adapted to align with the international norms and standards, establishing that detention of children for reasons relating to their immigration status is a violation of their rights and is never in the child’s best interests, including unaccompanied children.

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