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This update submission relates to articles 22, 24, 28, 31 and 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and focuses on the ill-treatment and summary returns of children seeking asylum, detention of unaccompanied migrant children, access to education for children seeking asylum, access to education during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the impact of lead pollution on children’s rights.

Treatment and Summary Returns of Migrant Children (Articles 22, 37)
During the period under review, nongovernmental groups, including Human Rights Watch, and media outlets have consistently reported the unlawful return, including through pushbacks, of groups and individuals, including children, from Greece to Turkey by Greek law enforcement officers or unidentified masked men, who appear to be working in tandem with border enforcement officials.[1]

Human Rights Watch interviewed six asylum seekers, including a 15-year-old unaccompanied girl from Syria, who described three incidents in March and April 2020 in which Greek Coast Guard personnel, police, and armed masked men in dark clothing coordinated and carried out summary returns to Turkey from the Greek islands of Rhodes, Samos and Symi.[2] All of them said they were picked up on the islands soon after they landed, placed on larger Coast Guard boats, and once they were back at the sea border, were forced onto small inflatable rescue rafts, with no motor, and cast adrift near Turkish territorial waters.

Leila L., 15, a Syrian girl traveling alone, was one of four separate witnesses who told Human Rights Watch how, in late March 2020, their group of 18 people was intercepted on a highway on the island of Rhodes an hour after landing and forced back to the shore. Six armed men wearing masks who “looked like army commandoes” confiscated their phones, IDs, and other property, Leila L. said. The group was detained in a tent for two days without food and water, and then forced onto what they believe was a Greek Coast Guard boat on the third day, then dumped at sea in a small motor-less rescue craft, the witnesses said.

The incident occurred in the context of Greece’s suspension of the right to lodge asylum applications for those who arrived irregularly between March 1 and March 31, 2020, following tensions on the Greek-Turkish land borders at the end of February due to a significant and rapid increase in people trying to cross the border. A Greek Emergency Legislative order said these people were to be returned to their country of origin or transit “without registration.” The Greek Asylum Service suspended services to the public between March 13 and May 15, 2020, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. During this period, applications for international protection were not registered, interviews were not conducted, and appeals were not registered.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Greece to:

  • Share information on disciplinary and criminal investigations by Greek authorities into all recorded incidents of collective expulsions, pushbacks, and ill-treatment on Greece’s land borders and maritime borders with Turkey, as well as information about any steps taken to end and prevent the recurrence of such incidents and ensure that all measures to identify irregular migrants at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey are conducted in full compliance with human rights and refugee law.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Greece to:

  • Immediately end summary deportations, collective expulsions including pushbacks, and ill-treatment of migrants and asylum seekers at Greece’s land and maritime borders with Turkey, investigate recorded incidents, hold those responsible to account, and provide compensation to persons affected and harmed by violations of their right to seek asylum and to be protected from abuse.

Detention of Unaccompanied Migrant Children (Article 37)
Since 2008, Human Rights Watch research has consistently found conditions of detention for unaccompanied migrant children in so-called “protective custody” and asylum-seeking children in administrative detention to be unsanitary, overcrowded, and degrading, including detention of children with unrelated adults in police cells.[3] On November 18, 2020, the Greek Minister for Migration Policy announced an end to the policy of detaining unaccompanied migrant children. In December 2020, the Greek parliament revoked the law permitting detention of unaccompanied children. However, according to Greek government statistics, children continued to be detained in police cells until at least August 15, 2021.[4] No government statistics have been published since August 15 on children in “protective custody.”

Human Rights Watch is also concerned that as of November 30, 2021, 268 unaccompanied children were restricted to Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) on the Aegean islands and at the Fylakio RIC on the mainland at the land-border with Turkey.[5] In addition, families with children are regularly placed in detention, pending deportation.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Greece:

  • How many children have been held in protective custody after August 15, 2021, and how many are currently detained, if any?
  • Do any policies establish a maximum amount of time that accompanied or unaccompanied children may be restricted in an RIC before being transferred to accommodation in a regular setting? If so, what effective remedies exist for children who may be restricted in an RIC beyond this maximum time period?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Greece to:

  • Ensure that no child is held in protective custody.
  • Cease restricting asylum seekers in camps on the Aegean Islands or in administrative detention (pre-removal detention centers).

Access to Education for Refugee Children (Article 28)
Under Greek law, all children, including migrants and asylum seekers, have the right to enroll in public schools, even if they lack paperwork. As of October 2021, more than 4,200 asylum seekers were stuck on the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, 4,076 of them in heavily securitized, government-run camps, according to Greek government data, which did not disaggregate the number of children.[6]

In early 2021, more than 10,400 school-age children seeking asylum in Greece live in camps on the mainland and the Aegean islands, but 86 percent of these children were not attending school, the Greek Ombudsman for children’s rights reported in April 2021.[7] In the island camps, only 7 of 2,100 school-age children had attended school. According to UN and government data, during the 2019-2020 school year, a total of 31,000 school-age refugee children were living either inside or outside of camps, but according to UN figures, only about 13,000 were enrolled in school.[8] The government does not publish enrollment figures.

Children seeking asylum in Greece are “severely discriminated against” by persistent delays in opening classes for children who do not speak Greek, the Greek Ombudsman reported. An education officer at a Greek humanitarian group told Human Rights Watch that: “Every year, the classes are delayed. In 2019 they started in November. This year, it was late January.”

The ministry waited until December 15, 2020, to advertise hundreds of teaching positions needed for classes in the academic year that began in September, and in some areas had not advertised any teaching positions by January 2021, according to a humanitarian group, Refugee Support Aegean.

Greek regional authorities are responsible for providing transportation from camps to schools but failed to provide any from many mainland camps for months after the start of the school year in 2020-21 and in previous years, according to the ombudsman and parents and staff of child protection organizations interviewed.

In a January 2021 decision on a complaint submitted in 2018, the European Committee of Social Rights held that Greece is violating the rights of asylum-seeking children, including the right to education of children on the Greek Aegean islands where new arrivals from Turkey are contained.[9] Greece had not put in place the “immediate measures” to “ensure access to education” that the Committee indicated were necessary in May 2019, the decision says.

In August and December 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 107 school-age asylum-seeking and migrant children on the islands and interviewed Education Ministry officials, UN staff, and local aid groups, and reviewed legislation. Most asylum-seeking children on the Aegean Islands lived in government-run camps known as Reception and Identification Centers. A minority of children had been transferred out of the camps to other places, such as shelters for unaccompanied children or EU-subsidized hotels or apartments for children with families deemed too vulnerable to live in the government-run camps.

Many children were stuck for three to six months or longer in government-run camps, but Greece has failed to invest in formal education inside, or provide access to public schools outside the camps. The asylum-seeking children in the camps who received any education generally did so in informal “schools” operated by local and international NGOs. On Samos, non-formal programs reached only about 100 of 374 asylum-seeking children of school-age on the island as of August 31, 2017; as of June 5, 2018, the number of school-age children had increased to 501.

In the government-run Moria camp on Lesbos, as of June 2018, the only school inside the camp for children living with their families was able to teach 1.5 hours of daily instruction to 90 children, as camp authorities had allocated only one portable container for the classroom. Roughly 170 children attended two other non-formal schools outside the camp, which provided transportation, but some younger children were unable to attend because their parents said they could not leave the camps to accompany them on the bus.

Some children told Human Rights Watch they had dropped out of non-formal education in camps because of high teacher turnover (often volunteers or refugees), instruction in Greek or English without translation, and limited instruction. The non-formal schools that Human Rights Watch visited provided between 4 and 18 hours of instruction per week, compared to the 30 hours that Greek public schools provide. Some teachers at non-formal schools said their classrooms had up to 50 children; the average class size in Greece is less than 18 students. Staff emphasized that their schools were not intended to, and could not, replace formal education.[10]

For many children, lack of education on the Greek islands compounded the severely compromised access to education they experienced before arrival due to conflict in, and flight from, their home countries.[11] In 2017, a Greek ministerial expert committee found that “owing to wars and migration, a significant percentage of refugee children [in Greece] have been out of the school environment for at least two years, and many children have never attended school, although they are of school age.”[12]

Since late 2017, and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Greece has transferred tens of thousands of asylum seekers, including school-age children, from the islands to the mainland. Further, UNICEF and Greece in June 2021 agreed on a plan to provide all school-age refugee children with formal and nonformal education over three years, beginning in the new school year in September 2021, contingent on funding from the European Commission.[13] The Greek government’s agreement to the plan is a positive step, however, our understanding is that the agreement does not foresee enrolling children on the Aegean island camps in formal education.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Greece:

  • To provide disaggregated data showing how many migrant, asylum-seeking, and refugee children are on the Aegean islands and the mainland, and of them, how many children are currently enrolled in formal education?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure all children’s access to quality education without discrimination?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Greece to:

  • Ensure that all children are able to enroll promptly in formal education, and that children with disabilities have access to inclusive education.
  • Expand the implementation of free and inclusive pre-primary education in camps around the country, including on the islands.
  • Provide asylum-seeking children who have missed extended periods of schooling with support to successfully integrate in school and show flexibility with regard to grade placement to accommodate educational needs.
  • Cooperate with NGOs to organize additional support for asylum-seeking children, including with disabilities, to integrate in school.

Access to Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic (Article 28)
Since the Covid-19 pandemic’s start in 2020, schools in Greece have been fully and/or partially closed for a total of 37 weeks (fully closed for 18 weeks).[14]

Refugee Education
The Greek Ombudsman for children’s rights reported that in early 2021, more than 10,400 school-age children seeking asylum in Greece lived in camps on the mainland and on the Aegean islands, but that 86 percent of these children were not attending school.[15]

In July 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke with 9 families with 20 school-age children living in mainland camps, 2 education ministry staff who work in camps, and 8 humanitarian staff working in camps on the mainland and the Aegean islands and reviewed numerous documents and reports about the situation.

Barriers to education were exacerbated for all children in Greece by restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. In-person schooling was halted on March 10, 2020, and partially restarted in mid-May before summer vacation in June. The start of the 2020-21 school year was delayed by one week, until September 14, high schools provided only distance learning until February 2021, and all schools in the country were closed for most of the period from November 2020 to February 2021.

Asylum-seeking children were disproportionately affected. Even when schools were open for Greek children, children in camps across Greece could not attend, said four agency staff and two Education Ministry coordinators who work in different camps on the mainland.

Farhat, 50, has lived with his family in Ritsona camp in the outskirts of Athens for 17 months, and before that in Moria camp on Lesbos island for 7 months. His three school-age children had only been to school in Greece for one month, he said: “For more than a year it’s been quarantine and lockdown, so everything is closed. They don’t go to school, no activity, no anything.”

Shamsiya, 28, said that his 8-year-old son waited six months to be able to attend school after they arrived in Oinofyta camp, until “he was going with a bus to the school. They were good teachers, my son had no complaints, he was happy. But for the last 10 months, with the quarantine, he never went to school. He was crying when they closed the school for the quarantine. He wanted to keep going. He learned fast.”

When schools were physically closed, children in camps had almost no access to distance learning due to the lack of Wi-Fi and devices, families said. A father of four school-age children in the Malakasa camps near Athens said that when schools closed in March 2020, camp officials “told us that the kids would be able to study online, but they never came back to tell us how.”[16]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Greece:

  • How does the government plan to remedy learning time lost by children due to Covid-19 related school closures?
  • What strategies are being adopted to mitigate the impacts of in-person school closures on children’s learning, and the disproportionate impact of increased child-care and teaching responsibilities on parents at home?
  • What remedy do children who have aged out of compulsory or free education during the pandemic have to benefit from their full entitlement to a right to education?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Greece to:

  • Prioritize continuing education for all children during and after temporary in-person school closures, and make it available and accessible to all, using all available technology, including radio and television broadcasts, telephones, computers, secure text and voice messaging services, and printed materials. These efforts should include adapted, accessible material, software, and communication strategies for children with different types of disabilities.
  • Adopt measures to provide affordable, reliable, quality, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access to the internet for educational content, and capable devices for every student. Children most likely to be excluded or have inadequate access, including those from marginalized or vulnerable communities, living in rural areas, with disabilities, or living in families with multiple children, or due to their gender, should receive targeted support.
  • Ensure that all children who aged out of compulsory or free education during the pandemic are able to access, at a minimum, additional free schooling sufficient to allow them to catch up on any backsliding in their education caused by being out of school, plus time equal to school disruptions and closures.
  • Explicitly allocate educational resources strategically to vulnerable and low-income groups, including asylum-seeking and migrant children, and those shown to have been particularly affected in their education during the pandemic.

Impact of Lead Pollution on Children’s Rights (Articles 24 and 31)
Children may be at risk of lead poisoning in the Mavrovouni migrant camp that Greek authorities have built on a repurposed military firing range on the island of Lesbos, after the Moria camp burned down in 2020. Firing ranges are commonly contaminated with lead from munitions,[17] nevertheless the authorities did not conduct comprehensive lead testing or soil remediation before moving migrants to the site in September 2020.

Lead in the soil from bullet residue can readily become airborne, especially under dry and windy conditions, which often exist on Lesbos. Lead is a heavy metal that is highly toxic to humans when ingested or inhaled, particularly by children and during pregnancy. It degrades very slowly, so sites can remain dangerous for decades.

The World Health Organization maintains that there is no known safe level of lead exposure. Elevated levels can impair the body's neurological, biological, and cognitive functions, leading to learning barriers or disabilities; behavioral problems; impaired growth; anemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and even death. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breast milk.[18]

Children are especially at risk because they absorb four to five times as much lead as adults, and their brains and bodies are still developing. In addition, small children often put their hands in their mouths or play on the ground, which increases their likelihood of ingesting or inhaling lead in dust and dirt. Exposure during pregnancy can result in stillbirth, miscarriage, and low birth weight, and can negatively affect fetal brain development. At least 118 pregnant women and 2,552 children were at the site as of November 2020, according to government data.

Mohammed Hafida, a camp resident with three young children whose wife is pregnant, told Human Rights Watch that when they moved to the camp when it first opened in September 2020, it was particularly dusty. “When cars drove past the tents there was dust everywhere,” he said. “That only went away once the rain set in two weeks later. But the camp is on a hill, and so when it rained for several hours, many of the tents collapsed. This isn’t a camp, it’s a hell.”[19]

Camp residents said they have to clean dust out of their tents multiple times a day caused by cars driving on adjacent gravel roads. Children often play in the dusty area by the roads. A medical expert said that small children at the camp are at very serious risk for as long as they are exposed to dust that could be contaminated.[20]

Minimal soil testing by the Greek government in December 2020 confirmed lead contamination in parts of the camp.[21] The authorities then moved some tents away from contaminated areas. However, as of March 2021, the authorities had not relocated about 90 residential tents, five reception structures, and nine administrative structures in close proximity to contaminated areas at the base of a hill inside the camp. Instead, the authorities only removed tents on the former firing range, where they added new soil and gravel layers. Authorities erected a fence less than 100 meters in length around the area where a sample with very elevated lead levels had been taken but maintained a cluster of administrative structures that residents were regularly visiting for services, located from 3 to 90 meters away from the fenced-off area. Authorities failed to release information about any planned confirmatory soil testing since the remediation measures were taken.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Greece:

  • When does the government plan to bring in experts to carry out new confirmatory soil testing to ensure that the measures the government has taken to address lead contamination have been adequate to mitigate the risk of lead poisoning?
  • What information has the government shared with camp residents and staff, and in which languages, about the risks of lead poisoning and ongoing testing and mitigation measures?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Greece to:

  • Conduct a thorough and transparent assessment of lead levels in the soil and dust, as well as other possible pathways to exposure, and make the results publicly available.
  • Provide free blood testing and treatment for camp residents, aid workers, police, and others who might have been exposed if lead is confirmed to be present in the soil, prioritizing young children and women of reproductive age, and immediately move exposed residents to a safe location and remediate the contaminated areas.
 

[1] See, e.g., Amnesty International, “Greece: Violence, lies, and pushbacks – Refugees and migrants still denied safety and asylum at Europe’s borders,” June 23, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur25/4307/2021/en/ (accessed December 21, 2021); Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, “Greek authorities should investigate allegations of pushbacks and ill-treatment of migrants, ensure an enabling environment for NGOs and improve reception conditions,” May 12, 2021, https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/greek-authorities-should-investigate-allegations-of-pushbacks-and-ill-treatment-of-migrants-ensure-an-enabling-environment-for-ngos-and-improve-recept (accessed December 21, 2021); UNHCR, “UNHCR concerned by pushback reports, calls for protection of refugees and asylum-seekers,” August 21, 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/gr/en/16207-unhcr-concerned-by-pushback-reports-calls-for-protection-of-refugees-and-asylum-seekers.html (accessed December 21, 2021); “IOM Alarmed over Reports of Pushbacks from Greece at EU Border with Turkey,” IOM press release, June 10, 2020, https://greece.iom.int/en/news/iom-alarmed-over-reports-pushbacks-greece-eu-border-turkey (accessed December 21, 2021); European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), “Council of Europe’s anti-torture Committee calls on Greece to reform its immigration detention system and stop pushbacks,” November 19, 2020, https://www.coe.int/en/web/cpt/-/council-of-europe-s-anti-torture-committee-calls-on-greece-to-reform-its-immigration-detention-system-and-stop-pushbacks (accessed December 21, 2021); Florian Schmitz, Alexia Kalaitzi, and Burcu Karakas, “Migrants accuse Greece of forced deportations,” Deutsche Welle, May 21, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/migrants-accuse-greece-of-forced-deportations/a-53520642 (accessed December 21, 2021); Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Patrick Kingsley, Haley Willis, Sarah Almukhtar and Malachy Browne, “‘We Are Like Animals’: Inside Greece’s Secret Site for Migrants,” New York Times, March 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/world/europe/greece-migrants-secret-site.html (accessed December 21, 2021).

[2] “Greece: Investigate Pushbacks, Collective Expulsions,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 16, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/16/greece-investigate-pushbacks-collective-expulsions.

[3] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, “Why Are You Keeping Me Here?” Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece (New York: Human Rights Watch, September 2016), https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/08/why-are-you-keeping-me-here/unaccompanied-children-detained-greece.

[4] There were 21 children in protective custody as of August 15, 2021. National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), “Status Update: Unaccompanied Children in Greece,” August 15, 2021, p. 1, https://www.ekka.org.gr/images/KOINONIKON-PAREMBASEON/%CE%A3%CE%A4%CE%91%CE%A4%CE%99%CE%A3%CE%A4%CE%99%CE%9A%CE%91_2021/GR_EKKA_Dashboard_2021815.pdf (accessed December 21, 2021).

[5] National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), “Status Update: Unaccompanied Children in Greece,” November 30, 2021, p. 1, https://www.ekka.org.gr/images/STATISTIKA/GR_EKKA_Dashboard_20211201.pdf (accessed December 21, 2021).

[6] Hellenic Republic, Ministry of Migration and Asylum, Statistics, International Protection, “Report A October 2021 – APPENDIX,” October 2021, https://migration.gov.gr/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/October-2021_International-Protection_Appendix-A.pdf (accessed December 21, 2021).

[7] Greek Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, Educational integration of children living in Structures and KYT of the Ministry of Immigration & Asylum, April 2021, https://www.synigoros.gr/?i=childrens-rights.el.epanapatrismos.787548 (accessed December 21, 2021).

[8] Theirworld, “Finding Solutions to Greece’s Refugee Education Crisis,” April 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/RefugeeEducation-Report-240420-2.pdf (accessed December 21, 2021).

[9] European Committee of Social Rights, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) v. Greece, Complaint No. 173/2018, available at https://hudoc.esc.coe.int/eng/?i=cc-173-2018-dmerits-en.

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Without Education They Lose Their Future”: Denial of Education to Child Asylum Seekers on the Greek Islands (New York: Human Rights Watch, July 2018), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/greece0718_web.pdf.

[11] Eighteen of the asylum-seeking children Human Rights Watch interviewed on the islands said that their education had been interrupted because their schools had been used for military purposes or were attacked and destroyed in conflict. Human Rights Watch interviews, Vial camp on Chios, August 15, 2017, and Moria camp, Lesbos, December 3, 4, and 5, 2017.

[12] Greek Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, Scientific Committee in Support of Refugee Children, “Refugee Education Project. A. Assessment Report on the Integration Project of Refugee Children in Education. B. Proposals for the Education of Refugee Children during the 2017-2018 School Year,” April 2017, p. 38, https://www.minedu.gov.gr/publications/docs2017/CENG_Epistimoniki_Epitropi_Prosfygon_YPPETH_Apotimisi_Protaseis_2016_2017_070__.pdf (accessed September 4, 2017).

[13] “Theirworld's blueprint adopted by Greek government to give education and hope to child refugees,” Theirworld, June 3, 2021, https://theirworld.org/news/greece-plan-to-get-every-refugee-child-in-school (accessed November 18, 2021).

[14] UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Total duration of school closures,” last updated November 30, 2021, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse#durationschoolclosures (accessed December 21, 2021).

[15] Greek Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, Educational integration of children living in Structures and KYT of the Ministry of Immigration & Asylum, April 2021, https://www.synigoros.gr/?i=childrens-rights.el.epanapatrismos.787548 (accessed December 21, 2021).

[16] “Greece: Stop Denying Refugee Children an Education,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 29, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/29/greece-stop-denying-refugee-children-education.

[17] Peter Sanderson et al., “Contamination, Fate and Management of Metals in Shooting Range Soils—a Review,” Current Pollution Reports 4 (2018): pp. 175-187, accessed December 21, 2021, doi:10.1007/s40726-018-0089-5.

[18] World Health Organization, “Lead poisoning,” October 11, 2021, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health (accessed November 18, 2021).

[19] “Greece: Lead Poisoning Concerns in New Migrant Camp,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 8, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/08/greece-lead-poisoning-concerns-new-migrant-camp.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Greece: Migrant Camp Lead Contamination,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 27, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/27/greece-migrant-camp-lead-contamination.

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