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An Unbearable Wait: Lone Children Struggle on Greek Islands

An increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children and teenagers are stuck on the Greek island of Lesbos due to a shortage of shelter spaces in Greece. They’re growing angry and frustrated while facing a lengthy wait to be transferred to the mainland.

Written by Iason Athanasiadis Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A Syrian boy staying in one of the shelters on Lesbos checks his phone after returning from school one October lunchtime. Iason Athanasiadis

LESBOS, Greece – The sound of a fist repeatedly banging on a table emanated from the neoclassical building on Lesbos, one of the shelters for unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island.

An Afghan boy in his early teens marched out of a building that autumn day, shouting swear words and threats in his native Dari after learning that his allowance had been withheld. “I get so frustrated just waiting for my allowance, or to be taken to the gym, that I smashed through several of these windows,” said another young Afghan, displaying his scarred knuckles and pointing to jagged glass in the window frames.

“Though it looks bad, you’ve actually come at a quiet time,” said Mojtaba, another young Afghan resident of the shelter. “No one sleeps at night, there’s shouting and fighting, the windows are constantly broken and they knock holes in the walls,” he said, pointing to a cheerful pink wall pockmarked with dents. “Everyone’s tired of waiting around doing nothing.”

They are among a growing number of children and youths trapped on Lesbos, still within sight of Turkish shoreline from where they set sail to Europe, due to a shortage of shelters in Greece.

Over 10,000 unaccompanied children have been registered in Greece since the beginning of 2016. Approximately 2,120 of them are still waiting for space in shelters.

Officially, lone children are one of the vulnerable groups that are excluded from the restriction against moving refugees off the islands under the 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal. In reality, several hundred unaccompanied children face long waits on Lesbos for shelter spaces to open up on the mainland.

Most child migrants on the island live in the 11 dedicated shelters run by local NGOs Iliaktida (Sunray) and Metadrasi. A small number are housed in Moria, the overcrowded former detention camp that houses over 6,000 asylum seekers in conditions described as squalid and unsafe by Human Rights Watch.

An aerial view of Moria camp on Lesbos. (Iason Athanasiadis)

Most of the NGO shelters are also vastly overstretched, with some housing double the number of children they have capacity for. In an October report, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) in Greece warned the shelters were reporting increased mental health concerns among the children, including anxiety, depression, self-harm and stress-related aggression.

“They don’t understand that we’re not the ones responsible for their being stuck here, often for over a year,” said one shift-worker at a shelter run by NGO Metadrasi. Staff turnover is high and the shelter has been fighting to stay open since its external funding was cut in August. “You need nerves of steel to work here,” he said. “And lots of patience.”

‘The Situation Spirals Out of Control’

There has been a steady flow of refugees arriving on Lesbos this year. Some 4,400 refugees and migrants washed up on the island’s rugged coastline in September and October, and another 2,000 arrived in November.

Despite the onset of winter, the refugee boats from Turkey keep on arriving on the Lesbos shoreline. (Iason Athanasiadis)

Tensions have been rising on the island, where 8,500 asylum seekers live in facilities meant to house one-third of that number. Islanders have held several protests against their home becoming a “migrant prison,” while a statue dedicated to those who drowned making the Aegean crossing was vandalized.

A group of Afghans and Iranians went on hunger strike last month to protest their conditions, camping out on the port’s main square and occupying the ruling Syriza party’s offices on the island in early December.

“As long as you have about 3,000 people on the island, the situation is humane,” said Erifilli Chiotelli, a local Syriza official. Once the number doubles or triples, “the situation quickly spirals out of control,” she said.

The Greek government has tried to ease overcrowding by shifting some migrants to the mainland, with nearly 10,000 transferred since August. But the recent increase in boats has outstripped transfers. Greece plans to bring another 5,000 people to the mainland before winter sets in as well as step up returns to Turkey.

African migrants arrive at Athens’ main port of Piraeus on the overnight boat from Lesbos. (Iason Athanasiadis)

Among the new arrivals on Lesbos are a growing number of unaccompanied children, many from Afghanistan. The UNHCR says around 400 lone children arrived in Greece during the first six months of 2017. The number of unaccompanied minors in Greece has doubled since January 2017, according to the Home Project, an NGO that runs refugee shelters in Athens.

There are many possible factors behind the arrival of unaccompanied children, including shrinking options for adults to get asylum in Europe. As countries have tightened their borders and asylum policies since 2015, Greece has turned from being a transit corridor to wealthier northern European states into a destination country for refugees, albeit an unintended one.

Some desperate families send their children to safety first. Many believe that children can more easily cross borders and get asylum in Europe, with relatives joining later through family reunification. Children are easier for smugglers to hide in cars, vans and ships. Smugglers can also pair children with adults pretending to be their parents in the hope of gaining asylum too.

Nabil, 17, fled Syria to avoid the military draft. He stands outside the Iliaktida shelter on Lesbos. (Iason Athanasiadis)

Within Greece, unaccompanied children have access to more services and their asylum applications are usually processed quicker.

“It’s getting around [the refugee community] that it’s better to be a minor, and in truth it is,” said Antonis Zeimpekis, chief welfare officer of Iliaktida (Sunray), an NGO that runs shelters for unaccompanied children on Lesbos. “It’s one thing to be in a house with carers, lawyers and doctors, and another to be all alone in Moria; better a ‘minor’ than a ‘single male’.’”

A Base for the Future

Sitting in the basement of Iliaktida’s only shelter for women, a 14-year-old Afghan girl, Mahnaz, described her long journey to Greece with her brothers.

In Afghanistan, Mahnaz lost her father to a deadly feud and then part of her vision from a ricocheting bullet during a raid on their house by suspected business rivals of her father. Her mother escaped with Mahnaz and her brothers to Iran, but they had no papers so were forced to stay indoors.

Mahnaz, 14, fled a family feud in Afghanistan, spent years in Iran and is today hosted in one of local NGO Iliaktida’s shelters. (Iason Athanasiadis)

Mahnaz could not go to school, but learned how to read and write with help from her cousin-in-law. Now she is taking Greek and English language classes on Lesbos and will receive an upcoming monthly award for her academic performance at an Iliaktida-run school.

“I always wanted to study, wherever I ended up, because I recognize that studying makes one stronger,” Mahnaz said. “I wanted to be a doctor to help kids like me because I saw really hard conditions.”

For Mahnaz and her brothers, Lesbos is just a step closer to being reunited with their mother, who is already in Germany. “I want Greece to be the base of my future,” she said.

In line with legislation in Greece governing the representation of minors, all names of those under 18 mentioned in the article have been changed.

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