GENEVA, 17 March 2017 – One year after the Balkan border closures and the EU-Turkey Statement which were aimed at stopping mass migration flows, refugee and migrant children face greater risks of deportation, detention, exploitation and deprivation, says UNICEF.
“While there has been a major decrease in the overall numbers of children on the move into Europe since last March, there has been an increase in the threats and distress refugee and migrant children endure,” said Afshan Khan UNICEF Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe. “It has become a vicious circle – children flee suffering, and they end up either fleeing again, or facing de facto detention, or just utter neglect.”
Lily Caprani, Deputy Executive Director, Unicef UK, says: “Last year alone, 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Greece and Italy fleeing conflicts in countries such as Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Yet to date, only around five children are thought to have been transferred to the UK from Greece and just three from Italy.
“Alone and afraid, as each day passes these children are at increased risk of exploitation by criminal traffickers. Yet, some of these children will already have relatives living in European countries such as the UK who can protect them. It’s clear the UK must do more to help bring families together and keep these children safe.
“Lengthy family reunification rules mean some children wait almost a year for their applications to be processed. That’s why we are urging the UK Government to speed up family reunification processes for vulnerable children currently stranded across Europe, including those in Greece and Italy. We also need to see the UK’s family reunion rules changed so that children can reach their relatives without having to first make the dangerous journey to Europe with traffickers and smugglers.
“The UK Government has the power to transform the lives of hundreds of traumatized children. We urge them to take immediate action.”
UNICEF staff in Greece report deep levels of distress and frustration among children and their families, including one child as young as eight attempting self-harm. Despite recent improvement in living conditions some unaccompanied children in shelters, suffer psychosocial distress, with high levels of anxiety, aggression and violence and demonstrating high risk behaviour such as drugs and prostitution. War, destruction, the death of loved ones and a dangerous journey exacerbated by poor living conditions in camps around Greece or the lengthy registration and asylum procedures, can trigger post-traumatic stress disorders.
Hawar, 14 years old from Iraqi, said: “Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Some days I am motivated and some days I am emotionally exhausted. I feel trapped. I do not want to see anyone or anything from the camp. After I go out for a while, I usually feel better.”
A father of four from Afghanistan, Maroof, says the experience of crossing the Eastern Mediterranean have had negative psychological effects on him, his wife and the children, for which they have not received counselling. “My children’s behaviour has changed since coming here. They don’t want to go to school and they fight. Today, for example, I sent them to school in the camp and they walked out of the class. We are not sure about anything. We are trapped on an island and this is causing psychological problems. My only happiness is that we are alive.”
UNICEF, in collaboration with the Greek government and NGO partners, are prioritising appropriate care for refugee and migrant children to meet their mental health and psychosocial needs. Imminent transfers back to Greece in line with so-called Dublin regulations, are likely to add even greater strain to the situation facing children and further pressure to existing services.
Instead of stemming the flow, border closures and the EU-Turkey statement, have led to children and families taking matters into their own hands and embarking on even more dangerous and irregular routes with smugglers, as UNICEF and partners warned a year ago. Even in 2017 nearly 3,000 refugees and migrants – with about a third children – have arrived in Greece despite the full implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement and strict border control. Many continue to slip through borders into Bulgaria, West Balkans and Hungary.
Children stranded in Greece and West Balkans have already lost nearly three years of education and now face several hurdles like different languages and education systems and yet another year without schooling. UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education’s strategy to integrate stranded refugee and migrant children in Greek schools. However only 2,500 children out the 15,000 school age children so far that benefit from the national scheme in Greek language.
Despite significant efforts – from government and partners – about half of the 2,100 unaccompanied children are still living in substandard conditions, including nearly 200 unaccompanied children in facilities with limited movement early March (178 in reception and identification centres on the Islands and 16 in “protective custody” in police cells)
Unicef is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK. For more information please visit unicef.org.uk