Post by Andriani Fili and Virginia Xythali. Andriani is the Leverhulme International Network Facilitator, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. She is also the Managing Editor of the Border Criminologies blog. Virginia is a psychologist and NGO practitioner based in Athens, Greece. This is the fifth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Current Legal Issues on Migration organised by Ana Aliverti and Celia Rooney.

In recent years, irregular entry into Europe has increased across the Greek-Turkish border. Characterised as one of Europe’s deadliest borders, the crossing from Turkey to Greece, especially through the islands of the Eastern Aegean, has recently witnessed a dramatic upsurge of new arrivals, making 2015 a record year. Among the new arrivals are children who frequently arrive in Greece unaccompanied by their parents, relatives, or legal guardian. It is estimated that unaccompanied minors accounted for approximately 35 per cent of the total population that crossed from Turkey to Greece in 2015.

Registering and identifying unaccompanied minors

Photo: Kelly Lynn Lunde

This estimation is only rough, since in Greece there is no central authority responsible for tracking children in need of protection, thus, leading to contradictory official sources and double counts. The only primary data available are those collected by the Ministry of Citizen Protection and the Ministry of Labour. Figures from the former relates to the number of unaccompanied minors who have been arrested and identified as underage at the border and those who have lodged an asylum application, and is published periodically. The Ministry of Labour publishes the number of minors who have requested to be allocated to reception centres which is distributed monthly by the National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA). According to these sources, in 2015 only 426 asked for asylum and 2,248 for a reception placement. As a comparison, in 2016 1,789 asylum applications (until October 2016) and 2,300 accommodation requests (until 7 December 2016) have been registered.

The significant increase in asylum applications has been caused by the fewer possibilities to travel onwards to Europe given the closure of the so called ‘Balkan route’. Statistical information of minors who do not fall in these categories is obscure, rendering a large number of them, who consider Greece a transit point, invisible to the authorities. In this context, there are concerns about increasing accounts of ‘missing and disappearing children’ and the conditions and situations leading to their ‘disappearance’. Because of the serious pitfalls in quantifying this phenomenon, no firm conclusion can be reached as to how many unaccompanied minors cross the border nor how these numbers fluctuate each year.

Although there is a clear definition in law of who can be considered unaccompanied or separated, for a number of years the police at the borders have employed random registering practices which have caused problems in the identification of minors as unaccompanied, highlighting at the same time how children circulate out of and beyond secure spaces. Firstly, it is common practice for authorities to arbitrarily register minors as unaccompanied even when they are travelling with members of their extended family, leading to their forceful separation. On the other hand, on occasions minors have been classified at entry points as accompanied by non-related adults, presumably to avoid congestion in registration centres on the islands. We are not able to verify the dimension of these problems, however, the frequency and similarity of these incidents, as indicated in a number of reports, makes us think that these are not isolated errors. The lack of uniform procedures with regard to the assessment of unaccompanied minors and of specialised staff at points of entry, and the absence of any identity documents that would (dis)prove any relations, grant authorities a wide margin of discretion. It also means that there is no legal way to challenge and rectify an arbitrary or wrong assessment. 

Photo: AP/Mstyslav Chernov

Secondly, some either declare themselves to be of age, even if it is apparent that they are underage, while others claim to be minors when obviously adults. Children may try to pass as adults to avoid prolonged detention while waiting to be placed in a reception facility with very limited spaces or to evade any administrative obstacles to their fast journeys through EU borders. Young adults may claim to be underage to enjoy a more lenient treatment. Both practices have reinforced a prevailing culture of disbelief as minors’ age and right to protection are continuously doubted and denied by the responsible authorities.

Disparate registering practices are further complicated by the nature of the age assessment procedure, which is regulated by Article 6 of Ministerial Decision 92490/29.10.2013. In contrast to other countries, such as Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, where x-rays are the only medical exams provided by law, the decision requires an initial physical assessment by a pediatrician, followed by an assessment by a psychologist and a social worker. If age cannot be determined, dental x-rays and an x-ray of the left wrist should be done. This procedure was until recently compulsory only for Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) and therefore not binding for other national authorities or services; it has now become applicable to asylums seekers. According to the new law, until the age assessment ruling is issued, the person shall be considered to be a minor and shall be treated accordingly (Law. 4375/2016, Art. 14, par. 9). However, due to its complicated nature, as well as the limited human resources and costs involved, police and coast guards rarely comply with the procedure for age assessment.  

Given the above, only a fraction of unaccompanied children is correctly identified and registered as such. While more than 850,000 asylum seekers and migrants made the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece and notwithstanding the fact that more than 95,000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children applied for asylum in other EU countries, only 2,248 minors were registered with EKKA as unaccompanied, a number even smaller than the respective one for 2014.

Caring for minors in Greece?

Greece has a long tradition of a poorly-developed system for identifying unaccompanied asylum seeking and migrant children. The failures described here are part of a continuum of systemic failures to protect unaccompanied minors in Greece, which have led to criticism from a number of human rights organisations. Despite consistent calls for improvements in its child protection system, the protection of unaccompanied children remains dysfunctional and children continue to be subjected to violence and abuse.

One of the first obstacles unaccompanied minors face upon arrival in Greece is navigating through the complicated and ever shifting legal framework relating to both age appropriate protection. Legal protection does not automatically translate into actual protection due to poor implementation. While Greek legislation establishes the obligations of different authorities to care for and protect unaccompanied boys and girls, the situation on the ground is woeful. These children are routinely detained pending their referral to a dedicated reception facility –euphemistically called ‘protective custody’- because there is generally no secure accommodation for them. At the moment, the total number of available accommodation places for minors is 1,256 and 1,314 children are on the waiting list for shelter while in detention or homeless. Yet, even available accommodation places are overcrowded and lack specialized staff. These practices violate Greece’s international legal obligations as established in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Access to asylum, education and healthcare is restricted, despite efforts by several state and non-state actors. The provision of guardianship and foster care are only offered by NGOs and are not supported by the state. What is more, welfare provisions for refugees and migrants in Greece is at best rudimentary. To address the state’s inertia, Greek and international NGOs have stepped in to provide a series of services, ranging from accommodation to legal aid and healthcare. By shifting its responsibilities to the charity sector, the Greek state remains the ’coordinator’ rather than the main actor of refugee and migrant welfare provision services.

Photo: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

The above omissions were until recently entirely overlooked because allegedly Greece was perceived by most minors as merely a transit country. Employing this as a flagship excuse, state authorities and NGOs alike rarely aimed to assess their long-term needs. The issue emerged anew at the beginning of 2016, when after the closure of the Balkan route a significant number of minors was forced to remain in Greece for an indeterminate period of time. In contrast to the media response to the death of Aylan Kurdi which alerted about the human costs of the refugee crisis, unaccompanied minors arriving in Greece have to prove they are worthy of support and not abusers of an already overwhelmed system.

Within an overriding ethos of cynicism and with money flowing from the EU, a number of different actors quickly stepped in to ‘protect’ unaccompanied children; for, children on the move were framed as subjects to be governed: to be saved from distress, processed in centres, provided with aid, screened for potential risks; to be pitied and/or feared. Responsibility for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children is divided among these actors, leading to fragmented services that fail to adequately address the minors’ needs and high levels of advanced confusion as to which authority is in place to take decisions on minors’ behalf. In stark opposition to this framing, underage migrants strive to make their agency highly visible by defying authorities during the identification process and by making informed decisions about their lives, mainly manifesting in decisions to leave Greece for other countries in Europe even when attempting perilous journeys. What lies ahead for them in Greece, especially in view of forthcoming developments in EU policies and legislation, remains to be seen and documented for their future is, at best, uncertain.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Fili, A.  and Xythali, V. (2017) Unaccompanied Minors in Greece: Who can ‘save’ them?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/02/unaccompanied (Accessed [date]).