Imprisoned for ‘protection’ — children in Greece are offered cells instead of the streets
In Greece, the state system for homeless unaccompanied minors seeking asylum is to detain them in what is termed “protective custody” whilst appropriate accommodation is found. Minors are often detained initially in police cells. Small children are then detained in hospitals, whilst those aged 15 and over are imprisoned in closed detention centres. There is a serious shortage of appropriate accommodation for minors in Greece, so they often endure prolonged and unlawful periods of detention in inhumane and degrading conditions.
I am telling a fourteen year old boy that the only way he can get a roof over his head is to turn himself in to a police station, in order to be imprisoned in a cell. Amin* arrived in Greece 8 days ago and he has been sleeping on the streets in central Athens during the Covid-19 pandemic. I cannot tell him how long he will spend in a cell — I don’t want to underestimate and inadvertently betray his trust.
I’ve seen the cells — I can’t reassure him they will be clean or safe. Minors held in ‘protective custody’ are often put in cells with multiple other people, those who have been arrested that day, adults. I know of a teenage girl who was recently detained with multiple adult men in one cell. I also cannot reassure Amin that he will be treated respectfully, given reports of Greek police mistreating and abusing asylum seekers.
Alone and without options
Amin is totally alone in Greece and help is harder to come by due to Covid-19 — there is a nationwide lockdown and a curfew between 9pm and 5am. Being on the streets, Amin risks a €300 fine for noncompliance with the government’s measures.
Amin has a brother in northern Europe who knows what being detained in a police cell feels like. He doesn’t want his younger brother to suffer the same experience. He offers to send money to Amin in Greece. But even with money there is no safe solution — hotels cannot accept Amin as he is undocumented. Offering strangers money in exchange for a place to sleep is not sensible for a lone teen.
Waiting to claim asylum and access proper accommodation
Amin had no idea how to claim asylum when he arrived in Greece. Now he has a lawyer to arrange his registration with the Greek Asylum Service, but the registration appointment provided will still be months away**. In the meantime he will be undocumented.
The Public Prosecutor for Minors is officially responsible for Amin. The Greek government also recently created a Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors. These state officials will never meet Amin, but as he’s lucky enough to have found a lawyer, the lawyer interacts with them. The lawyer is told that due to Covid-19 the hospitals are full, and as Amin will soon be fifteen, his only choice is a police station and then a closed detention centre, most probably Amygdaleza.
There are shelters for minors in Greece and places are allocated by the government’s National Centre for Social Solidarity (EKKA). Unaccompanied minors can be referred to EKKA by lawyers and social workers, but response times vary. While appropriate accommodation is identified, the only official solution available is ‘protective custody’.
A dangerous shortage of shelters
According to EKKA’s most recent report, there are currently 4162 unaccompanied children in Greece, but just 1876 places in long-term accommodation for minors. These statistics reflect only those minors who have managed to find a professional with an interpreter, to refer them to EKKA for accommodation — there are an unknown number of children unable to find help and therefore unaccounted for.
Given the serious shortage of places in proper accommodation, wait times in ‘protective custody’ can be long. Minors have been kept in police cells for 3 months and closed camps for 5 months. UNHCR note that:
“During this period, the children are restricted in a facility without adequate medical and psychosocial services and without access to recreational and educational activities. Due to overcrowding, they stay together with families and adults, at risk of exposure to exploitation and abuse.”
Of those children who have been referred to EKKA, still 1039 children are currently homeless — EKKA’s factsheet, emblazoned with the EU flag and UNICEF’s logo, notes that some children sleep in squats, informal insecure accommodation (most likely overcrowded with strangers), while others are homeless somewhere unknown to EKKA.
At the end of 2019, there were 5,300 unaccompanied children known to the Greek authorities. It was exposed earlier this year that around 1,200 unaccompanied children had gone missing, and only one in four children were accommodated in humane conditions in Greece.
The scandal that goes unseen is that many shelters have empty places, due to failings in the state allocation system.
Unlawful, but still operational
Whilst the law in Greece does not explicitly prevent the detention of unaccompanied children, the ‘protective custody’ regime is contrary to EU and international law.
The Council of Europe’s Anti-Torture Committee has repeatedly recommended that Greece stop detaining children in ‘protective custody’. The European Court of Human Rights has intervened in numerous cases to order that particular minors be moved from inappropriate unsafe ‘protective custody’ conditions to proper shelters. The European Committee on Social Rights (ECSR) also ordered the immediate release of unaccompanied children from ‘protective custody’, declaring that this was necessary in order to avoid “…serious, irreparable injury to the integrity of migrant minors at immediate risk of life, physical and moral integrity”.
The damning decisions from the ECtHR in 2019 caused some NGOs in Greece to herald the end of ‘protective custody’ for minors in police stations.
Others were more candid. NGO Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) represented two minors before the ECtHR — they succeeded and the Court ordered their child clients’ transfer from ‘protective custody’ into appropriate accommodation. But RSA noted that more minors remained detained in the same police station from which their clients were transferred. The conditions in which they were held had just been ruled unlawful, yet the minors remained detained as they did not have lawyers to ask the ECtHR to intervene.
Despite EU condemnation and interventions, ‘protective custody’ has prevailed.
New promises — but still a few days in police cells
In 2017, then Minister for Migration Policy, Yannis Mouzalas, pledged that by the end of 2017 not a single child would be kept in protective custody. However, since 2017, thousands more children have passed through Greece’s police cells and detention centres, detained in protective custody.
A year ago in November 2019, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis launched a program designed to protect unaccompanied migrant minors titled “No Child Alone” — but still the protective custody regime continued to detain children, unabated.
Earlier this week, on 18th November 2020, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum published a press release announcing that unaccompanied minors would no longer be detained in police stations. The press release noted that Greece’s practice of detaining children has gone on for almost 20 years and has been harshly and repeatedly criticised by EU institutions.
Yet a few paragraphs into the press release, it is stated that minors are expected to continue to approach the Greek police upon arrival to Greece and will be detained for around 4–5 days in police cells.
The Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, declared that as of 14th November 2020 there were no children held in protective custody, however EKKA’s public statistics published on 15th November 2020 noted there were 39 children held in protective custody.
For minors like Amin, the government’s announcement this week brings little comfort.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy
** The registration of minors by the Greek Asylum Service is unpredictable and discriminatory. For example, the Greek Asylum Service routinely refuse to register unaccompanied minors from Bangladesh, saying that instead they should call Skype — incorrect according to their owns laws and procedures since unaccompanied minors constitute a vulnerable group, irrespective of nationality and are entitled to bypass the Skype system.