By Sofia Kouvelakis / Program Officer at Bodossaki Foundation
Ali is eight years old. He started his trip together with his family from Afghanistan on the route to Europe. The family crossed the border with Iran but there the young boy was separated from his parents and had to continue the dangerous journey alone.
Ali is one of the superheroes of this refugee crisis. He is one of thousands of children travelling alone amidst the biggest demographic change since the Second World War.
With the help of Greek NGO staff Ali managed to reunite with his mother last September. Sadly this is not the case for the majority of children.
Unaccompanied minors constitute the most vulnerable group of migrants and refugees. The reasons these children travel alone vary. Many have lost their parents during the journey; others are sent away in order to escape war, poverty or persecution. They are all in search of a better future.
They are undertaking epic journeys that would intimidate even the strongest adult. Travelling alone and unprotected they are exposed to all sorts of dangers from child abuse to sexual exploitation and organ trafficking.
What awaits them on the other side of this journey are closed borders in Greece where there is a chronic lack of social welfare facilities and services to accommodate them and provide to them the necessary protection and safety framework.
Over 1,015,000 refugees and migrants have reached reached Greece since the beginning of 2015. 4,861 people have lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015. The term ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ crisis cannot begin to explain the complexity of this phenomenon.
40% of refugee arrivals are children. Of those – we don’t know exactly how many and this is part of the problem- thousands were children who travelled and arrived in Europe all alone. The scale of the exodus in which these children are moving is momentous.
90,000 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the European Union in 2015, 13 percent of them are children younger than 14 years old. The majority of these children are fleeing war, conflict and religious extremism. All of them have either witnessed or experienced violence themselves.
According to Brian Donald, Europol’s Chief of Staff 10,000 unaccompanied children who have entered Europe are now missing. Many are feared to have fallen into the hands of organized trafficking syndicates.
Authorities registered 2,248 unaccompanied minors in Greece in 2015. More than 18,100 children travelling alone were reported to have crossed the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from June to December 2015. Given the fact the 90% of refugee inflows come through Greece the difference in numbers shows that many of these children became “invisible” during their journey.
Despite the decrease in refugee arrivals after the EU Turkey agreement the number of lone children arriving has increased.
In the first four months of 2016, 1,530 unaccompanied children have entered Greece. This is 4 times more than the corresponding period a year ago.
After the recent closing of the borders children are now trapped in Greece. All the accommodation units are in full capacity and can’t cover the needs that exist.
As a result 420 unaccompanied refugee children are without a shelter and in urgent need of protection and support. They are spread all over the country in Piraeus port, in transit camps, in the hotspots, in police stations, experiencing detention and atrocious living conditions. Some of them have already fallen victims to sex trafficking in the center of Athens. The need to provide them with a safe and appropriate home is now more urgent than ever.
I met Ali together with another 100 lonely children at the First Reception Center on the Greek island of Lesvos during one of the many field trips I have conducted for project monitoring and evaluation purposes.
During their stay at the centre the children have to live under police supervision. They must eat and sleep in the very confined space of white containers. Fences surround them and they are not permitted to leave.
Our team has visited the main national refugee entry points regularly. After conducting multiple needs assessments on the ground, mapping and monitoring all the relevant NGO activities, talking directly with the children involved and engaging in an ongoing dialogue with the NGO staff working with them we found an alarming gap in terms of protection and support for unaccompanied minors.
We then realized that, as a foundation, we needed to take immediate and effective action in order to find the most efficient solutions and provide support for these children in cooperation with the strongest and most effective NGOs working at the refugee entry points of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Orestiada, the exit point of Idomeni and now in Athens where needs are surging.
In order to support children arriving in Greece alone, we have set up the first Giving for Greece Thematic Fund for the support and protection of Unaccompanied Refugee Children.
Our goal is to attract donations from all around the world. We will channel resources gathered to a complementary network of services covering critical needs such as shelter, food, material and medical provision, psychosocial support, provision of guardianship, legal support and escorting of children to accommodation units.
Our expertise and our monitoring and evaluation mechanisms can ensure transparency, an efficient allocation of resources and the avoidance of overlapping activities.
The idea is to create a comprehensive system of protection and support starting from the moment a child enters Greece until he/she finds a permanent and safe home.
We have designed this program in a way that directly responds to the issues on the ground in order to be able to cover the constantly changing needs.
The Bodossaki Foundation’s Unaccompanied Refugee Children Support Fund gives voice to children like Ali. We hope to make their stories known and gather the resources needed to be able to provide them with basic welfare services, support and protection. In so doing, we will help to ensure their current and long-term safety and well-being.
You can now all become part of their support system via Giving for Greece. Even the smallest help can make a big difference to these children’s lives.
Help us to help these children become children again.