Greek police routinely lock up unaccompanied children in small, overcrowded, and unhygienic cells for weeks and months, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released on Friday.
The 27-page report documents arbitrary and prolonged detention of children in violation of international and Greek law.
Children are held in unsanitary conditions, sometimes with unrelated adults, in police stations and detention centers where they have little access to basic care and services.
The report is based on interviews with 42 children who were or had been detained, as well as visits to two police stations and two detention centers in mainland Greece.
“Greece says it has to detain children for their own protection, but being locked up in cramped and filthy cells is the last thing these kids need,” said Rebecca Riddell, Europe fellow at Human Rights Watch. “We’re talking about kids who are all alone and who fled their countries, often to escape violence. Greece and the EU should do a better job giving these vulnerable children the care they need and deserve.”
Greek authorities registered more than 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and other migrant children arriving in Greece in the first seven months of 2016. While unaccompanied children should be referred to safe accommodation, Greece has a chronic shortage of space and detains children in so-called protective custody while they await space in the overburdened shelter system.
Greek law says unaccompanied children may be detained for 25 days pending transfer to a shelter, and for up to 45 days in very limited cases. Human Rights Watch found that children were often detained for longer than these already excessive periods, with an average stay of 40 days. “Javed S.,” a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan who had been in police custody for 52 days, said, “The situation is very bad…I feel alone here, far from my family, from my friends…I need to get out of this hell.” Greek police detained 161 unaccompanied children in the first six months of 2016.
Children face extremely poor conditions. In some cases, they were made to live and sleep in overcrowded, filthy, bug- and vermin-infested cells, sometimes without mattresses, and were deprived of appropriate sanitation, hygiene, and privacy. Some were held with adults even though this increases the risk of abuse and sexual violence and violates international and national laws requiring the separation of adults from children in detention.
“I swear to God, I sleep next to rats,” a 15-year-old Algerian boy detained at the Amygdaleza detention center told us. Another boy, 17-year-old “Nawaz S.” said he was detained with unrelated adults: “I could not feel safe, because the other people [in the cell] were doing drugs… When they were fighting, of course I was scared and I couldn't sleep.”
Children also face ill-treatment by police. While most of the children interviewed did not report abuse, four children said they had been slapped or humiliated by police officers.
Greece’s failure to provide accommodation for unaccompanied migrant children is a chronic problem. Greek authorities have acknowledged the issue, but done far too little to effectively address the lack of accommodation.
The problem has grown more acute after significant arrivals by sea to Greek islands – more than 160,000 people arrived in the first seven months of 2016 – and border closures to the north, which have effectively trapped asylum seekers and migrants in Greece. According to the National Center for Social Solidarity, Greece has only 800 shelter spaces for unaccompanied children. As of August 11, 2016, all facilities were full with 1,472 requests for placement pending.
The EU’s emergency relocation plan, adopted in September 2015 and intended to move 66,400 asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries, has provided little relief. As of September 2, only 49 unaccompanied children had been relocated.
Under international law, binding European directives, and national law, detention of unaccompanied children can be used only as a measure of last resort, in exceptional circumstances, and for the shortest appropriate period.
The Greek government should ensure that there are sufficient and suitable alternatives to detention and end the unjustified detention of unaccompanied children.
The European Commission should allocate earmarked emergency funding for placements for unaccompanied children in Greece. Greece and other EU member states should intensify efforts to transfer unaccompanied asylum-seeking children out of Greece, both under the EU relocation plan and through reunification with family members living in other EU countries.
“Greek authorities face real challenges because of the significant number of arrivals, but these don’t absolve Greece of its obligation to protect children who have fled violence, endured traumatic journeys, and are alone,” Riddell said. “If EU member states are serious about protecting vulnerable children, they should urgently move these children out of Greece and into member states.”