Teenage migrants at a facility for unaccompanied minors in Paiania, east Attica.
The two siblings from Afghanistan arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport early in the morning. Even though they had been waiting for this moment for three years, they were scared. In the weeks prior to their departure, they had frequently asked the social workers at the shelter where they were staying in Athens if perhaps they should stay in Greece instead, which, after countless difficulties, they had finally adjusted to. They were going to school and they had made friends.
The shelter staff knew that this was a completely expected reaction on the part of the children. In the Netherlands, however, they would be reunified with family, their aunt. They would have a real chance at a better life. So the staff tried to reassure them. “You will make friends there as well, you will continue going to school, everything will be OK,” they told them. No one could have imagined how things would turn out.
At the airport, the police who received them accompanied them to a camp. The siblings knew that they might have to stay there for a day for formalities. However, when they arrived, those in charge separated them.
The girl, the officials told them, was already 18 years old. Therefore, she would have to go through a different process, and until then she would have to stay alone at the camp. The boy went to their aunt, but he was also terrified. At every opportunity, he phoned the shelter in Athens and, crying, asked for their help to be reunited with his sister.
Today, both of them are in danger of being deported back to Afghanistan. Their story is not an isolated incident – at least four other children have faced the same treatment in the last year (in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway) – posing grave child protection issues. But let’s start from the beginning.
The two siblings arrived on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos on February 27, 2016. They were completely exhausted but relieved: After all, the first and most dangerous part of the journey, across the sea from the Turkish coast, was over.
The girl was 16 years old and the boy was 15, and it was the first time they had traveled far from their home. They had left two younger siblings and their mother back in Afghanistan. Their father had gone missing and the family had become a target. The locals had tried to recruit the boy into a paramilitary organization and to marry the daughter to one of the village’s powerful elders. The mother had refused, but she knew she didn’t have much room to maneuver.
When they started threatening her openly, the mother gathered as much money as possible and announced to her children that they had to leave. In the Netherlands, they would join her sister who had happily agreed to raise them. They would go to school there and she dreamed that both of them would study, but most importantly, they would be out of danger. As she said goodbye, she gave them her blessing. She told them to be strong and watch out for each other.
For months in Greece, they moved around various shelters. They didn’t talk to anyone nor did anyone try to talk to them or help them. At every change, they were terrified of what would become of them. Would they end up on the street? Would they be separated? Would they be sent back to Afghanistan? Luckily, after eight months, they were transferred to a shelter run by The Home Project, an NGO for unaccompanied children.
The social workers at the shelter did not know anything about them, but they saw two children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: They would wake up at night from nightmares, they were introverted and had difficulty in communicating.
It took time and work for them to tell their story – at least some parts (in order to protect their children, parents often don’t talk about the possible dangers). Day by day, they began to adjust.
They eventually started to like going to school, participated in all the activities at the shelter and, with their final destination in mind, the girl requested and began Dutch language lessons.
As time passed, however, the people at the shelter grew worried: Soon, the girl would be 18 and, even though the necessary documents had been sent to the Netherlands, the reunification process was being delayed.
Some feared that maybe this was deliberate (once they became adults, they would no longer be considered “vulnerable” and the process would become even more difficult). But when the official invitation and the tickets came, even though the girl had already had her 18th birthday, everyone was relieved. In their experience, nothing could go wrong now. Yet even though the girl arrived in the Netherlands by invitation, she has remained in the camp for 13 months now.
Another four youngsters are in a similar situation with respect to the 18-year cutoff. Although they meet the necessary conditions for family reunification in Northern European countries, the process is slow, with the youngsters remaining in camps and with an uncertain future.
In the case of the Afghan girl, her asylum application has been rejected twice already. Each day, she awaits the court hearing for her third asylum application. She is exhausted and scared. She knows that if her application is rejected again, she – as well as her brother, who is going to school in the Netherlands – faces the danger of being deported back to Afghanistan.
And although the siblings may look forward to being together again, they know deportation to Afghanistan means not only a violent return to a life which they risked everything to escape from, but also certain danger to their own lives, because having sought safety abroad automatically makes them “traitors.”