Thousands of children journey into the unknown

As the people carrier parks at the port of Mytilene on Lesvos in the eastern Aegean, the passengers crack open the curtain to get a glimpse of the docked ferry boat. Eight teenage boys peer through the glass. After 70 days spent in detention at the Identification Center of the Greek Police, these young Afghans are being transferred to a hostel in Athens. Some carry their scant belongings in plastic bags; none have laces in their shoes – removed by the police for the inmates’ safety. All abandoned hearth and home to make the journey to Greece – alone.

At the port they are met by a man who used to be just like them.

“You leave your homeland to escape death,” says Aziz Moysaee, who crossed to Lesvos from Turkey almost a decade ago, rowing an inflatable raft together with another three underage migrants. He was 14 at the time. Now he works as an interpreter for Metadrasi, a nongovernmental organization that works closely with the UNHCR in immigration management.

The mission of the Metadrasi team on this day is to get the eight young Afghans safely to Athens. It is no easy feat.

“We are not police. We are taking you to suitable accommodation where you will be safe,” Evelina Kallimani tells the Afghans, aged 14-17, through Moysaee. She asks them to hand over their cell phones until the end of the trip, concerned that one of them may try to contact the traffickers that brought them to Greece after three separate incidents during previous missions when strangers approached Metadrasi’s wards. One man claimed to be the uncle of a 5-year-old boy, who did not appear to recognize him. The team had to call the coast guard for help.

Occasionally, the transfer teams hire a private security guard to ensure protection from at least one of the many dangers these children face when arriving in a country that until recently kept no formal records of unaccompanied minors. Yet despite recent legislation to offer some security for them, youngsters still disappear without a trace. In the period between 2012 and 2013 alone, what records are kept suggest that 216 underage migrants disappeared from the system.

No data

For two decades, the only official data the Greek state had concerning unaccompanied minors was that garnered from asylum applications. However this number is smaller that the real figure as most migrants avoid applying for refugee status in Greece over fears that they will become trapped here and unable to move on to other parts of Europe. Indicatively, in 2012 fewer than 80 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Greece, while the figure for the European Union as a whole came to more than 12,000.

“We need to get these kids to forget what they’ve been told by their traffickers and relatives, to show them that there is a future in Greece,” explains Lora Pappa, the vice president of Metadrasi.

Metadrasi began organizing supervised transfers to special facilities in 2011 in order to address this ever-growing gap. It trained 32 social workers in different parts of Greece and has so far successfully overseen the transfer of 1,400 minors.

The NGO is bankrolled by the European Refugee Fund but if often experiences delays in disbursements from the Labor Ministry.

“The aim from October 2013 to June 2014 was to accompany 200 children and we managed 458 without having received the allocated funding. Members of the board of directors paid for the transport costs out of their own pockets,” says Lydia Bisara, transfer coordinator at Metadrasi.

In one of these transfers last April, Metadrasi had to get 100 children to three different parts of the country.

“It was what I call a grand transfer,” says Bisara. “It was tough and we kept being told that the kids were going to lash out and try to escape.” That group of children was rescued from a ship found ungoverned off the coast of Crete. Their transfer was a success.

Bisara shows me two videos on her phone of the kids singing and dancing inside the bus. A few months after being placed in the hostels, all 100 children returned home with the help of diplomatic channels.

When Metadrasi stopped organizing transfers in the summer after running out of money, the Greek Police took over, with members of the organization saying that there was at least one case where handcuffs were used on the children. Metadrasi has filed a complaint with the Greek Ombudsman’s office, which is conducting an investigation.

In 2013, the then recently established and state-run First Reception Service recorded 858 entries by unaccompanied minors.

“This year, and in September and October especially, we have seen a very high inflow,” says Christos Dimopoulos, head of the National Center for Social Solidarity, which helps find accommodation for unaccompanied minors. “The number of children from Syria has increased a lot, and we also had kids from Gaza and quite a few from northern Iraq after the invasion by the Islamic State.”

A boat that got into trouble recently off the coast of Crete carrying more than 500 migrants also had 26 unaccompanied children aboard.

The police chief of Lesvos, Panayiotis Samaras, tells Kathimerini that unaccompanied minors started arriving on the island in the mid-1990s.

“We find them everywhere, from the small islets dotted around the archipelago, to in the sea itself,” he says.

Until recently, there was no way for authorities to verify how old the youngsters were as a procedure for determining age was not put in place until last year. Before then, a doctor without any expertise in the field or untrained personnel would hazard a guess, or the authorities would accept whatever the migrants said. Minors were frequently recorded as adults and vice versa.

Today, specially trained teams are assigned the task of determining whether adults purporting to be related to minors in groups of undocumented migrants are telling the truth. DNA testing kits are still not available to these teams, who instead examine the behavior of the child toward the adult claiming kinship.

A single wrong look can be suspicious.

“We discovered a Syrian man with a forged passport for a 13 year-old girl he claimed was his daughter. His aim was to get the girl to Bulgaria where he had arranged a marriage for her to an adult,” says Panayiotis Nikas, head of the First Reception Service.

The journey

During the overnight journey from Mytilene to Piraeus, the eight Afghan children pass the time by drawing and engaging in other creative activities. When they need the restroom, they are accompanied by a member of the Metadrasi team – there was an incident when a trafficker had hidden clothes in the toilet stalls and ordered the children he had brought into the country to change their appearance and escape.

One of the chaperones warns the children: “Athens is a very big city. There are many dangers. I’m sure you’ve heard of other cities like Patra and Igoumenitsa, but even if you do manage to reach them your problems will not be over.” She is telling them not to join hundreds of other undocumented migrants who try to sneak onto ships to Italy from Greece’s western ports, often at risk of death. She is also trying to prevent them from getting in with the wrong crowd in Athens.

According to the UNHCR, from September 2007 to February 2008, Greek child services had taken in at least 22 Somali minors (aged 13-16) who had been arrested for drug dealing in downtown Omonia.

The children don’t want to tell their stories when we ask them how they came to Greece.

“They’re not ready,” says Moysaee.

The 24-year-old who today helps other children had no relatives to help him when he made the journey to Greece some 10 years ago. When he arrived at Lesvos he spent 10 days in a police holding cell and another three months in the area of Panaghi, in a warehouse that had been transformed into a migrant detention center.

“The conditions were awful. There was one toilet for 250 people. I didn’t even have a bed,” Moysaee recalls.

The Panaghi facility was shut down in 2009.

In September 2013, the Greek Police’s Identification Center was opened at an unused military base in Moria. The 86 underage migrants currently being held there have at least been separated from the adult population and have free access to an outdoor area. But conditions are a long way from ideal, with NGOs arguing that the facility is nothing short of a prison and not much better than the contentious migrant detention center in Amygdaleza, north of Athens – where unaccompanied minors are also kept.

“Of course holding a child at Amygdaleza is abhorrent. But what can the police do? Open the gates and let the children out? The reality and the number of problems that have accumulated due to years of inaction are such that we often have to choose the lesser of two evils,” says Nikas.

At the hostel

By midmorning the eight Afghan children have arrived at their hostel, called Mellon (Future), a former hotel in a southern Athenian suburb.

“When they get here, they’re tired and confused. They need a few days to rest and get their heads together,” says Kyriaki Triperina, supervisor of the unaccompanied minors at the hostel.

Here they will receive psychological and legal support, and will also take classes in Greek and English. This hostel is reserved for minors planning to apply for asylum as it is funded by EEA Grants (from Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein). They have 49 days to submit their applications. If they don’t they are transferred to a different hostel. If they do, they spend a period of induction and are enrolled at one of the inter-cultural schools in Athens.

The problem however is that 2,270 applications for accommodation have been made for minors since the start of the year and the country has just 313 available beds. Of those 2,000-plus, 400 have not even made it to the Labor Ministry’s EKKA service that is responsible for placing minors in special hostels. The service is understaffed.

The average length of a minor’s stay at one of these facilities is 60 days. By then they have either been reunited with their families back home or run away to make their way to another part of Europe.

“They can’t lock the children up,” says Dimopoulos. “These are open facilities hosting mostly teenagers around 16 years old.”

‘Unaccounted flights’

In a report on the accommodation process, EKKA describes the incident of a minor dropping off the radar as an “unaccounted flight,” saying it creates a huge problem in trying to keep track of the youngsters. Sometimes the children will call the hostel when they arrive in another country somewhere in Europe, though most never make any contact.

Even though Moysaee came to Greece at a time when just one accommodation facility existed, in a pilot phase in Anogeia, Crete, and there were fewer prospects for children like him, he decided to stay.

“I was exhausted from the journey and all my ordeals,” he says. Before coming to Greece at the age of 14, he earned a living breaking rocks in Iran.

At the Anogeia facility he learned Greek and started to paint. He has since exhibited his work on Crete and in Athens. He also works quite a lot with Metadrasi as an interpreter during transfer missions.

“No one did this when I came here,” says Moysaee.

Nadir Nouri helps at the Mellon facility when they need an interpreter.

“I feel for the children and I understand them because I have been through the same,” Nouri says.

He left Afghanistan for Iran when he was 13 to avoid fighting between rival clans.

“Whoever was in power would recruit children when they turned 15 to fight the enemy,” Nouri says. “Two people in my family had died this way.”

Nouri fled with the consent of his family. Other children are abandoned by their families at some point on the journey to Europe.

“Children are an additional burden on the way to northern Europe, so they are left here [in Greece],” says Bisara.

After three failed attempts, Nouri finally made it to Greece. He says that many unaccompanied minors will choose to move on despite the security provided by the hostels.

“When they come here they see things differently and become lost,” he says. “They are not ready to stand on their own two feet and take the time to discover the country. They took the risk once and will take it again.”