Urgent child protection gap for unaccompanied minors

Urgent child protection gap for unaccompanied minors

Zahra is a 10-year-old girl from Syria who arrived in Greece alone. She suffers from chronic nephropathy. Although she is currently living in a shelter for unaccompanied minors, her official registration by the Asylum Service is still pending.

Following the recent revocation of social security numbers (AMKA) for asylum seekers in Greece, Zahra has no access to vaccinations and medical and pharmaceutical care. As a result, she cannot present a personal health record and attend school.

There are currently another 4,200 children like Zahra in Greece. Arrivals of unaccompanied minors have peaked during the summer, while lone refugee children outside official protection have reached the highest number since the beginning of 2016.

There are only 1,169 available spots in long-term accommodation structures and 3,041 unaccompanied minors are in detention, camps and “safe zones” that have proven to be nothing but safe.

More than 1,100 children are currently homeless, living in the streets with no access to protection and care services. They are exposed to all sorts of threats: physical and sexual violence, child abuse, organ trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The recent increase in arrivals, over-population at the islands and a record number of children outside the official care system, raise serious issues of child protection, public health and social cohesion. There is an urgent need for immediate planning and implementation of a child protection policy.

More specifically:

Delays in registering minors and processing their applications by the Asylum Service prolong children’s exposure to unsafe environments, increasing child trafficking, sexual exploitation and child labor.

Access to all levels of education, irrespective of children’s legal status, is a basic obligation as per the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, long-term absence of schooling leads to marginalization and increased crime rates. The recent revocation of social security numbers for refugees inevitably leads to an inability to receive vaccinations and prevents school registration.

According to the latest UNHCR report more than 75 percent of the 4,656 children living in camps on the islands are not integrated in the official education system.

The physical and mental health of unaccompanied minors can only be addressed via a holistic long-term child protection system. The traumatic experiences they have gone through – loss of home and loved ones, war and abuse during their journey – as well as the physical and psychological exhaustion, create a stressful situation, often leading to severe psychopathology.

Medical needs including acute mental health cases, chronic disorders that call for regular observation and medication and basic immunizations are currently not covered. Without a social security number, access to the National Health System (ESY) is impossible.

Limited access to health services raises public health concerns for the children themselves, but also for the general population with a risk of emerging contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, scabies, viral hepatitis, etc.

Access to employment is also currently impossible without a social security number, halting the social inclusion of youth reaching adulthood.

Through our work at The Home Project, we are witnessing the urgent need for a holistic network of child protection services. Providing children with all necessary tools enabling them to develop into active citizens in our country – should they be granted asylum – or in another European country where they reunify with their family is the only way to achieve social inclusion.

Tapping into financial tools, such as the Asylum Migration Integration Fund (AMIF), via the creation of innovative partnerships between the private and public sector is the only way to ensure adequate protection and care.

Cooperation of all relevant stakeholders – public institutions, local authorities, civil society, academic institutions, private sector, media and private individuals – is key in dealing with this issue that if left unaddressed will have serious consequences affecting social cohesion and the quality of life of everyone on a national and European level.

Sofia Kouvelaki is chief executive of The Home Project. The name of the child has been changed for protection purposes.

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