Hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island of Lesbos are living in conditions that pose severe risks to their physical and mental well-being, Human Rights Watch said in a new report. The Greek government announced plans to resettle children on the mainland, but aid organizations on Lesbos see little improvement so far.
Unaccompanied minors on the Greek island of Lesbos are being exposed to degrading conditions and often left to "fend for themselves," according to a report this week from Human Rights Watch.
The research draws on anonymized interviews with 22 children from October this year, some as young as 14, living on Lesbos. Severe overcrowding in Moria, the island's main camp, has led to a lack of age-appropriate accommodation for children traveling alone or separated from family. The majority of the children spoken to for the report were living either in areas alongside unrelated adults, or in a large informal area that has sprung up outside the camp.
The report calls for an urgent response to the dangerous and unsanitary conditions the children are living in. One 16-year-old interviewee reported sleeping on a cardboard carton on the floor.
Sharing tents with adult strangers
Lesbos, alongside other Greek island "hotspots" on Samos and Chios, has experienced the biggest increase of boat arrivals since 2016, when the EU-Turkey Deal was introduced in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees to the continent.
With over 18,000 people now in a camp with capacity for little over 2,000, thousands -- including those with complex health needs, pregnant women, and young children -- are sleeping in tents on the rough, sloping ground of an olive grove. The area is often referred to as the "jungle" by those living there.
There are currently 968 unaccompanied and separated children on Lesbos, according to the latest UN figures. With only 147 spots for age-appropriate accommodation outside the camp, and 210 spaces inside Moria, hundreds are being left vulnerable and exposed to insecure, and sometimes violent, conditions.
Interviewees in the Human Rights Watch report described having to share tents with adult strangers, or on the ground without shelter -- some for as long as three months.
One 16-year-old interviewee from Afghanistan said in the report that he couldn’t sleep while in the large main tent in Moria camp, intended for new arrivals. "There is no control who will come and sleep in there," he said. "The most difficult [thing] is that there's no light in the tent at night because the lamps are broken. It's terrifying because you don't know who or what is moving inside the tent."
"Everything is dangerous here -- the cold, the place I sleep, the fights," said one 14-year-old interviewee, who stated they lived in a rat-infested tent with 50 other people.
Not enough shelters available
There has always been a fragmented child protection system for unaccompanied minors on the island, Elina Sarantou from legal service provider HIAS on Lesbos, pointed out. Problems have included lack of information, an inefficient guardianship system, poor quality asylum interviews and delays, and inhumane reception conditions.
"The numbers however have now increased and it is therefore difficult, or even impossible, to ignore anymore," said Sarantou, adding that the current situation is directly related to shelter.
"In order for a minor to be transferred, a space has to open up on the mainland," Sarantou told InfoMigrants. "And since there are only shelters for a quarter of the minors in Greece, there is an obvious bottleneck."
In November the Greek government announced plans to respond to the severe overcrowding of hotspot areas such as Lesbos on the Greek islands. Plans include moving 20,000 people to the mainland early next year, and shutting camps on Lesbos, Chios and Samos - replacing them with 'closed' facilities that human rights advocates have feared will constitute detention centers. While transfers from the islands to the mainland have increased in recent months, high numbers of boat arrivals have also continued.
Relocation to the mainland
At the end of last month the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also announced No Child Alone, a new scheme to respond to the situation of unaccompanied minors on the islands -- promising to quickly settle thousands of children on the mainland. HIAS however say they have seen little implementation on Lesbos so far.
At the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) pediatric clinic outside Moria, mental health activity manager Angela Modarelli says, since October, they have started to see unaccompanied minors accessing psychological support "because the situation is getting worse and worse."
"They are in an unknown place, an unknown world - not speaking the language - without any support," said Modarelli, adding they are treated like adults even though they are children. "Every night when it becomes dark, they have to find a way to keep themselves safe.''
"Mostly when they arrive to see us it's already a crisis moment," said Modarelli. She has seen cases of self-harm, depression, suicidal ideation and plans, sometimes attempts. "And we had kids of 16 and 17 having a plan to end their life. Because... this is too much. They don’t see that they are welcome here."
Most of the unaccompanied minors interviewed in the recent Human Rights Watch report also reported experiencing psychological distress.
Although long term solutions are urgently needed now, Afshan Khan, UNICEF special coordinator for the migrant response in Europe, told InfoMigrants, Greece could not be expected to provide this support alone.
"UNICEF is once again urging European Governments to increase pledges to relocate unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant children, fast-track family reunifications for those who already have relatives in Europe and increase funds supporting response efforts," said Khan.
"Unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable people on the Greek islands, and they need Greece and other European countries to take care of them," said Cossé in the Human Rights Watch report. "The EU and its member states should demonstrate responsibility and care for kids who suffer there every day."