Refugee children outside their tent in an olive grove next to the Moria camp on Lesbos island | Photo: EPA/Dimitris Tosidis
Refugee children outside their tent in an olive grove next to the Moria camp on Lesbos island | Photo: EPA/Dimitris Tosidis

The European Union’s smallest state, Luxembourg, is the first EU member state to deliver on its promise to transfer unaccompanied migrant children from overcrowded camps in Greece. Germany is expected to follow suit on Saturday.

On Wednesday, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, speaking on German radio Deutschlandfunk, said that his country was making "a small start" by transferring 12 unaccompanied migrant children from Greece. The children are due to arrive within the day.

"It is a tiny bit of solidarity that we are showing Greece and the children themselves," he said. "We are sending the signal out that this is the beginning," Asselborn added.

A further 50 children are to be flown to Germany on Saturday. Last month, eight EU member states had agreed to take in a total of 1,600 children in light of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Is it enough?

When asked whether Luxembourg and Germany's initial flights, encompassing 62 children in all was really enough, Asselborn repeated that his country was "demonstrating what was possible even in the times of the coronavirus." Asselborn said the children had all been tested in Greece and would start their stay in Luxembourg with 14 days of quarantine.

Asselborn added that his country had worked hard with the Greek government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in order to make this happen. He said that in his opinion no EU country had a reason to look away from the plight of children like these on the Greek islands and that he "wasn’t too pessimistic" about more countries following his lead and joining in the program.Refugee children on the island of Chios, Greece | Photo: Getty Images/L.GouliamakiEU solutions

According to the latest data from UNHCR, there are 39,200 refugees and asylum seekers residing on the Greek islands. Around 49% of them are from Afghanistan, 19% from Syria and 6% from Somalia. Children account for 33% of the total migrant population. About 13% of these are unaccompanied minors, mostly from Afghanistan.

In Asselborn's opinion, countries like Italy, Greece and Malta should not be left alone to deal with the crisis. The resettlement program needs to be stepped up, so that "those who qualify for protection are shared out across EU states and those who do not qualify can be sent back to their countries of origin."

For that to happen, more "political will" is needed, Asselborn said. Countries and politicians need to "start recognizing that the people [on the islands and in Libya] are people and they have a right to live in dignity too."

'#freethekids'

The promised transfer of 1,600 children which was announced in March should go ahead as soon as possible think human rights groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW have been complaining about the treatment of unaccompanied minors in Greece for some time. On April 14 they started a campaign, "#freethekids."

In a press release, HRW stated that "keeping children locked up in filthy police cells was always wrong, but now it also exposes them to the risk of COVID-19 infection." It said that Greece had been "locking up unaccompanied minors for years" and said it was an abuse of their human rights.

"The Greek governmeng has a duty to end this abusive practice and make sure these vulnerable kids get the care and protection they need," Cosse told AFP. According to Greek government data made available by HRW, there are over 330 children in police custody "awaiting transfer to a shelter," this figure increased from 180 in January.

Refugee camps on the Greek islands, like this one on Lesbos, are filled far over capacity | Photo: DW/D. Tosidis Detaining children: Abuse of human rights

According to HRW, the Greek government has called this practice "a temporary measure" in the child's best interests. Unfortunately, Greece is suffering from a shortage of adequate accommodation for unaccompanied minors and so many end up staying in detention for much longer than necessary. "Detention has serious long term impact on children's development and mental health, including higher levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress."

In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights "ruled twice against Greece's abusive practice of detaining unaccompanied children," continued the HRW statement.

A Greek youth support group called Arsis told AFP that they have been "giving psychological assistance by telephone to a 10-year-old Syrian boy who had spent 44 days in a police cell," after being detained at the Greek-Albanian border, in the hope of joining family in Germany.

It is unclear when the remaining 1,538 children might be transferred to the eight EU countries which have so far pledged to receive them. The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs has said several time that countries are doing their best in difficult circumstances, referring to the travel and quarantine restrictions imposed Europe-wide to fight the COVID-19 virus.

 

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