A migrant child wearing a protective face mark looks on during his arrival at the port of Piraeus near Athens, Greece, 04 May 2020 | Photo: EPA/KOSTAS TSIRONIS
A migrant child wearing a protective face mark looks on during his arrival at the port of Piraeus near Athens, Greece, 04 May 2020 | Photo: EPA/KOSTAS TSIRONIS

Human rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Greek authorities to release 276 unaccompanied migrant children who are being detained in police cells and detention centers and transfer them to alternative accommodation to protect them from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a letter written to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, HRW said that releasing the children "is all the more urgent amid the Covid-19 pandemic."

"The prime minister should act on his pledge to protect unaccompanied children and make sure that hundreds of vulnerable children are freed from dirty, crowded cells, sometimes alongside adults, where they are exposed to the risks of Covid-19 infection," said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at HRW.

"There is no excuse for failing to give these children the care and protection they need," she added. 

According to the National Center for Social Solidarity, a government body, as of April 30, 2020, an estimated 276 children were in police custody awaiting transfer to a shelter. That is 19 more children behind bars than when Mitsotakis announced, in November 2019, the No Child Alone plan to protect unaccompanied children. 

'Aribitrary and prolonged detention' 

In a statement via their website, US-based non-profit HRW added: "Our research has documented the arbitrary and prolonged detention of unaccompanied migrant children in police cells and other detention centers, in violation of international and Greek law. Under Greek law, unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, but Greece has a chronic shortage of space in suitable facilities." 

According to Greek law, unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, but the country faces a chronic shortage of space in suitable facilities due to the sheer volume of people. 

According to the latest government data, since April 30, only 1,477 out of the 5,099 unaccompanied children in Greece were housed in suitable, long-term facilities. The rest are left to fend for themselves in overcrowded island camps in the North East Aegean, or on the streets or are confined in police cells and detention centers on Greece's mainland. 

Overcowding still a major issue 

Overcrowding is still a huge problem as Greece continues to struggle with the weight of the ongoing migrant crisis, coupled with the complications brought about with restrictions of movement due to Covid-19. 

HRW, along with several other NGOs, recently stated that the Greek authorities have simply not done enough to address the dangerous overcrowding and lack of health care, access to basic human needs such as adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in camps. 

Despite a dip in arrivals of migrants arriving on boats on the North East Aegean islands from Turkey in recent weeks, the number of asylum seekers in Greece is still significant, totaling 120,000 according to the latest data released by the UNHCR. 

Of that total, 39,700 are on the islands, with 80,300 on the mainland in various locations stretching from Athens to the northern land border at Evros. 

While the government's program of transferring migrants from the islands to alternative accommodation on the Greek mainland remains painfully slowly, with only a few hundre of so-called "vulnerable" groups being moved weekly rather than in their thousands, more arrivals by sea continue.
 

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