Hungry, homeless, exploited. How does Europe protect the most vulnerable children?
Musa* arrived in Greece alone. He was 16. After fleeing Afghanistan on foot, he crossed the Evros River, which runs along the border between Greece and Turkey. His first encounter in Greece was with the police.
Thousands of unaccompanied children, like Musa, travel to and across Europe, through mountainous terrain and across dangerous seas in flimsy boats. They hope to reach countries where they a have chance of finding safety and asylum, and to be reunited with lost family. Musa has an older brother living in Germany.
Musa had been in Greece only hours when the police arrested him and locked him in a cell with adults. They confiscated all of his belongings including the small amount of money he had and his identity documents. The police refused to help him request asylum. After being locked up for a week, Musa was released onto the streets, alone.
He hid on a train to Athens. For several weeks he slept in parks. “I was not safe, people were carrying knives, selling drugs and people stole my phone. Older men would come and ask me to do bad things to them for money.”
Eventually Musa moved into an overcrowded squat with hundreds of strangers. He shared a bedbug infested room with 16 other young boys. “The rooms are cold and often we don’t have electricity. There is one toilet for 200 people.”
Musa had been in Greece for five months by the time he found us. We’re a small team of lawyers, interpreters and support workers. We work out of a tiny room in an office near Larissa station, the central train station of Athens. There are three of us who work full-time, two part-time and intermittent experienced volunteer lawyers. We’re called Refugee Legal Support. We provide free legal advice and support to people claiming asylum in Greece and people who wish to be reunited with their family members in other European countries.
Musa’s rights are enshrined within the so-called Dublin III procedure: when member states are deciding where in the European Union an unaccompanied minor will live, the best interests of the child must take priority.
We worked together on Musa’s asylum application and request for family reunification in Germany. Musa’s social worker wrote a 40-page best interest assessment documenting the dangerous living conditions he faced living alone in Greece, conditions recognised earlier this year by the European Court of Human Rights.
Meanwhile Musa’s young life is on hold in Greece. “The situation is so bad,” he said. “I went to register for school here, but the schools won’t let me join. I have no rights. No right to housing, family, health or education. It feels like I don’t have a right to life.”
Best interests of the child?
Musa’s claim was strong, but Germany rejected it. Why?
Something got lost in translation. The Greek authorities had submitted a witness statement, in Farsi. The German authorities had it translated into English. In Farsi one crucial sentence read: “Musa does not live with family.” In English, the sentence became: “Musa lives with family in Athens.”
We appealed the decision, submitted the correct translation, supported by three statements from organisations that helped Musa, explaining the difficulties of his life as a homeless child in Athens. It was a very strong claim.
“In Iran, after fleeing Afghanistan. I realised there is no legal way for me to go directly to Germany,” Musa said. “The only legal way for me to join my brother is to come to Greece and apply for family reunification. Because I’m sick I can’t go illegally with smugglers. It’s too hard, passing through mountains walking, being hungry and not being offered food.”
It’s my job to tell Musa about the result of his appeal. We sit together in a small room at a youth centre RLS is closely partnered with. From the window there is a beautiful view of Lycabettus Hill, the sun shines through the clouds. The smell of chickpea biryani, an absolute favourite of the young people in the centre, wafts through the door. The room is cluttered with board games, language books and a projector. They give us the space to hold legal clinics for two hours a week.
Musa’s been in Greece for 11 months. I tell him the German authorities have denied his application again.
“How can they do this?” asks Musa, his head in his hands. I tell him they’ve said “the transfer would be too stressful” for him and therefore they argue it is not in his best interests to be reunited with his brother. The colour drains from Musa’s face, he stares at the floor.
In the room next door, music plays, the young people sing along with enthusiasm, out of tune, they laugh.
Musa raises his head, wide eyes full of tears: “I can’t take so much rejection, I feel like nothing. I am unwanted and I don’t matter.”
I tell Musa that Germany’s refusal is unlawful. We can challenge it. We will appeal. I ask him to be strong while we wait for Germany’s response. It feels surreal and wrong to be asking so much of a homeless unaccompanied 16-year-old.
Musa stands up, slaps his cheeks bringing the colour back, flips his hair to one side, takes a deep breath and with his shoulders back, goes off to join his friends playing ping-pong.
Musa did everything he should have done. He made his application within three months of applying for asylum in Greece. He provided evidence of family links, and multiple expert opinions that it was in his best interest to be living with his brother rather than in unsafe conditions and surviving alone in Athens. Yet 11 months on he is still in Greece, reeling from his second rejection.
In 2018 Greece made 4,619 requests for family reunification under the special provisions for unaccompanied minors, close family members and vulnerable people. It’s not unusual for other member states to slow and frustrate the process, by misapplying the law, misreading applications, demanding further documentation that is not required by law or demanding documents that are already in their possession.
Is this done deliberately, to free member states from their legal obligations? Lawyers believe it is. They speak of “exhaustion tactics”, intended to exhaust and confuse applicants.
And so, states abandon vulnerable children to perilous conditions in Greece. Unaccompanied minors 16 and over are denied housing, denied cash assistance, denied an education, denied their legal documents for months on end, unable to access medical treatment, are easy prey to abusers. In parks and hostels around Athens, states’ neglect has produced a market in children’s bodies.
A decision for Ali*
A few days after telling Musa the bad news, I meet with Ali in the Refugee Legal Support office. Ali is 16. “I ran here,” he says panting, his face flushed. “I have an hour for lunch in between my English classes so I have time if I run.”
Ali teaches English in a community centre in Athens. They are lucky to have him. He’s enthusiastic and bright.
He sits and gulps down a glass of water. I tell him that Germany has rejected his case. Ali frowns. “But that doesn’t make sense. We gave them everything they need. DNA, social worker reports, really everything. I thought they had another few weeks to decide … why reject so quickly when the evidence they need to accept is with them now?”
That’s a good question.
By law Germany has 60 days to decide. But instead of utilizing the full time permitted by law, allowing them to appropriately consider the best interest of the child, they decided Ali’s case almost immediately. Such a quick response is almost unprecedented.
The reason for the rejection?
“Insufficient evidence” to prove his relationship with his sister, they claimed. But the case worker had been informed that DNA evidence which certified Ali’s relationship with his sister would be with them within hours.
Ali can appeal. Germany will be bound by law to accept. But the German authorities’ speedy decision leaves Ali struggling to survive in Greece for many more months, without any family support, his young life on hold.
“They know the situation I am living in,” Ali says. “I must fight for my food. How can Germany ignore how bad it is for us? This all feels like a nightmare for me. I have scary dreams. I just want to cry. I don’t have any hope because I’m so scared that I will have to stay in Greece. Not knowing makes a lot of changes to my daily life. A lot of my friends have already left Greece. I was playing in a football team with six people. All of them have now gone. I am the last one here.”
Musa and Ali are the lucky ones. Countless children have no access to lawyers to help them challenge unlawful decisions. They must fend for themselves; some will certainly risk their lives and take underground routes out of Greece.
Ali had found us, and put his faith in the law. “It was a big hope for me that I would safely go to my sister without the police chasing me, crossing many borders and hiding in forests. I know the illegal ways are dangerous. People died on that way.” he says.
“I now know that going by foot from Greece to Germany could have been quicker. Maybe it would have even been safer than being homeless and alone in Athens. All I can do now is wait for a positive answer and concentrate on surviving.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.
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