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Alternatives to camps: caring for unaccompanied and separated children on the move

This article is the first of a series of blog posts examining viable alternatives to refugee camps on Greece’s Aegean Islands. The focus of this post is on receiving and accommodating unaccompanied and separated children.

Unaccompanied and separated children in the Aegean

Since 2014 there has been a considerable increase in the number of unaccompanied and separated children arriving to seek asylum in Europe. Children arriving without a parent or caregiver in Greece have largely travelled from unstable or conflict-ridden countries in the Middle East, Central Asia or Northern Africa such as Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Somalia. Their journey to Europe is one made with the hope of a better life and often out of desperation to escape conflict, poverty and/or persecution. Many young people arriving on the islands hope to join family members already in Europe.

Since the EU-Turkey deal was introduced in 2016, tens of thousands of people, including unaccompanied and separated children, have been trapped for indefinite periods of time in overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous living conditions in camps on the Aegean islands.

Image source: TIME, Ivan Romano—Getty images

In these camps, there is a lack of access to education, medical care, safe spaces, psychological support and other essential services. Over the past few years, case workers working with unaccompanied and separated children have frequently found themselves overburdened and unable to provide adequate individualized support to the children in their care.

Whilst the existing reception and identification centres (RICs) on the islands should house unaccompanied children in ‘Safe Zones’, these spaces are claimed to be unsafe by the children living here and adult residents walk in and out freely. Policing can be lax in the ‘Safe Zones’ and allegations of abuse have also been made against authorities over the years. Furthermore, there is limited capacity in these zones meaning that these “safe” spaces are perennially full and new UASC can only enter when another is transferred out. In the old Moria camp (Lesvos), these children had to await transfer into the ‘Safe Zones’ in a dirty, unguarded Rub Hall tent for months on end. Rub Hall tents are huge open spaces meant specifically for short term use in emergency situations. As a result, many ended up choosing to live in the ‘Jungle’ hoping for better conditions. Instead, here they faced increased risk of exploitation and were forced circumstantially to live in tents with adult strangers.

Similar dangers face unaccompanied children residing in other areas of Greece. These callous conditions prevent children and young people – or anyone for that matter – from reaching their full potential.

New camps under construction

The European Union recently announced €250m of funding for five new ‘structures’ termed multi-purpose reception and identification centres (MPRICs) on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros. These camps, which will replace the current hotspot camps on the Aegean islands, will be ‘closed-controlled centres’ surrounded by two military-type NATO fences. The centres’ perimeter and interior will be under camera surveillance with motion analysis algorithms monitoring the behaviour and movement of centre residents.

Within these camps, there will be a designated ‘safe space’ for unaccompanied children to live (see UAM area). Europe Must Act and other humanitarian and human rights organisations have expressed serious concerns about the ‘prison-like’ living conditions within these new camps and the likelihood of rights violations with reduced NGO oversight.

Image source: Europe Must Act’s No More Camps Monthly Update Report

Europe Can Do Better

UN human rights mechanisms, such as the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants and the Committee on the Rights of the Child have repeatedly stated that detention of children on the basis of their migratory status is against international law. Moreover, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, says that the best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect them. Children and young people also have the right to family reunification and a standard of living good enough to meet their physical and social needs and support their development.

What should a suitable care setting for unaccompanied or separated children arriving on the Aegean Islands look like? It must:

  • Be able to respond to children’s individual needs and circumstances in a caring, professional environment whilst ensuring stability, security, and support.

  • Ensure the protection of children from all forms of violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect.

  • Appropriately meet a child’s needs and ensure that they have access to all necessary services such as legal support, healthcare, psychosocial support and education.

  • Recruit and retain appropriately qualified and motivated staff in sufficient numbers to provide children with individual care.

  • Enable children to maintain contact with the outside world and interact in the local community.

Let’s consider two examples

Foster care

One alternative to accommodating unaccompanied and separated children in closed camps is the introduction of foster placements in the local community. Some locals on the islands have previously voiced their interest and willingness to host asylum seekers for short-term placements.

A high standard of foster placements, with standards implemented and overseen by professionals, offer the opportunity for care in suitable accommodation with supporting adults and the chance to build relationships in the local community. With training for foster carers, and access to ongoing support and guidance, a child’s physical, social and emotional needs can be met and these placements with appropriate adults, able to speak with authorities in their native language, can facilitate the access to legal support throughout the asylum process, as is lawfully bound. This form of accommodation gives children and young people the chance to build relationships with trusted adults and make decisions about the future in a supportive environment.

This approach has been used in Sicily providing foster care to unaccompanied children arriving on the island.

Amara and Aly with their foster carers in Sicily. Image source: Future Learn, Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

Care in small residential settings

Small-scale residential care settings could also be used more widely on the Aegean Islands to accommodate young people arriving alone. These should host a small number of children where they can have access to both privacy and communal spaces, leisure activities and care from supportive, trained adults.

If well-resourced and properly safeguarded, these small group homes can provide a secure and nurturing environment for young people and also offer the opportunity to learn important life skills, discover new interests and hobbies, learn the local language and make friends in the community.

In opposition to the planned ‘closed camps’ on the islands, these offer young people the freedom to come and go in order to build links with the local community such as taking part in social or sporting events.

One example of small group homes is Fundación Casa Alianza México I.A.P. which provides care to migrant, refugee and asylum seeking children in Mexico. Their projects have been so successful that the government wants to roll out this approach to caring for migrant children more widely.

Image source: Casa Alianza, Mexico

A range of options should be available for children and young people and they should be able to participate in the decision about which form of care which is most suitable for them.

If provided to a high standard, with both the child’s development and personal security at the forefront of all decisions taken, foster care placements and small residential group homes can provide care to children on the move which respects, protects and fulfils their fundamental human rights.

Alternatives to refugee camps exist!

Join the Europe Must Act movement and share our #NoMoreCamps campaign today!

Get in touch with your political leaders at the local, national and EU level to raise your voice in opposition to the construction of the new MPRIC camps. Bring their attention to viable alternative ways of accommodating and receiving refugees at Europe’s borders.

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