Children in detention at the borders of Europe

As Amnesty activists arrive to the Greek Island of Lesvos to call for an end to push-backs of refugees’ and migrants’ on their arrival to Greece, researcher Kondylia Gogou meets with unaccompanied children held in local police stations in Lesvos.
Afia (not her real name), 17, has not seen her mum and sister since they were separated by smugglers during their trip to Europe. She has no idea where they are now. She told me that her father was killed in Afghanistan.

Afia and Elaha (not her real name), another 17 year old Afghani girl, are held in the police station in Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos Island. Their cell is small (approximately 3 X 6 square meters) and the air in it is stale. Afia and Elaha share the cell with three adult migrant women. Some of them sleep on the floor because there aren’t enough beds for everyone.
The girls are subdued, but when Afia starts talking about her family, she bursts into tears. The conditions here are making it hard for them to cope. “We haven’t washed in two weeks, look at us”, she says, visibly distressed. There is no shower and they need to ask the police to get them to the toilet which is outside their cells. There is no outdoor space and they are not allowed to leave the station. The police station is clearly not a place where anyone should be held for longer than a few days. Afia and Elaha have been detained here since the end of June. When we ask how long they will be detained the police tells us that that they will transfer them to a shelter in Athens soon.

The girls were apprehended along with about 38 other people by the coastguard a boat from Turkey to Greece in the end of June. In Gera, a village 20 minutes drive away, I meet five boys who came on the same boat. They tell me the youngest is 15 years old, all from Afghanistan. Their cells have the same stale air and the boys sleep on plinth beds. The boys are calm and very polite, even as one of them tells me about the family he left behind.
Amnesty International mission delegates Irem Arf and Giorgos Kosmopoulos talking to migrants and refugees in Mytilene's main square, Lesvos (Lesbos), Greece, April 2013.
These detained children are not criminals. Some of them are fleeing conflict. Others are desperately trying to escape poverty. They dream of getting an education, safety, a new life, of finding ways to support their families.
In detention, they are alone, have no idea how long they will be kept there and
have little contact with the outside world. A psychologist who works with migrants in detention tells me that detained children experience acute insecurity in such an environment.  
Even adult migrants struggle to cope in detention. I am told that one of the adult detainees in Mytilene police station, a woman, recently attempted suicide and is now in hospital.
In Amnesty International’s view, children, particularly unaccompanied children, should never be detained for immigration purposes. In Greece, unaccompanied children stay in detention until shelter is found for them. But existing shelters are running out of space. Several shelters have stopped receiving new arrivals because of funding shortages. One local shelter, in Ayiassos, has no personnel. The children there are on their own, apart from a volunteer from the staff who comes and cooks for them.
The Greek immigration system is clearly not working, particularly when it comes to unaccompanied children. Reform is urgently needed. There should be no more detention of children. And more space in shelters.
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