At the beginning of March, European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen spoke with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the situation of unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek islands. They agreed to put in place a process to ensure the protection and care of some of Europe’s most vulnerable people, unaccompanied migrant children. Later in March, the Commission announced a plan to relocate unaccompanied children and teenagers from Greece to other EU member states. So far, member states have pledged 1.600 places, but the going has been slow. Several relocations took place and key recommendations were established for further relocations.
The Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, stated that the “situation on the Greek islands has been critical for far too long”. She is happy that Europeans “are working together to address it and find a safe place at least for the most vulnerable”.
A document published by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), shows that as of February 29, there were 5.463 unaccompanied and separated children in Greece in urgent need of durable solutions, including registration, family reunification and relocation. Among them, over 1.600 are exposed to severe risks. Human Rights Watch emphasizes that unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable living in the overcrowded facilities. They experience extremely limited access to running water, toilets and showers, which is putting them at significantly heightened risk of infection. Children are deprived of access to their most basic rights, including the right to education and to health. EU and member state support is crucial to ensure their immediate protection in Greece, as well as their longer-term health and well-being including through relocation.
UNHCR, together with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Greek NGO partners – Metadrasi and Praksis – has been assisting the Greek authorities in identifying unaccompanied children for relocation and determining their best interest, in close coordination with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum’s Special Secretary for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, Eirini Agapidaki.
On April 15, the IOM, UNHCR and UNICEF welcomed the relocation of 12 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children from Greece to Luxembourg. The children, who had been living in overcrowded reception and identification centers for several months on the islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios, were the first relocations under the EU initiative for the relocation of 1.600 unaccompanied children.
On April 18, a first group of 47 unaccompanied minors from Greek migrant camps arrived in Germany.
On May 16, 23 children and young people arrived in Switzerland from overcrowded camps on Greek Aegean islands, according to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). It includes all child asylum seekers with family in Switzerland.
Other countries have announced the willingness to relocate unaccompanied children in the future.
The Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) says that the first group of 25 children will arrive in Finland in June, to be followed by another group of the same size in July. Finland has agreed to accept 175 vulnerable asylum seekers from the camps.
The Portugese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva announced that Portugal is to take in 500 children from Greek refugee camps as soon as restrictions on movement imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus outbreak are lifted.
Other member states who pledged to take in children are Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Croatia, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania. Human rights organisations call for swift and decisive actions of solidarity, as the children are in dire need.
The IOM Regional Director for the EEA, EU and NATO Ola Henrikson emphasizes the importance of this initiative in light of the challenges we are facing from the COVID-19 pandemic. Henrikson states that the “Relocation of vulnerable children especially at a time of heightened hardship, sends a strong message of European solidarity and we hope to see this expand soon”.
Prior to their departure from Greece, the children were transferred from the islands to an IOM facility in Athens. IOM conducted standard health assessments and medical examinations. Each child was tested for COVID-19, with all test results returning negative.
Guiding principles and approaches
A number of guiding principles are proposed by UNICEF, IOM and UNHCR for the relocation of unaccompanied minors.
The best interests of the child should be the guiding principle determining relocation to be the most appropriate solution for that child. Prioritization for relocation should be done based on established criteria – like length of asylum process, age, mental health status and disability status. Children should be consulted on the decision and involved in the process of decision making. Children eligible for family reunification under the Dublin III Regulation, should be supported accordingly and action should be coordinated between the country of asylum and the country of relocation with technical and operational support from child protection partners including UNHCR, IOM, and UNICEF.
Several key recommendations for the EU and national authorities were published following a webinar organised by NGO’s Child Circle, Missing Children Europe, Oxfam and Refugee Rights Europe. The recommendations are based on EU action which can best support the relocation of unaccompanied children.
Firstly, it is important to support member states in relocating children, safeguard children by developing a child-centred framework and connect different stakeholders.
Secondly, it seems essential to promote on-going exchange of good practice and experience between member states and review and assess in order to address challenges rapidly (including through listening to children about their experiences)
Lastly, member states and the EU should learn and share the lessons of relocation for future solidarity mechanisms.