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The tragedy of Greece's refugee children

A new report reveals the shocking conditions endured by unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe.

Wasim is a 16-year-old Kurdish boy who fled Mosul, Iraq, seeking a safe haven after Islamic State (IS) executed his father. Unfortunately for Wasim, he ended up stuck in a tiny, dirty cell in a small-town police station in northwest Greece. When I met Wasim, he had been locked up around the clock for a month, without access to interpreters, psychological care, or even games or books to occupy his mind.

Wasim is one of hundreds of children traveling alone who have been detained this year in so-called protective custody while they await a space in Greece’s overburdened shelter system. The country’s chronic failure to provide adequate care for unaccompanied children has become more acute due to increased arrivals and callous inaction by other European countries.

Researching Human Rights Watch’s new report on unaccompanied children in Greece, I spoke with dozens of kids detained for weeks and months in unsanitary and at times degrading conditions. Children told me they lived and slept in dirty, bug-and vermin-infested cells, sometimes without mattresses. One boy from Afghanistan said he was detained in a police station in a windowless, rat-infested basement cell, where he and others had to use a toilet with no door. A boy from Pakistan told me he was scared and unable to sleep for the two months he spent in a crowded, filthy cell with adult men who were fighting and using drugs.

Greek authorities say they detain children who arrive in the country unaccompanied  because the shelter system is full. But that argument rings hollow. Greece has been a gateway to the EU for years and had consistently ignored calls to increase the capacity of its shelter system and expand alternatives to detention.

Finally, Greek authorities are taking some steps to increase the shelter system capacity. But the government needs the EU’s help. It has been a year since the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, presented the EU emergency relocation plan, intended to move 66,400 asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries. At the time, Juncker said the plan would “ensure that people in clear need of international protection are relocated swiftly after arriving.”

How is the plan working? As of 2 September, fewer than 3,500 people had been relocated from Greece, and only 49 of them were unaccompanied children.

The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently emphasised the need for EU countries to accelerate the transfer of asylum seekers out of Greece through family reunification and by fulfilling obligations under the relocation plan. The European Commission has urged member states to step up their efforts to make places available for unaccompanied children as part of their relocation pledges. But many EU countries are still dragging their feet.

The commission should also amend the emergency relocation plan – which in its current form allows the relocation of only certain nationalities – so that asylum-seeking unaccompanied children of all nationalities are eligible for relocation, and provide more financial and technical support to process applications. And EU countries should help get unaccompanied kids out of Greece by giving them priority in relocation pledges and speeding up family reunification.  

At the same time, the commission and EU countries need to help provide vulnerable children in Greece with the care they deserve. Authorities in Greece should stop detaining unaccompanied children in police stations and detention centers by expanding short-term alternatives and increasing the capacity in its long-term shelter system. The European Commission should ensure that Greece has the resources to do this.

Wasim told us about his life in the cramped and filthy cell: “It is hard when I think how many days I’ve been inside. There’s nothing to do. The only thing we do is think, talk to each other, and sleep. There’s no TV, no books, and the wall is black from the dirt.”

Like Wasim, many children whose lives have been upended are alone in Europe. They have often fled violence and conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They often endured traumatic  journeys, including near-drowning in the Mediterranean and violence at the hands of abusive authorities. Some left home on their own while others were tragically separated from their family in transit. The last place they should be is in a squalid cell.

Rebecca Riddell is a Europe fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report on the treatment of children who arrive in Greece unaccompanied.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.