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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.

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The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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