The snow-covered tents were an ugly spectacle around the island of Lesbos as this harsh winter gripped Greece. It was in this same area that an accident involving a gas heater had killed a mother and child in late November, when their tent – and others near it – went up in flames. It was pure luck that there weren’t more victims. The incident served as a stark reminder that there are numerous children living in these miserable conditions and that sometimes they die as a result.
I had visited the camp just days earlier, hoping to talk to some of the approximately 80 unaccompanied minors who live there. Facilities for refugees around Greece can look anything from decent to shabby, but none resembles a prison as much as the Moria camp on Lesbos. It looks the last place you would host vulnerable children, some of whom are as young as 13. Yet more than 5,000 children have arrived in Greece without their parents and, like everyone else, they have to be sorted through “hot spots” such as Moria. About 2,500 are still in Greece, and some of them have to live in places like this.
While adults and children accompanied by their parents can leave the camp, unaccompanied children, who are placed formally under the guardianship of the district attorney, cannot. The facility, guarded by police in full riot gear and surrounded by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, is both home and prison. It takes nine months on average for an unaccompanied child to be reunited with family in another country – if indeed the child has one. The alternative is that they remain in Greece until they turn 18, when they can try to claim asylum. If a child’s application is rejected, he is then deported back to the country he left years earlier as a child.
I met some of the unaccompanied children from the Moria camp during one of the field trips they are permitted every few days, organised by an NGO based nearby. Some of those I spoke to were deeply traumatised by the violence they witnessed before leaving their countries. “My village is under Daesh”, “My father was kidnapped”, “My brothers are dead” are just some of the things they said.
They were also still affected by the journey they had had to take to Greece, in dinghies that frequently sank into the icy waters of the Mediterranean. Part of the field trip involves a ride on a fishing boat. There was laughter at first, but as soon as we hit the open water their faces froze.
All the children to whom I spoke said variations of the same thing: “No one tells us anything,” and, “We don’t know what’s going on. When are we going to leave?” I heard this from Athens to the northern borders of Greece with Albania. Yet it is not entirely accurate. Though there are communication breakdowns – often through a lack of co-ordination between the state and NGOs working in the camps – the children are informed repeatedly about what is going on. But it’s not what they want to hear, and to accept the truth would imply the end of all their hopes.
The Greek borders on the Balkan corridor are shut. They will not open again, but children and adults alike don’t want to believe this to be true, or that their best chance – if they aren’t sent back to Turkey – is the slow and ineffective relocation programme (or, in the case of the unaccompanied children, getting stuck here). When finally they leave the camps, they are often afraid to talk to officials because they think they might be sent back to the islands.
The children looked often at their mobile phones, nervously. One of the NGO workers told me that “they receive texts from their families back home all the time”. Many of these children have been sent to Europe by their families to work and send money. They are considered men, even if they are still boys of 15. The family left behind that pooled all its resources to send them here would be wondering why no money was coming back.
In Athens, unaccompanied minors are hosted in special facilities (mostly better in quality than those available for adults). Those who haven’t gone through the hot spots, or run away shortly afterwards, live off-grid in rented accommodation or squats, or even on the streets.
Some children stay hidden in apartments rented for hundreds of euros a week, waiting for smugglers to get them out of the country by way of Albania. Others live in occupied buildings provided by anarchist groups. Daouda, a 16-year-old from Côte d’Ivoire, is one such child. He fled his country after his family “was killed in the  civil war”, he said. Arriving in Greece, he lied to the authorities to escape detention at the island centres. However, his application for asylum was turned down. He was given a month to leave the country – “But without money and family, where am I supposed to go?”
It is such circumstances that lead the children to prostitute themselves for as little as €5 around Athens. The vulnerable teenagers are stuck without prospects and often entirely on their own. There are many cases that never make it into the official records which show the dangers they face: the abduction and rape of women trying to cross the borders with smugglers; children disappearing somewhere in the Balkans; the drugs and prostitution; the murder that goes unpunished.
Meanwhile, communities on the islands are becoming less tolerant of the refugees. For now, residual compassion and the money that comes in from the European Union is holding things together. Little has changed in Greece this winter, but by the spring the situation will cease to be classified as an emergency. Budgets are expected to be cut by up to two-thirds.
The refugee situation in Greece is permanent. It is about to get worse, too, as the likes of Germany prepare to send back asylum-seekers under the Dublin Regulation.
The increasing desperation here will turn into a boon for smugglers. For unaccompanied minors, with years to agonise over what comes next, their dreams of Europe will become a kind of purgatory. For them, only the perilous paths remain open.
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine