RELOCATION OF UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN FROM GREECE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC:
NO TIME TO LOSE
As the first unaccompanied children from the Greek islands arrive in Luxembourg and Germany, much work remains to honour the 1,621 places pledged by European countries....
Conditions in the Greek islands camps have been overcrowded for a long time, with the camps currently at more than six times their capacity. Together with the longstanding lack of access to basic sanitary facilities, it is now impossible for camp residents to comply with guidelines to protect themselves against COVID-19.
Amongst the over 38,000 asylum seekers cramped into camps on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, are 1,752 unaccompanied children, many of whom have been living in the camps’ appalling conditions for long periods. They must be urgently relocated if they are to have any chance of protecting their lives and health, and of complying with measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. Their relocation has been slow to take off. Just a few European countries (Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland) have joined a solidarity programme to receive these children, together pledging 1,621 places for relocated children. Five of these made pledges as long ago as early March.
Image: UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis, all rights reserved.
Their efforts stalled during March, leading 67 civil society organisations (including the International Catholic Migration Commission and many SHARE partners) to co-sign a 3 April open letter to European governments urging states to honour their pledges, and contribute to the decongestion of the Greek island camps by immediately proceeding with emergency relocation.
There is no reason why this relocation should take so much precious time: as the letter notes, the European Emergency Response Centre has evacuated more than 10,000 EU citizens from around the world since the onset of COVID-19, and the same must - and can - be done for the most vulnerable people in the Greek island camps.
On Wednesday 15 April, Luxembourg became the first country to relocate unaccompanied children from Greece: 11 boys and one girl, age 11-16, from Syria and Afghanistan. The following day Germany received a group of 58 children under-14, all of whom are currently being accommodated in the city of Osnabrück. In both Luxembourg and Germany, children will be isolated for14 days and then be supported by Caritas. While these states are to be applauded for maintaining their commitment to solidarity during an unprecedented public health crisis, there is much work to be done to ensure the 1,621 pledges are honoured and the most vulnerable residents of the Greek camps can access safety and protection.
The ways in which individual states are implementing emergency relocation gives some cause for concern, for example the intention of some states to receive only younger children. Civil society has instead called for relocation to be implemented ‘without discrimination, giving precedence to existing family links and the best interests of the child’, and the SHARE Network calls on states to maintain these operational principles throughout their relocation activities. Best interests of the child must be a key consideration, while issues such as guardianship and family reunification must be central aspects of all states' relocation processes.
Following the examples of Luxembourg and Germany, the SHARE Network urges France, Portugal, Finland, Lithuania, Croatia, Ireland and Switzerland to ensure their pledged relocations are immediately implemented, and calls on additional European countries to join with pledges of their own.
Where there is political will these transfers are possible - including during the time of COVID-19.
For children left unprotected on the Greek islands, there is no time to lose.
On 6 March 2020, the European Commission announced an Action Plan for immediate measures to support Greece, and prioritised finding solutions for unaccompanied children living in the Greek island camps.
Following a European Council meeting on 6 March, five Member States (Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal) agreed to receive such children via relocation, and shortly afterwards Germany announced its intention to lead a coalition of statesthat would together relocate at least 1500 children. Two more Member States (Croatia and Lithuania) and Switzerland subsequently joined the coalition.
Cities, churches and citizen groups have been active in calling on their national governments to pledge relocation pledges, and in offering their own involvement in receiving unaccompanied children to fulfil national commitments. In Germany, the mayors of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Potsdam, Hanover, Freiburg, Rottenburg and Frankfurt (Oder), together with the Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, signed a 6 March appeal to federal government to this effect. The Dutch city of Leiden also pledged its involvement in any such scheme developed for The Netherlands, although despite civil society support, the Dutch government has to date refrained from participating in the relocation effort.
The Catholic Church in the European Union, press release 16 April 2020 'Refugees in Europe: human dignity is not in quarantine'