A Podcast About Language

Four friends in Athens discuss different words used to describe different legal statuses – ‘refugee’, ‘aslyum seeker’, ‘unaccompanied minor’, ‘migrant’ – what the words mean, how they are often used, and how they can feel.

Definetly worth a listen for anyone wanting to consider the power of language and the words we choose.

Asylum-seeking Children Need Foster Carers (Part 2): Veronica

Image credit: “sunflower-seeds” by www.tOrange.biz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Veronica (not her real name) shares her experiences fostering Sunflower.

“Children just want to be loved”

“Fostering has taught me that children just want to be loved. They need to feel a sense of belonging, be cared for, have a home, somewhere to sleep at night, to be fed and clothed. As an African myself, Sunflower reminds me very much of myself as a teenager coming to England from Ghana.

“A friend who was a Social Worker encouraged my husband and I to become foster carers as there was a great need for black and Afro-Caribbean carers. She said there was an increasing number of children in the system that they were having difficulty placing, in terms of trying to match their needs and respecting cultural diversity.” 

As Veronica is quick to point out, however, there is one crucial difference between her and her foster daughter.

“I came here with my family, but Sunflower arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied minor and was completely alone. She was brought to us straight from the Home Office. She spoke no English and looked nervous.”

The biggest challenge when caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

Many young people, of all backgrounds, have been through significant hardship before entering the care system. But Veronica has found it particularly difficult to imagine the trauma that Sunflower might have faced. 

“The biggest challenge when caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is what you don’t know. Are they trafficked? Have they been through physical or emotional abuse? Dealing with their emotions, the trauma they may have suffered or experienced.

“As foster carers, we want to fully meet their emotional needs and fill the gap for their temporary, or sometimes permanent, loss or displacement. That can be a real challenge.”

Nobody could say that what Veronica and her family are doing is easy. With the right support and experience however, a positive foster placement can make all the difference in the world to a young person far away for their own family. 

“I enjoy seeing them transform into confident young people and helping them to fulfil their potential by nurturing them, providing a nice homely environment, love, stability and meeting their basic needs.”

Fostering: Extremely worthwhile and rewarding

After almost 12 years as a foster parent, Veronica would encourage anyone considering it for the first time to take the step. 

“It’s an extremely worthwhile and rewarding job. It helps you become a better person by caring for others other than yourself and your own. It brings an awareness that so many children are suffering, being maltreated and need love, care, direction and guidance.

“It’s made me a much humbler person, very appreciative of what I have, my family and good friends. As the children I foster may have lost theirs or can’t be with them at the moment.”

Veronica has enjoyed watching Sunflower grow and change.

“She’s a very respectful and cheerful young woman and she appreciates the opportunities the UK offers.

“I would just like to see better care for young people like her when they turn 18. Many of them still seem so young and are not ready to embrace adulthood and venture out on their own.”

Read Sunflower’s side of the story in Asylum-seeking Children Need Foster Carers: Part 1.

Sunflower and Veronica shared their experience of fostering for unaccompanied minors who have arrived in the UK with i witness child migration with help from the British Red Cross Young Refugee Services.

The British Red Cross R’n’B project for young refugees and asylum seekers aged 15-21 usually runs weekly sessions across London to help young people build connections, understand their entitlements, develop skills, improve their English and, most importantly, have fun. 

The service has adapted to provide regular group sessions over Zoom to provide advice on staying positive, keeping active, and learning new things while at home. Young people accessing the service have also received care parcels in the post, with things they can enjoy whilst staying inside.

Asylum-seeking Children Need Foster Carers (Part 1): Sunflower

Image credit “Sunflower” by Kansas Poetry (Patrick) is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Sunflower (not her real name) is a 16-year-old from Angola who shared her experience being fostered by Veronica in the UK.

“My foster carer is like a mum to me. When she looks at us, it’s like she’s looking at her own daughters. I want to stay here when I turn 18. This is my home in the UK.”

Sunflower was forced to leave her family, her country and everything she knew about the world when she was a child. She arrived in the UK aged 16, alone and with no English.

“My country is very hot and violent. There is no access to school or hospital, especially if you don’t have any money. But still I didn’t want to leave. I had never left my town before and I didn’t know anything about what was out there.”

“It was very scary and I cried a lot.”

Lunar House, UK Home Office Visas and Immigration HQ. Photo by Noel Foster 

After a long and difficult journey Sunflower entered the UK asylum system as an “unaccompanied asylum-seeking child”.

“On my first day in England, I had to wait eight hours in the Home Office [Lunar House] for my interview. It was very scary and I cried a lot. I didn’t speak any English when I arrived, I didn’t understand anything!”

While Sunflower waited in the UK Home Office’s Lunar House in Croydon, South London, Veronica was at home waiting to meet her. Veronica, a foster carer, would become like a mum to Sunflower.

Sunflower finished the initial screening interview at the Home Office and was brought to meet Veronica, exhausted and confused.

“I wasn’t scared when I met her, I just felt strange and confused. Veronica was happy and very friendly. I was a bit shy, but she made me feel comfortable. She showed me the bedroom just for me. It’s blue. It’s nice!”

Overcoming Barriers

Communication was difficult when Sunflower first arrived at Veronica’s house, but it didn’t take the two of them long to find a solution:

“My foster sister gave me her laptop and we used it to translate everything. Then I started to watch YouTube videos in English to practice. After one month, Veronica bought me a phone which helped me to translate things more easily when we were out.”

With the translate app helping them to overcome their language barrier, Sunflower and Veronica set about getting to know each other.

“At the beginning, Veronica asked me what I like to eat and drink. She made me rice, beans and chicken, very nice! Now we cook together and I show her some recipes from my country.

Ressoais a la Sunflower and Veronica

“We play games like Scrabble and cards, it’s fun. She helps me with homework when I don’t understand and she explains emails from my social worker. She helps me with everything I need.”

Veronica and the social worker also made sure that Sunflower had access to the support she needed elsewhere. In her first month in the UK, they introduced her to a local project run by the British Red Cross for young refugees and asylum seekers aged 15-21. The RnB project helps young displaced people to build connections, understand their entitlements, develop skills, improve their English and have fun. 

“I like everything about the sessions. I like the games, I like making new friends, I like the trips.”

Despite feeling more and more like she’s found her feet, Sunflower can still feel lonely. 

“When I have nothing to do and just have to stay at home, I’m a bit lonely. So now is a very difficult time for me because we can’t leave the house.”

But she has found comfort and joy in music.

“I used to sing in church in my country and I’m starting to get confident to sing here too. I was going to have my first singing concert last month, but it was cancelled because of the coronavirus. So now I’m teaching myself guitar and listening to music at home instead. I like gospel – Tasha Cobbs is my favourite singer. And I listen to lots of Angolan music too.” 

And Veronica is also there for Sunflower when she feels lonely.

“Now we are in lockdown and have lots of time, I’m teaching her my language! She forgets words but she is trying hard to learn”.

Sunflower is sure that her best option is foster care

Next year, when Sunflower turns 18, she would like to stay with her foster mum. The trauma of family separation, conflict, persecution and hardship is long-lasting for many young refugees and asylum seekers and it’s vital that they are able to choose the accommodation that best reflects their individual needs.

Sunflower is sure that her best option is foster care.

“Foster carers teach us how to deal with new changes and difficulties in life and end up filling the loss that we have. Young refugees and asylum seekers need people who are like parents,” she says.

Things are falling into place for Sunflower and she has made huge strides in her education. She has even won awards for her progress, something her social worker credits in part to the excellent foster placement.

Now, finally, Sunflower can start to dream about the future. 

She says, “I want to study civil engineering because I love maths and I love drawing. Then I’ll be able to draw buildings and one day I can design new cities!”

Read Veronica’s side of the story in Asylum-seeking Children Need Foster Carers: Part 2.

Sunflower and Veronica shared their experience of fostering for unaccompanied minors who have arrived in the UK with i witness child migration with help from the British Red Cross Young Refugee Services.

The British Red Cross R’n’B project for young refugees and asylum seekers aged 15-21 usually runs weekly sessions across London to help young people build connections, understand their entitlements, develop skills, improve their English and, most importantly, have fun. 

The service has adapted to provide regular group sessions over Zoom to provide advice on staying positive, keeping active, and learning new things while at home. Young people accessing the service have also received care parcels in the post, with things they can enjoy whilst staying inside.

What It Takes To Be Safe

This is a guest post by Kozey*, a young asylum seeker from Afghanistan, now living in Kent in the UK.

Hi, I’m Kozey. I want to tell you about my life.

I am from Afghanistan. I have lived in a country where there is war and Taliban and ISIS. I didn’t have a bright future ahead of me. Imagine, I haven’t had any fun since I was very small and most of the days as a child I screamed and screamed. Every day I was waking to gunshots and witnessing innocent people getting murdered.

The word security doesn’t mean anything in my country. In a lot of places, police officers keep the country safe and look after its people. And there is no doubt about that. I think everybody owes a lot to these police officers who put their life on the line to protect people. But it’s the complete opposite in my country. The police are responsible for the safety and protection of the people against anything that will harm them, but unfortunately, such a thing doesn’t exist where I’m from.

I was forced to leave the country because of the threat of being killed by the Taliban. I accepted the risk of losing my life and set off. In this way I faced very dangerous problems. Problems such as police shootings at the border between Iran and Turkey, travelling in a person’s truck from Greece to Italy to France to the UK, seeing people killed in this way. 

You may have heard stories like mine.

Or about the father and his daughter, I don’t remember which country they were from, who lost their lives on their way to America. Or about the 39 people who died in the truck on the way to the UK. Those who came this way know what I am saying. I don’t think I can believe that I went through these difficult steps. But I am proud of myself now. 

There were nights when I could not find a place to sleep and I had to spend my nights in the ruined meadows of my country, sometimes during the winter. It hurts to think about it now. Even worse than this is when I found myself in a camp in Greece where I met strange people who weren’t my age. I lost myself there and I felt frustrated. 

But I have goals in my life and they couldn’t be weakened. I did it for me and for my life. 

There are many differences between the UK and Afghanistan. In my country, so many young people want to leave but cannot. Many young people in Afghanistan have beautiful dreams that perish. But in the UK, where I live now, people work hard to promote the youth and we can do things for our future. 

I would really like to become a police officer to pay my debt to this country. Here, the minute you hear the word police, there are a few things that come to mind: security, organisation, law and regulations, and power. I really wanted to become a police officer back home, but you need to become a different person, you need to ignore your life principles. But I want to be myself, and my only aim is protecting my people. Regardless of what nationality you are and where you are living in this world, at the end we are all human beings, and people need an honest police officer. 

I really would like to support the police to create a safe and peaceful environment for everyone to live in because everyone deserves it. This is called humanity. To me humanity means being honest and to care for what you do. People respect police officers highly in this country because they care about the people.

As young people, we have beauty in our minds, even if we’re older now than we were. That’s great in my opinion. I hope for success and bright days for all asylum seekers.

Kozey* is an alias to protect his identity. Kozey started attending sessions at the British Red Cross in Kent for young refugees and asylum seekers in December 2019. Kozey wrote this piece to remind us of the strength of young people’s dreams for the future.

The British Red Cross

For over 150 years, the British Red Cross has helped people in crisis, whoever and wherever they are. We are part of a global voluntary network, responding to conflicts, natural disasters and individual emergencies. We enable vulnerable people in the UK and abroad to prepare for and withstand emergencies in their own communities. And when the crisis is over, we help them recover and move on with their lives. To find out more about the work of the British Red Cross, please go to redcross.org.uk

Survival Sex

Ten years ago, a friend and I were planning a trip across the Sahara Desert driving an old banger of a Range Rover to raise funds for anti-trafficking projects. 

Two weeks before heading off, the trip was cancelled by the organisers as Al Qaeda had been raiding aid trucks along our route.

At the last minute we decided instead to drive across eastern Europe, visiting trafficking prevention projects and safe homes, and finally arriving in Greece. After four days of being taken around the backstreets of Athens brothels and on-street prostitution, I decided that I would never come back to such a miserable place of unchecked exploitation. 

In reality it was the first of many trips to Greece, where I later became operations director for US-based anti-child-trafficking NGO, Love146.

Human trafficking exists

“Trafficking in Persons” and “Modern Day Slavery” have been buzzwords in Europe and a focus of public shock and anger for around fifteen years now. 

If nothing else, most of us know that human trafficking exists, even if the statistics which are bounced back and forth seem to be so overwhelming that any effort to stop it is seemingly beyond our reach.

Trafficking exists in many forms: forced adult and child prostitution, labour without pay, domestic servitude, forced pickpocketing, cannabis farms and even organ removal to name just a few.

Discovering a black market in Greece

After that initial road trip, I returned to Greece to visit a project in the port city of Patras. The project was working with unaccompanied minors at the time and some months they would see as many as 40 new children show up from the ships and from underneath lorries. Many of these were sleeping rough in the rundown timber mills along the docks. 

On discussing trafficking and various aspects of exploitation, I was told about two brothers from Afghanistan  that had slipped through the care net recently. A car had been stopped entering the port and the two brothers were discovered in the boot.

Alongside the boys were an ice-box and a roll mat which contained a variety of surgical tools.  The port police detained the man but just let the boys walk away into the town, towards further potential risk and harm. 

The man had groomed the boys, making them travel into Greece under his protection, and was seemingly ready to remove their organs. This means there must have been people already waiting to be supplied organs on the black market.

The boys had a lucky escape but probably ended up stuck in the area for several months, sleeping in the timber mills in continued vulnerability.

Project workers I was speaking to shared that they had begun to hear whispers amongst boys in their care, that some were being offered money and plied with alcohol in return for sex.

“Survival sex”

This was the first time that I heard the term “survival sex”. Survival sex is when you hit rock bottom, and the only resource you have left is your body. You’d have to sell it if you were to eat for another day. 

It’s important to note that the numbers of vulnerable young people and men purchasing sex from boys were rising before the large numbers of displaced people and children began arriving in Greece, fleeing conflict, and becoming known as a “refugee crisis”.

Supply and demand

In 2019 there were an estimated 5,000 unaccompanied children in Greece with three out of four having no access to accommodation or care.

I would like to say that this has improved, but I cannot. I would like to say that none of the children are at risk from predators plying them with loose change and food for sex, but I cannot.

What I can tell you is that where nations are slow to take notice of the needs of foreign children – or have insufficient regard that they could become part of child sex exploitation – there is usually an increase in established demand.

My personal warning to nations and cultures who do not act promptly for the welfare of children from other nations, who do not safeguard them from predators, is that your nations’ own children are statistically the next “new products” in this big business.

I don’t say this to shock but to challenge. When a nation allows the vulnerabilities of children who are forcibly moved or on the move to be exploited, it begins to fuel growth in demand for sex with minors. That demand will eventually be met by a nation’s own vulnerable and marginalised citizens. 

The UK and US both accept that the sex exploitation of its own children is vastly more of an issue than that of those trafficked across national borders or exploited on arrival.

Because they can

This is mostly not paedophilia as we understand it, which is a psychological attraction to prepubescent children, this is largely men being able to outwork sexual fantasy and interest with impunity. 

Why? Because they can. Because it remains often hidden, criminally organised and unchecked. If it remains unchecked and unchallenged, it becomes normalised.

Greece’s broken, disjointed system

International law is slowly catching up with the ever changing face of human trafficking. In the US, if a minor is caught in prostitution they are no longer criminalised into a downward spiral, but instead viewed as having been a victim of exploitation and given help. In the UK, when young Vietnamese boys are caught on site at domestic cannabis farms, they are not criminalised and deported; they are seen as captives of organised crime and helped. In other countries, if you are found to have had sex with a victim of trafficking, your not knowing is no longer a viable defence for your participation in exploitation. 

In Greece, anything to do with anti-trafficking – and especially its relation to child safeguarding – has been languishing in reports with the phrases “Greece is planning”, “Greece is developing” for too many years now. 

Sadly, Greece still falls short of compliance with the EU Directive on Human Trafficking and is far from being in a position where its frontline services are able to “intervene on a child’s behalf even if there is suspicion of trafficking and exploitation” as required by the directive. 

I am sure that having insufficient childcare facilities designed for child victims of trafficking has a knock-on effect. Frontline forces are far more likely to intervene if they are confident there are clear, joined-up services for the specific needs of that child.

In 2018, I took a male minor back to the agency he had registered his asylum request with. I explained why it was clear that he was a victim of trafficking and vulnerable to re-exploitation, having been held captive for six months under threat of death in a garment factory in Turkey. 

I had to explain what trafficking was and the responsibility under EU law to take special measures for his welfare. They registered him again and communicated with EKKA that this case needed attention, which was really good. 

EKKA is essentially Greek social services charged with the care of children. Its resources were significantly impacted by the economic crisis long before the influx of refugee children.

This indicates a broken disjointed system with how refugee children and their needs are assessed.

This is real

For any of this to be of value, governments, first responders and carers first need to recognise that this is real, it happens and that it needs our early intervention. 

For more than a decade now regional police forces and social services in the UK have been shell shocked by their own neglect of hundreds of girls who they had labelled as “troubled liars”, but who were instead victims of  organised forced prostitution. Groomed by fake boyfriends, picked up from school, taken to locations for sex acts and dropped off at the end of the street in time for tea, believing or even experiencing that no one would listen or intervene.

Trafficking in persons remains in the top two most profitable crimes of choice for organised crime gangs. It can only remain so where there is demand, such is the nature of business.

Greece remains in Tier 2 (out of 3) of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report for 2020 (TIP). This is the plum line for reporting international standards in addressing human trafficking. It indicates that Greece is progressing but has significant numbers of severe instances of modern day slavery, and does not fully comply with the minimum standard for addressing human trafficking.

Any assumption that the state alone will adequately address such issues would be a mistake.

How can child sex trafficking be stopped?

This may seem like a random story but I promise it is relevant. In 2014, I heard a talk from Cyril Regis, one of the first black football players to play for the England squad. He spoke about how, 30 years ago, he began playing for a local team and that on any given match day 50 of the crowd of 500 would shout racist chants, make monkey noises and throw bananas on the pitch. When he started playing for a top team there would be 500 people in a crowd of 5,000 making monkey noises and shouting racist abuse.

Cyril said that in his lifetime such behaviour has become culturally unacceptable; and it has become legislatively criminalised and enforced. 

My hope for child sex exploitation and human trafficking is that it first becomes culturally known, then culturally unacceptable, and finally criminalised with the resources to actually enforce such criminalisation at ground level. This takes a widespread movement of people holding their nation’s governments to account in delivering those strategies so often left in the margins of good intent.

It is important that we understand that child exploitation is not something that happens to someone else somewhere else, it has landed firmly upon our own doorstep. The situation demands that all children are valued. It continues the scream for our attention and action long after our initial emotional response to headlines has subsided.

To report a suspicion of trafficking in Greece call: 1109 or visit 1109.gr

Gaz Kishere has worked in the charity sector for 30 years, in youth work, community development and anti-human trafficking. He currently spends most of his time in Athens with his wife Victoria where they run a small anti-trafficking project.

Gaz is immersed in the so-called “refugee crisis”, caring for volunteers and helping grass roots projects resolve “life and outcomes limiting organisational cultures”.

Gaz tells us: “Many in the counter trafficking say they are part of a modern abolition ‘movement’. However, ‘movement’ is a name given by those who come after us, if they deem our efforts to have produced such change, that we are worthy of that honour”.

Find out more about Gaz’s work here: www.crossborderinitiatives.org

Out of Sight, Out of Mind? (Where Are All the Homeless Children?)

As of May 15, 2020, there are an estimated 967 homeless children residing outside of formal state care in Greece. Regardless of the strategies implemented by the Greek state to curtail this, a significant amount of time therefore continues to be spent trying to find secure homes for lone children. This work is undertaken by organisations and individuals alike, including Velos Youth.

Velos Youth: Supporting young people to restart their lives

Velos Youth’s goal is to support unaccompanied children and young people to restart their lives either where they are or, safely – and legally – to reach a destination that is better for them.

Day to day, this is done through a youth centre for 16-21 year olds. The centre is a safer space offering a range of basic services as well as tailored 1:1 support for a population that is transitioning to adulthood in circumstances that most of us could never begin to understand. 

This age group does not only have universally unique needs that call for experienced youth workers and role models, but are also often excluded from services aimed at children (due to their capacity) as well as those aimed at adults (due to their non-existence or because family units are prioritised for access). 

Velos Youth supports a primarily urban population, with a limited number of young people visiting from nearby refugee camps and shelters. 

A situation in flux

The presence of homeless migrant and refugee children in Greece is sadly not a new phenomenon. However, in Athens at least, the landscape has changed significantly in recent years.

It is safe to say that the first 12 months of Velos Youth (founded in June 2017) were unprecedented in terms of the number of children coming through the doors with nothing – no family, no belongings and above all, no plan for how to overcome these dire circumstances.

Concerns ranged from homelessness, to skin and respiratory infections, to fears surrounding suspected sexual and labour exploitation. Homelessness was particularly common, with between 25 and 35 children directed by Velos Youth to places where they could make applications for state funding housing every week. Today, this figure is closer to five. 

Hiding the problem

It is important to address the reasons for this, to avoid misunderstandings. It’s easy to assume that fewer children sleeping rough on the streets of Athens is a good thing, but in reality this represents little more than an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. This approach has tragically underpinned many of the strategies deployed to address migration issues in Greece.

So, where are all the homeless children? Two key themes provide a framework for answering this question: migration policy and diaspora. The first can be supported by data, but does not give the full story.

Migration policy

Greece, with backing and pressure from the European Union, has tried a number of headline hitting tactics to stem the flow of migration into Europe from Asia and Africa. Most of these have been widely criticised for their ineffectiveness and even non-compliance with international human rights law. 

It is not possible to say objectively whether these tactics, which combine poor sanitary conditions with immense overcrowding, are deployed to create a bottleneck scenario that deters more people from attempting sea and land crossing into Greece. It is however widely accepted among the grassroots community that if this is the case, it has been unsuccessful. 

Tactics have also included illegal push backs of boats carrying migrants attempting perilous journeys from Turkish to Greek shorelines – journeys that have caused a significant number of deaths in recent years. However, as a well-used maxim goes,  “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. It is probably for this reason that attempts to stem migratory flows have been so unsuccessful.

Regardless of this, the strategies implemented to deal with relatively mass migration into Europe via Greece have created significant pressure points at borders, and maintained pressure on the fledgling systems designed to support asylum seekers.

Protective Custody: More like detention

Perhaps the most severe form of deterrence and the greatest neglect of children’s wellbeing is the use of Protective Custody. In reality this is not very protective, but is definitely custody: detention is a more accurate term.

The detention of asylum seekers has always been a controversial issue, but there have in the main only ever been arguments against the detention of children. At least one case tried at the European Court of Human Rights concluded that nine children had been detained for prolonged periods of time in police cells that were entirely inappropriate for minors. It was also discovered that the lack of time limits set for protective custody could lead to further arbitrary situations of prolonged minor detention in violation of domestic Greek law and, in particular, Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The reality is that, if Protective Custody was used to protect children, it would be implemented for a matter of hours while authorities source suitable long-term shelter. Instead, these hours frequently turn into days, weeks and sometimes months.

The chart and table below show data for the number of children held in these conditions.

Total UAMs in Greece
UAMs in long-term accommodation
# (%)
UAMs in RICs
# (%)
UAMs in “Protective Custody”
# (%)
UAMs in “Insecure housing”
# (%)
UAMs in other types of accommodation
# (%)
June 201837901141 (30%)368 (10%)216 (6%)1340 (35%)725 (19%)
June 201938831165 (30%)687 (18%)116 (3%)1065 (27%)850 (22%)
May 202050281699 (34%)1431 (28%)274 (5%)967 (19%)657 (13%)
Number (#) of unaccompanied minors (UAMs) living in Greece, and number and percentage (%) of UAMs in main types of accomodation. Chart and table data source: E.K.K.A.

Unsafe zones in Reception and Identification Centres

Next on the infamous list of most unacceptable methods of housing children are Reception and Identification Centres (RICs). These are more commonly referred to as Refugee Camps, but are unique in that they are intended only for short stays while longer-term accommodation is secured. 

Within many of these camps there are Safe Zones for unaccompanied children. As in the case of so-called “Protective” Custody, the “safe” part of the term Safe Zone must be handled with care. In no way do these meet the requirements prescribed to conventional shelters (shelters designated for the long-term housing and integration of lone asylum-seeking children). 

Inadequate space, inadequate services

Freya Mergler, Field Manager for UK-based organisationHelp Refugees in Greece explains: 

“The capacity of these shelters is incredibly lacking, forcing thousands of children to remain in RICs for unspecified amounts of time. Children living in centres such as Moria (Lesvos) and Vathi (Samos) receive limited psychosocial support and experience sanitary conditions that no parent would willingly place their child in. These children seem to be invisible to those who have a tangible say in their future.” 

The number of children in RICs outstrips the number of spaces available in their Safe Zones, and many are forced to fend for themselves amongst the general population, or in informal overspill sites outside of the RICs formal boundaries. Children can live in these camps for several months while they await transfer to long-term shelters. 

The statistics show that the number of children hosted in RICs has increased from 368 in June, 2018, to 1431 in May, 2020, rising from 9.7% to 28.4% of the total number of unaccompanied children in Greece. It is also clear that although a number of new long-term shelter spaces were created between 2019 and 2020 (from 1163 to 1699), the percentage able to access these rose by only 4%.

If one were to be cynical, they may ask whether the neglect of two thirds of Greece’s lone children had been informally agreed upon as acceptable, somewhere behind the scenes. 

Uncovering the reality of lone children in Greece

Figuratively speaking then we have partly uncovered where the homeless children on Athens’s streets have gone. But we have also witnessed that the number of unaccompanied children residing in Greece as a whole has increased, and that 967 remain living in Insecure Housing Conditions.

This term, amidst the dystopian taxonomy of possible accommodation options for lone children, covers those living in informal or insecure housing conditions such as living temporarily in apartments with others, living in squats, being homeless and moving frequently between different types of accommodation. 

This means that 967 children have made formal applications for shelter and protection which are currently being denied. 


The number and percentage of children denied any support for the state has however fallen considerably between 2018 and 2020 (from 59% to 19.2%), but not as much as the observations made and data collected at the Velos Youth Centre would imply. 

Even taking conservative figures, the number of children directed by Velos Youth to make applications for shelter each week is just 20% of what it was in 2018: the estimated number of children living in insecure housing conditions is at 43% of June 2018 figures. 

Of course, this could be due to a changing profile of the young people who attend Velos, but the services provided remain the same, as do the tangible demographics of the user base. Attendance at the centre has also increased year on year, and has tracked closely with migratory flows into Greece. 

Communities filling gaps left by the state

Instead we believe that the ever growing diaspora of migrant communities settling in Athens is filling in the gaps left by state services. This is not necessarily something we celebrate. Although we  applaud these efforts, we must also observe and monitor with caution. 

Value for the family unit in these communities (both the diaspora community and in the country of origin) is often seen to be greater than in European cultures, and can therefore explain the informal adoption of children who have been separated from, or have lost, their families. Yet we must not ignore the opportunities for exploitation that increased migration has created. 

Over the years, children have reported to us that they live with unrelated adults, in overcrowded apartments, and are expected to either pay above market rents or offer labour in its place. 

An ever-present question: Where are all the homeless children?

We are in a privileged position at Velos Youth to support children to make applications to receive their entitlements, and to be part of a network of organisations that may eventually see the child enter a protective accommodation structure. 

However, those absorbed into the darker side of these communities may never make it through our doors, and may find themselves in any number of exploitative circumstances, with no way out. 

We must, therefore, continue to ask ourselves the difficult question, where are all the homeless children?

Jonny Willis is the director and co-founder of Velos Youth. Find out more about Velos Youth’s work here: https://velosyouth.org/. If you’d like to contribute to I Witness Child Migration we would love to hear from you.

What can we do?

Stay informed and support campaigns that target causes (some examples):

Volunteer at home or in Greece:

The Balkan Way: Hearsay Here-to-Stay

With a light backpack and no water, he wasn’t out hiking for fun. Weary and slim, he waved us down on a mountain backroad near the Croatia – Slovenia border with a breathless request: 


“Where are you from?” We asked. The stock traveller starter.

“Montenegro.” He replied.

We all stood in uncomfortable silence while he drank. His accent didn’t fit. His clothes, his lack of kit. We slowly realised we shouldn’t have asked this loaded question. 

After a few large swallows he handed the bottle back, but the sun was burning through the sky, and the cogs in our heads started clicking.

“Finish it.”

He did and handed the bottle back, said thanks and went on his way. Cycling and free camping down the spine of the Balkans and across to Serbia to join a small NGO in Belgrade, it wasn’t until this moment that I realised our journey south would perversely offer insights into the practical issues of water, accommodation and safety for people forced into migration, travelling in the opposite direction. 

Slovenia – Croatia Border Crossing.
Behind the trees are reams of razor wire fences.

“We are all migrants.”

The Balkans, a corridor between the east and west, has a long history of migration in both directions. When you hear “migrant”, what do you think? 

“We are all migrants,” the Welsh manager of the NGO in Belgrade said to volunteers from all over the world.

The Balkans sees vast numbers of people migrating to and from – to work, travel and make holidays – as well as smaller numbers of people forced to flee from persecution, poverty and more. 19.7 million tourists visited Croatia in 2018 (europa.stats), while 718 people submitted claims for asylum in the same year (worlddata.info).

For those with the right passport, crossing Balkan borders is safe, easy and beautiful. For those without the right paperwork, crossing borders in the Balkans is dangerous, difficult and violent. 

Welcome sign outside NGO ‘The Workshop’ in Belgrad

“We want them to stay!”

Balkan countries are countries that citizens want to emigrate from. Marko had just scrambled up from the Croatian sea when we met him. 

“That’s the first time I swim here since a child,” he told us. “Many Croatians cannot afford to live here or come here for holiday, the coast and hotels are mostly owned by Germans.” 

The further away from the coast and more rural we got, the more we saw the visible signs of troubled economies. Labour-intensive tall hay bales, abandoned buildings, people living on the streets. And just like many local citizens, people seeking asylum from other countries do not wish to stay in the Balkans and want to pass through into the EU. 

A Serbian anthropologist put it this way: “We want them to stay! But even Serbian people don’t want to stay.”

 Few options for accommodation …

Transient sleeping outside in the wild and in cities brings environmental and social risks – this is more acute now in the midst of a global pandemic than ever. The initial anxiety of not knowing where you will sleep that night is overtaken by the fear of being eaten by wild animals, being blown up by an unexploded land mine, or by being told to move on or worse by humans. Then by fears of being hit by a vehicle, storms, earthquakes and landslides. 

Road kill and signs give clues of wild animals; wild boar, wolves, snakes

Common causes of death in Europe for people migrating to seek asylum are related to mountain, train and vehicle accidents (Missing Migrants Project). In 2017 two men were found dead after a rock dislodged by landslide fell where they were sleeping. Even if they had money for a hotel, there would have been no guarantee that they could get a room without the right papers. EU policy turns hotel clerks into border guards, making them ask you for your passport when checking in.

Marko told us that people trying to cross to Slovenia in the Croatian mountains have started asking locals for shelter. 

“It is a very bad situation, they are afraid to offer shelter because of police”, he explained. “Police can be a big problem.”  

So when there is no chance to stay in a hostel, no chance to stay with a local, you have few options. Sleep out in the open. Try one of the many abandoned buildings. Risk presenting yourself to the authorities for a chance of a bed in a refugee camp. NGO’s in Bosnian refugee camps are declaring the camps humanitarian crises (Migrant Info). 

Abandoned four storey hotel in Montenegro

In Belgrade, I saw many unaccompanied minors sleeping rough in abandoned buildings and in parks as they waited to travel onwards. The Asylum Protection Centre actively goes to meet refugees and advises them on how to access safer accommodation (as well as offering legal advice and support services). Unfortunately this involves presenting yourself at police stations in order to be allocated a camp. For those whose experiences mean equating police with violence, brutality and fear, this is not an option. 

They say, “Police? No police!” 

And people who do decide to take the risk and find shelter in a refugee camp are getting stuck in them, unable to cross borders, and with no pending asylum claim. 

“I play the game but no chance”

The first day I met Arman he told me, “I have no chance. I play the game but no chance.” 

He explained “the game” – how people in the Balkans talk about trying to cross borders in the Balkans: 

“I have tried 300 times on foot. I have been here for three years. My family is in Sweden, I want to go there to be with them. I try to cross to Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, no chance.” 

He looked reflective, “Maybe next time I will try swimming across the river.”  

One week, Arman showed me a large bruise to his leg where he had been beaten by police. “Yes, they beat me. And detain me. Then let me go again.” 

Common graffiti motif across the Balkans

He laughed, like it happens a lot. He had been in no man’s land between Hungary and Serbia. Hungarian Parliament approved a law in 2017 that allows people including children with families and unaccompanied minors above 14 to be detained and pushed back to Serbia if they are found within 8km of the border. And thanks to a 2018 law any Hungarian citizens assisting refugees with asylum claims can be subject to jail sentences

Sarah, a volunteer in Belgrade, told me about a family she worked with: “They were told by their smuggler to pack their bags for an afternoon walk to the Serbian border from Bulgaria. Three days later when they were exhausted and underfed (they had only packed for an afternoon after all) they were told: there is the border, now RUN! They had two small children under five.” 

One unaccompanied minor took a phone call half way through his language lesson with The Workshop, “I’m sorry but now I have to go meet my smuggler.” 

Usually very calm, upbeat and social, he began to breathe quickly and jumped away from the table, forgetting his normal round of goodbyes. The youngest unaccompanied minor I met in Serbia was about ten, he wasn’t sure of his age. He also left unexpectedly half way through a lesson after a message on his phone. 

Inside ‘The Workshop’ whose international volunteers provide informal curriculum based lessons directed by the learner in english, german, french, serbian and maths

Employees from a safe house for unaccompanied minors in Belgrade told me: “Sometimes they are kidnapped by smugglers and held for ransom until their families can pay.”

“Bulgaria no good” 

Arman came through Bulgaria to get into Serbia. “Bulgaria no good, big problem.” 

He was not the only one to say it. Many told of “refugee hunters,” an illicit armed group targeting refugees with physical violence and aggression to push them back from borders (see The Guardian’s report). German volunteers said similar fascist groups are forming at Germany’s borders, although I can not find reports of this in mainstream media. 

“I walked from Iraq to Serbia”

Zamir, like Arman, couldn’t afford a fake ID or a smuggler, his options were limited to his feet and the backs of lorries. Zamir was playing football when he stopped and pointed to his knees: “Problem”. He sat down to rest his legs and explained, “I walked from Iraq to Serbia.” Zamir was seventeen when I met him.

War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo is based on this book of first hand accounts from children who lived through war

Which route a person takes depends on the information they have about borders and money available to pay or not pay for smugglers. 

Marko told us, “Many refugees are coming through Croatia to get into Slovenia over the mountains. People are trying to make money from the refugees, they are selling information about the borders.” 

Misinformation is a tool used by smugglers to control and manipulate people, to push people to pay more for smugglers, to choose them to get them across. 

It is up to us to be the system change…

Just like people stuck in Balkan countries for years, this situation is not changing for the better. While there is war, persecution, famine, poverty and climate change there will always be people fleeing to safer countries. People seeking refuge moving through the Balkans face living on the streets, attacks by police and armed groups, a lack of clear impartial information, and uncertain health care regardless of whether they have money or not. Borders across Europe are becoming spaces of human rights violations perpetrated by illicit groups and police alike – legitimised by European Union and individual government policies. 

At a time where the border between Greece and Turkey is becoming a political playground resulting in death and deplorable conditions for common people, it continues to be up to us, common people, to stand in solidarity with refugees, with NGO’s, with local citizens around the world. The Kindertransport system for Jewish children at the outbreak of the second world war shows that together we can unite and create systems that save lives. It is up to us to stop racism. Up to us to stop anti-refugee rhetoric and replace lies with understanding and fact. It is up to us to challenge our governments and politicians to uphold the human rights not just of the citizens of the country they serve, but all citizens of the world. It is up to us to replace fear with sustainable long term solutions. We can become system change by caring for and helping each other. In a world with enough resources for everyone, we can consider changes to how we live to ensure everyone can survive.

by Roseanna Freiburghaus

Roseanna trained and worked as a child protection social worker with Manchester City Council in the UK. In this job, she noticed a lot of myths and lack of information about unaccompanied minors in the UK seeking refuge. She started i witness child migration in 2019 to start filling this information gap with direct accounts and experiences of young people travelling alone in Europe.

What can we do? 

Support campaigns that target causes (some examples):

Volunteer at home or in the Balkans

Stay informed so you can spread understanding: 

https://thesyriacampaign.org/  – information and campaigns for Syria

https://www.refugee.info/selectors – information for refugees in x5 different languages 

https://www.unhcr.org/ – global reports on refugees around the world 

https://balkaninsight.com/balkan-migrant-route/ – website dedicated to all Balkan counties offering news and analysis on migration issues 

https://pushbackmap.org/about-the-map/ – map documenting the systematic violence and push-backs at the internal, external and externalised borders of the European Union. 

https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/keyword/balkans-migration-route – up to date reports on Balkan route trends 

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/07/eu-migrants-refugees-balkan-route-frontex-dublin-schengen – excellent article advocating for political change within the European Union to tackle the causes of this humanitarian crisis instead of the symptoms. 

https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/engl/Governing_the_Balkan_Route.pdf – in depth analysis of how the formalised corridor came into existence and then closed. 

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/mediterranean-journeys-in-hope/long-year-of-migration-and-balkan-corridor/ – about the balkan corridor 

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/23/essex-lorry-deaths-how-dangerous-is-the-journey-to-the-uk – about deaths at balkan borders 

A Tale of Tails and Teenagers (Part 4): Safe Passage

Safe passage for kittens and unaccompanied minors in Calais and Dunkirk 2019

I met Hemin and Ameda, two unaccompanied minors from Kurdistan Iraq living in Dunkirk, around the same time two abandoned kittens were found in the Calais ‘Jungles’. Four months later I was scrambling to get the kittens legal passage to safety and saying goodbye to Hemin, Ameda and too many other young people stuck in northern France. Part four of this story focuses on safe passage.

Where the kittens were really afforded better chances was when it came to finding them safe passage to a permanent ever after. The five incredible volunteers looking after the kittens didn’t want the siblings to be separated. When my Swiss aunty told me she was looking to adopt two kittens, I immediately sent her a few emotionally manipulative videos of the kittens saying ‘adopt me’. It worked. And the volunteers agreed with the match!

Celebration event with the volunteers, Mogley and Balou in a makeshift cat box

safe and legal travel

One trip to the vet got the kittens all the health injections they needed and two stamped French cat passports that would guarantee their safe and legal travel. A few weeks later, the kittens enjoyed a small celebration event with their volunteer carers and new mum before crossing the border to Switzerland. The process for taking kittens to the UK is no different, once they have injections and paperwork they will be granted leave to travel in a number of weeks. 

Mogley and Balou in their new cat box safely on their way to Switzerland

too long to wait

The same week we got the kittens passports, Hemin was told he would have to wait for a year to get an answer on whether his family reunification application would be given the go ahead. It was too long for him to wait. His yearning to be reunited with his sister was too strong. He left state provided accommodation and returned to Dunkirk to try reach his relatives faster. Like others without the option of family reunification, he now has to make the journey alone and at high risk of potential exploitation, abuse and death. No health assessments, no protective passport. If he makes it safely to the UK to his sister, there is no knowing if the fact he started the process in France will have any bearing on his asylum claim.

Border fences in Calais
Photograph by Andreas Beissel

no chance

Ameda like many others stuck in Northern France has no chance of safe or legal passage. The only other legal option for safe passage was the Dubs Amendment. The UK has still not met its Dubs Amendment commitment and 280 local authority places remain to be filled. Instead, Ameda and others must either attempt the crossing independently or pay a smuggler or make an arrangement with a trafficker on the chance that they can make the dangerous crossing by lorry or boat. This can take weeks to years, ‘no chance’ is a common phrase in Calais and Dunkirk. Children, young people and adults have been seriously injured and died trying to cross this way.

Vigil for refugee who died trying to cross to the UK and protest against border deaths Calais 2019
Photograph by Andreas Beissel

years of uncertainty

Ameda often told us all he wanted was a family in the UK, and to be able to go to school. There is no telling (if he makes it and alerts the authorities to his whereabouts) if he will get a family or be placed in independent accommodation. And he will face years of uncertainty whilst his claim for asylum is processed. For others who make it across, it wasn’t uncommon to hear of minors talking about working in London shops, indicating they would not be free from trafficking in the UK.

no cost to the state

You could argue that the jungle cats had a better chance at safety and protection than unaccompanied minors because their needs are different, as were the risks they faced. It was much easier to obtain the necessary paperwork for the kittens because they are subject to different laws and less stringent bureaucratic processes. States don’t care so much about cats crossing their borders. Unlike with humans, I doubt being born in France had anything to do with the fact they could obtain passports, it is more likely because of the three hundred euros it cost to purchase them, and the fact that cats pose no cost to the state. 

Mogley and Balou in their new adoptive home in Switzerland

Unaccompanied minors in Calais and Dunkirk while theoretically having their rights protected by a whole host of international and national laws and regulations, in reality benefit very little if at all from them whilst in transit. In their case, it seems their country of birth is the key determining factor. 

By Roseanna Freiburghaus.

Roseanna trained and worked as a child protection social worker with Manchester City Council in the UK. In this job, she noticed a lot of myths and lack of information about unaccompanied minors in the UK seeking refuge. She started i witness child migration in 2019 to start filling this information gap with direct accounts and experiences of young people travelling alone in Europe.

To protect the identities of real people, Hemin and Ameda are an amalgamation of unaccompanied minors Roseanna met during her time volunteering with RYS for four months in 2019.

What can we do?

Support campaigns that target causes (some examples):

Donate good quality items:

Volunteer at home or in Northern France

  • Research organisations fit your skills and apply

A Tale of Tails and Teenagers (Part 3): Protection

Protection for kittens and unaccompanied minors in Calais and Dunkirk 2019

I met Hemin and Ameda, two unaccompanied minors from Kurdistan Iraq living in Dunkirk, around the same time two abandoned kittens were found in the Calais ‘Jungles’. Four months later it was the kittens I was scrambling to get legal passage to safety and saying goodbye to Hemin, Ameda and too many other young people stuck in northern France. Part three of this story focuses on protection.

daily signs of potential exploitation

Ameda like all other unaccompanied minors in Calais and Dunkirk was exposed to risks of sexual and labour exploitation, human trafficking, physical violence and a lack of adequate sanitary shelter, food and water. With Ameda and many other minors in Dunkirk we saw the daily signs of potential exploitation: new shoes and clothes and access to money where previously there was none. We saw him working in makeshift cafes, and heard others talking ambiguously about ‘work’. ‘Work’ might mean holding lorry doors open (there are minors serving prison sentences for this in France), driving for smugglers, or buying and selling on cheap cigarettes – all to get passage to the UK. For some, perhaps, the work ends in France; for some it continues in the UK, and the lines between smuggling and trafficking blur.

building trust

Lego construct of minors getting controlled by police trying to get into the back of a lorry by unaccompanied minors in Dunkirk

Over weeks of building trust with Ameda and finding out his interests, the RYS Dunkirk outreach team was able to engage him in activities. He went on a swimming trip, and it was a joy to see him not only relish time and safety away from the camp but also develop stronger bonds with other minors who he could turn to for support. Now when he needed something he could ask RYS staff to arrange for resources, instead of having to work for them. He had time to engage in english lessons that would help keep him safer by equipping him with the language to express his needs. 

“Ship for Everyone”, by an unaccompanied minor in Dunkirk

RYS also protects minors by making referrals to the French local authorities which makes the Judge recieving them responsible for the unaccompanied minor under French law. This importantly means they are liable in court should the minor come to harm or their rights undermined. Sadly I didn’t see this responsibility translate into any other tangible action beyond libability.

torn out chunks of hair

Other forms of harm are harder to protect minors from. Every day in the field we heard accounts of police violence. One minor showed volunteers where police had torn out chunks of his hair. How can you protect a minor from physical violence if the abuse is committed by a police force eager to implementing the UK and French agreed hostile environment policy

Photograph by Andreas Beissel

requesting sex in exchange for food

I heard accounts of independent volunteers and citizens requesting sex, or pretending to be in a relationship, in exchange for access to food, water, shelter or other items. RYS is one of the few organisations that make background checks of volunteers and staff members to ensure they are safe to practice. There will be practical reasons why other organisations are unable to do so, especially when depending on short term volunteers, and most charities do put in place other safeguards such as never allowing volunteers in the field alone. Still, individual volunteers are able to enter the living spaces of displaced people seemingly without regulation. 

All across Europe, unaccompanied minors disappear from organisations and services who know them, and it is no different in France. 

immediately removed from harm’s way

The kittens were afforded the best protection by being immediately removed from harm’s way by being accommodated by volunteers. What better form of protection is there than prevention? No longer in the Calais ‘jungles’ they were not at risk of police violence and there was no risk of them being hurt even by the neighbouring territorial cat. 

Shitram, the territorial neighbouring cat

By Roseanna Freiburghaus.

Roseanna trained and worked as a child protection social worker with Manchester City Council in the UK. In this job, she noticed a lot of myths and lack of information about unaccompanied minors in the UK seeking refuge. She started i witness child migration in 2019 to start filling this information gap with direct accounts and experiences of young people travelling alone in Europe.

To protect the identities of real people, Hemin and Ameda are an amalgamation of unaccompanied minors Roseanna met during her time volunteering with RYS for four months in 2019.

What can we do?

Support campaigns that target causes (some examples):

Donate good quality items:

Volunteer at home or in Northern France

  • Research organisations fit your skills and apply

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