25 May 2016

For some refugee minors, the journey to Europe is a lonely one

Thousands of minors, either travelling alone or separated from their families, sought refuge in the European Union last year. Photographer: Joris Lugtigheid (2015 file photo)

DIAVATA, Greece - Like thousands of other young refugees in Europe, Jamal Muafak set out on his own for a journey he was confident would take him to Germany.

The 16-year-old Syrian made it as far as northern Greece before migration restrictions were imposed along the so-called Balkan route, interrupting his plan “to join my two uncles in Berlin”.
 
Jamal, whose name was changed to protect his identity, is one of an estimated 30 unaccompanied minors living at the Diavata refugee centre, where SOS Children’s Villages provides classes, activities and other support for the more than 2,000 people living there.
 
SOS Greece is also working to provide shelter for unaccompanied children who are being relocated from tents and other temporary shelter. A hostel in Thessaloniki that can house 30 young people opened on 16 May and the one in Serres, some 80-km from Thessaloniki, will open by June and can accommodate ten girls. SOS Greece is operating the facilities through an agreement with the Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity.
 
“The opening of the centres for unaccompanied refugee children at Serres and Thessaloniki is a critically important step in our efforts to protect and care for these vulnerable young people until they can be re-unified with their families”, said George Protopapas, National Director of SOS Greece. “The care for unaccompanied boys and girls is a vital complement to the other help we are offering to refugee children and families at Athens and Thessaloniki, as well as transit centres at Lesvos, Apanemo, and Moria.”
 
Chrysa Panagiotidou, a teacher who volunteers for SOS Children's Villages Greece, gives a Greek language lesson with the help of Farsi interpreter Ismail Ahmadi (backround). Photo by Timothy Spence
 
Jamal and several of his friends say they have relatives living in other EU countries, and made it to Diavata just as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and several other countries closed their borders to new refugees seeking passage to central and northern Europe.
                                                          
Many of these teen-agers set off alone or joined small groups for companionship - and to guard against robbers or armed groups that occasionally prey upon refugees travelling in isolated areas. Police and refugee workers say exact number of those under 18 is difficult to compile because some minors claim they are related to adults they join along the refugee corridor.
 
The European Union’s statistical agency figures that nearly 90,000 asylum-seekers, out of the 1 million who fled to the EU in 2015, were unaccompanied minors. Border restrictions enacted in early March mean that many youngsters travelling alone are now sitting in camps, waiting for asylum or are going through the legal process to join relatives elsewhere in Europe.
 
Not all minors made their way to Europe alone, as Jamal did. Some were separated along the refugee routes or at crowded registration centres. One purpose of the SOS information, communications and technology corners (ICT Corners) is to help refugee families who are separated or in different countries.
 
At the refugee centre in Tabanovce, in northern Macedonia, and just across the Serbian border at the camp in Preševo, a few unaccompanied minors are seeking help to join relatives who have already made it to the north. Others, like an Afghan teen-ager smoking with friends along the railway tracks in Tabanovce, points to Serbia and says, “Tonight, we go over the mountains.”
 
Many of them don’t wait, said one refugee official in Macedonia, speaking on condition that he not be identified. “They are nearly all boys travelling alone or in groups and they find their way around the border patrols”, he explained. “SOS [Children’s Villages] and everybody wants to help them, [but] they are here today, gone tomorrow.”
 
According to UNHCR and legal aid workers helping youngsters, unification can take months. Both the child and the relative must work through embassies in their respective country and provide proof of family relationship, which is not always easy for those who have fled their home countries with little or no proof of identity.
 
SOS Children's Villages Greece hopes this building at the Diavata refugee camp can be converted to classroom space. The tents in the background were being used as temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors. Photo by Timothy Spence
 
Frustrated after spending three months in Greece, Jamal and several young friends who joined him around the UNHCR-flagged tents where they live said they spend much of their time sleeping. Asked if he and his friends ever participate in the language classes offered by SOS Children’s Villages Greece, or other activities, Jamal smiles and said they prefer to sleep.
 
He does, however, talk to his family, including four siblings, in Syria and with his uncles in Berlin. Jamal is working with lawyers from ARSIS, a Greek legal aid society that specialises in helping vulnerable groups, in hopes of joining his uncles in Berlin.
 
While passing time by sleeping or chatting, Jamal and several of his friends say they do miss school and the opportunity to work. Jamal’s career goal is to become a cook – in Germany.