SOS Children’s Villages plays a lead role in caring for unaccompanied children in Greece. Since May 2016, SOS Greece has provided nearly 200 unaccompanied children with housing, care and legal assistance at two centres for boys and one for girls. A fourth centre is opening in March, bringing the total residential capacity to 92.
In addition, the SOS Children’s Villages emergency programme for refugees provides psychological and emotional care, social services, language classes, food and hygiene kits, as well as recreational activities on Lesvos Island, in Athens and in the Thessaloniki area. SOS Greece has helped more than 76,000 migrant children and adults since the programme began in late 2015.
George Protopapas says the migration crisis has been one of the biggest challenges of his more than 30 years as National Director in Greece. In the following interview, he talks about the challenges facing unaccompanied children and what SOS Children’s Villages does to help them. Mr Protopapas spoke on the sidelines of the Vienna Humanitarian Congress on 3 March.
There has been sharp criticism of Europe’s handling of unaccompanied refugee children. What is the situation in Greece?
Caring for unaccompanied minors is one of the biggest issues for us and for the whole of Europe. In our case, we have a shelter for unaccompanied boys in Athens where the majority of the children are 14 or 15. Our priority is to re-unite them with their families whenever possible, but this can take months and some of their families are blocked from entering Europe. So there are big questions: How long will they stay with us … and is Europe prepared to provide services for these children for several years.
What sorts of emotional or health affects do you see amongst these children?
We see a lot of trauma. Even if they stay with you six or eight months, you have to think about what these children have suffered in the last few years. You try to make every child more comfortable.
These youngsters come from different backgrounds and different nationalities. One of the most important things for us is the atmosphere that you create between the youngsters in our shelters. We help them understand that now they are in Greece, they are all equal and there is no reason to fight one another. The work we do in the surrounding community to help them gain acceptance is also very important.
Of the estimated 2,300 unaccompanied children in Greece, approximately 140 are girls. What is being done to help girls who are coming alone to Europe?
I am very proud because SOS Children’s Villages is one of the very few organisations that is also providing shelter for girls who are unaccompanied. Some are married and their husbands are either still in Turkey or in another country in Europe. We are working to re-unite these girls with their family. Three out of the ten girls arrived in Greece pregnant and now have children of their own.
All of the five or six [government-approved] shelters for the unaccompanied girls in Greece are located in cities because the threats from smugglers and disappearance is much bigger there. In a big city you see only the building in front of you. In a town, you are able to see the whole neighbourhood. The SOS Children’s Villages shelter for girls is located in a small city outside Thessaloniki. We want offer them a safe home, care and a quiet environment.
What does SOS Children’s Villages do to help with the re-unification process.
In addition to the caregivers in the shelters, we have social workers, translators and lawyers in every shelter. Each re-unification case takes six to eight months. Some don’t have families in Europe and sometimes the boys are loners who are sent ahead to gradually bring the rest of the family. These cases proceed at a very slow pace which is why it is so important in the interim to be able to provide them with care, education and a decent life.
Are you dealing with younger children, pre-teens, who are unaccompanied?
The process for sheltering the minors is handled by the government. There is a national centre that receives the application and it places the minors. In our case we had only two children – siblings, one girl and one boy – who were under ten. The mother was killed in Syria and the father lost his life in transit to Greece. The uncle was living in Germany, so that reunification process was much quicker, about four months.
What is being done to ensure that the unaccompanied children who are waiting to re-join their families or caregivers have an opportunity to attend school?
We work with Greek students, the schools, the teachers and the parents of the local children to help them understand that these [migrant] children are not enemies. We think it is important for everyone to help people accept the [newcomers] in their community.
Secondly, we try to help the children understand that education, sports and other activities are good for their psychological balance. We encourage them to recognise that the more education they receive, the easier they can integrate either into Greece or other European countries.
The emergency programme also helps children and their families at the refugee centres. What are your plans for the future?
We continue to work in the refugee camps by providing psychological care, activities for children, language classes, as well as football and other recreational activities. SOS Children’s Villages is the only organisation approved by the Ministry of Education to run a kindergarten at one of the refugee camps in Athens. But we would like to do more work with the unaccompanied children because we find this closer to the SOS philosophy. … The more you work with an unaccompanied child, and help them gain acceptance in the society around them, that would be very good for everyone.
George Protopapas (left), National Director of SOS Children's Villages in Greece, joins SOS colleagues at the Vienna Humanitarian Congress on 3 March 2017. Photo by Viktor Trager/SOS Austria
Read more about our emergency response programme for migrant and refugee children.
Read our position paper on migrant and refugee children.