OPINION – June 18 2020

What do you say if a child asks if you live in a container similar to theirs?

By Popi Gkliva, Refugee Emergency Relief Project Manager, SOS Children’s Villages Greece

Ever since the ‘hotspots’ – or refugee camps - were created on the Greek islands, SOS Children’s Villages Greece has provided support to children and families, with a focus on unaccompanied and separated children. The risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 has led to measures limiting the access to children and young people living in the camps. Popi Gkliva shares her insights on the daily realities which have become the every-day normal for many children.

How do you comfort a seven year old who has to wait over one and a half years to see her mother? How do you explain to children that they are not eligible to attend school when they are eager to learn? What do you say if a child asks if the home you go to in the evenings looks like their container or tent?

As a member of the emergency team of SOS Children’s Villages Greece, I have been in and out of the camps for years. I cannot even put everything in words what I have seen. I do know, however, that I do not want that the realities that children express in these questions normalised in our society and for themselves; lamented but treated as unavoidable.

When we speak about the children, we need to consider all camps and places where their basic right are not respected. Media coverage often depicts Moria, because it is the largest camp in Lesbos with nearly 20.000 inhabitants. Moria has been referred to as ‘hell on earth’ by some inhabitants themselves but it is not about showing the extreme in numbers, it is about how the conditions affect every single child in the long term.

A refugee camp is simply not a place for a child.

Trying to be there for the children amidst pandemic prevention measures

The risk of COVID-19 spreading in the camps puts an additional burden on the lives of people living in the camps, but also poses a new challenge to us – the social service teams and NGO workers - who aim to provide essential daily services. In addition to all the hardships, we suddenly faced a situation where we could no longer have any direct access to children and families.

SOS Children’s Villages Greece has provided services to refugees and migrants in various locations in Greece, including the island of Lesbos as well as the mainland, since December 2015. In 2019, services including accommodation, psychosocial support, educational activities, legal assistance, specialised education, sports and recreational activities have reached over 10,600 children and 920 parents.

The demand and need grows each year, with a 55.3% increase of people arriving in Greece in 2019.

One of our focus programmes targets children and families living deprived of the most basic services in the Kara Tepe camp on the island of Lesbos. SOS Children’s Villages Greece runs a kindergarten and educational, remedial and recreational classes for school-aged children, among other programmes. Each month, our team on the island supports around 845 individuals.

Suspending these services would disrupt the children and young people’s routines we were able to establish; it would put their well-being further at risk including their mental health.

Therefore, we designed and adapted our operations in such a way that individuals continue to have access to tailor-made services, taking any precaution necessary to guarantee the safety of the children, parents, and also the professionals.

We continued our family strengthening programme on the mainland for refugee families through phone and Skype calls. To ensure continuity of education, we created a Google Digital Classroom platform allowing children to access e-books and educational material.

A major barrier to guarantee access to education and information is the lack of necessary tools. We have been able to continue to engage most of our beneficiaries in the Kara Tepe camp in Lesbos, also thanks to the collaboration with a foundation that provides the necessary equipment for digital distance learning.

We collaborated with the local refugee’s education coordinator (REC) of the Greek Ministry of Education to connect children attending the digital classroom and their parents with public school teachers in order to exchange educational materials.

In addition, we supported efforts to prevent the spread of the pandemic by distributing COVID-19 instructions for proper hygiene maintenance in Farsi, Arabic and English, as well as hygiene kits.

Despite these efforts, the uncertainty, the ongoing deterioration of conditions and the acceptance of children having to live under such circumstances have an unimaginable impact on the lives of these children and their future.

We risk losing a generation if we do not act now

It is hard to express the many mixed feelings I have when visiting the camp. It is clear though that we simply cannot accept that children and young people in 21st century Europe cannot receive proper nutrition, are sick without being able to see a doctor, and risk violence and abuse on a daily basis.

It should be an imperative to take action. We at SOS Children’s Villages Greece have been asking all along that the European Union and its member states provide reception conditions which guarantee care and protection of children, including access to healthcare, education and safe accommodations in the community.

In the many debates about ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘unaccompanied’ or ‘separated minors’, people seem forget that we are actually talking about children. We need to humanise the debate again to make sure children are treated as such. These children have the right to a childhood like any other child does.

In the absence of full care and protection for children and young people on the move, we at SOS Children’s Villages play a crucial role to fill gaps. We might not have the answer to a child’s questions about the way they live, but they might stop wondering if they did no longer have to spend every day in a muddy makeshift tent and try to find spots to play under olive trees without actually having any toys.

If children that fled war, violence or poverty have immediate access to professional care and protection services appropriate for their age and circumstances, they can continue to realise their dreams – dreams that they are trying hard to hold onto.

This is where we need to join efforts and represent those whose voices are not heard. We must promote their rights for a dignified future living in safety, either in Europe or in their country of origin.

Without appropriate care and professional support, we are losing a generation and we become complicit in accepting conditions that will never allow children to heal, to pursue a dream and to build their lives.