Just days before SOS Children’s Villages opened a new centre for unaccompanied refugee girls in Athens, urgent calls came from Greek officials seeking help in caring for a total of ten children who arrived in the country alone.
Refugee arrivals are on the rise and so is the concern about Greece’s ability to provide care and support for children who are separated from their family or without parental care. The National Centre for Social Solidarity estimates that of the more than 3,100 unaccompanied children in the country, 2,300 are awaiting shelter. About 4% are girls.
“All unaccompanied children are vulnerable, but for the girls the risk is one click higher,” says Alexandros Antonatos, area coordinator for the SOS Greece refugee emergency programme and head of the new shelter for unaccompanied girls. “There are more security and safety challenges and a bigger risk of human trafficking.”
Through swift action, SOS Children’s Villages was able to immediately shelter four sisters from Pakistan – aged eight to 15 – at the SOS Children’s Village Plagiari in Thessaloniki. The ten-year-old brother of the Iraqi girls was also housed at the shelter. “We don’t separate children from their families, especially when they are this young,” Mr Antonatos explains.
Meantime, SOS Greece was able to quickly reunite two girls and a boy from Iraq’s Kurdistan region – aged eight to ten – with family members already living in Athens. Three sisters from Afghanistan, the youngest of whom is ten, were also placed by Greek authorities in the care of SOS Children’s Villages Greece.
The new shelter for girls, which opened in May 2018, builds on SOS Children’s Villages Greece’s more than two years of experience in caring for unaccompanied children. SOS Children’s Villages has operated a shelter for 25 unaccompanied boys in Athens since April 2016.
Respected track record
The homes – purposely located in family-oriented neighbourhoods with schools nearby – are designed to create a safe, welcoming and structured environment. They are staffed with social workers and educators. Weekend and after-school programmes include language classes and creative activities, and children with special interests in arts or other hobbies attend classes at community centres. An in-house lawyer helps with asylum and reunification efforts, often helping to speed up the re-unification process.
Lefteris Papagiannakis, the Athens Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs, praises SOS Children’s Villages for its care of unaccompanied children and working with the community to create acceptance for the shelters.
“The opening of these shelters has been done is a very good way, through cooperation and community outreach,” the Vice Mayor said during a recent visit to the boys shelter. “We encourage SOS Children’s Villages to increase its capacity to handle unaccompanied minors and expand its capacity outside the centre of Athens.”
An urgent need
The urgent pleas from Greek authorities to help with the children from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan show the ongoing need for help in the country.
“We should give all our efforts in these extremely vulnerable cases,” says George Protopapas, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Greece. “In Serres we had a girl of 14 or 15 years , and you could see she was pregnant. She was bringing a new life to the world. You have to save that baby and not leave it to die, to be an item of commerce, or whatever else could happen.”
Alexandros Antonatos is area coordinator for the SOS Greece refugee emergency programme and head of the new shelter for unaccompanied girls. Photo by Giorgos Moutafis.
Background on our work in Greece
Since 2016, the refugee emergency response programme of SOS Children’s Villages Greece has provided more than 250 unaccompanied children with housing, care, educational activities and legal assistance so they can re-join relatives. Currently, 25 boys live at the SOS Children’s Villages shelter in Athens (opened in April 2016), while a shelter for girls (opened in May 2018) has a capacity of ten. Of the more than 3,100 unaccompanied children in Greece, an estimated 2,300 are waiting for shelter.
SOS Greece also operates a Child Friendly Space at the Kara Tepe refugee reception centre on Lesvos island. The CFS provides educational, recreational and sports activities, reaching children ages four to 14. Of the 1,200 refugees at Kara Tepe, at least half are children.
SOS Children’s Villages has been working in Greece since 1975. Today, it has Villages in Alexandroupolis, Heraklion, Thessaloniki and Vari, along with family strengthening and other programmes across the country. SOS Children’s Villages has provides a home in Athens for babies who were abandoned or subjected to neglect.