© UNICEF/UN012777/Georgiev – Child refugees in Idomeni, Greece, March 2016
GENEVA/ HONG KONG, 6 April 2016 – With the process of returning refugees and migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey underway as part of the EU-Turkey agreement, UNICEF reminds States of their duty to care and protect all children and give them a full and fair hearing when deciding on their future.
UNICEF welcomes a new Greek law, which came into force on 4 April, exempting certain vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied and separated children, children with disabilities, victims of distress and trauma, pregnant women and women who recently gave birth, from “exceptional border procedures” or returns. However more needs to be done.
Currently more than 22,000 refugee and migrant children are stranded in Greece, facing an uncertain future and even forms of detention since the agreement went into effect last month.
UNICEF calls for a well-managed process to be put in place to determine each child’s best interests and fulfill the basic needs of all children – including adequate accommodation, health care and protection against trafficking and exploitation in line with international and European laws.
Children have specific grounds to claim international protection; such as if faced with the threat of recruitment to armed forces or forced marriage. The European Commission has stipulated that returns will be in accordance with international and European law.
“Any decision about any child, whether a toddler or a teenager, whether with family or not, should be guided by the best interests of that child,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe.
“Children need to be heard. A rushed decision to return can lead to a rash result and going back to a place of fear and violence. Children, no matter where they come from, must have access to basic services at all times,” she added.
Capacity to care and support for unaccompanied and separated children has been overstretched in Greece. With nowhere to house them, many are taken into temporary “protective custody", or de facto detention within closed first reception or police facilities, for increasingly extended periods.
“UNICEF is concerned about reports that some children are being detained due to their migration status. Escaping war and seeking survival is never a crime,” said Poirier.
Unaccompanied and separated children, are among the most vulnerable and make up about 10 percent of all refugee and migrant children in Greece, or some 2,000, but not all are registered. Between January and mid-March 2016, 1,156 unaccompanied and separated children had been registered in Greece (an increase of over 300 per cent in the rate of registration compared to the same period in 2015).
The first returns to Turkey from the Greek islands were monitored this week by UNICEF’s partners, in Dikili port, Izmir province. UNICEF will continue to work closely with Turkish Government authorities to provide humanitarian assistance. Turkey currently hosts over 2.7 million Syrian refugees.
UNICEF has been helping Syrian refugee children and families since 2012. Last year UNICEF, working with government and civil society partners, provided support to over 400,000 Syrian children with education, protection and basic services.