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U.N. to Greece: Stop ‘unacceptable’ detentions of child refugees and migrants

A migrant girl shows a banner during a protest demanding the opening of the border between Greece and Macedonia in the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Greece. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Dismayed by the treatment of migrant and refugee children in Greece, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants criticized detention centers for creating “an unacceptable level of confusion, frustration, violence and fear.” The pressure caused by the continuing arrival of asylum seekers and migrants in Greece has led to holding people in jails because temporary detention centers are overflowing.

“Children should not be detained. Period,” said Special Rapporteur and Candian lawyer Francois Crepeau, to the media. “It can never ever be in the best interest of the child.”

Crepeau spoke at a news conference on Monday after a five-day visit to Greece. In addition to concerns about the treatment of children, he questioned the structure of the much-criticized deal between the European Union and Turkey, in which Greece must send incoming refugees back to Turkey. The policy, which turned processing centers into detention centers, prompted both the U.N. Refugee Agency and Doctors Without Borders to suspend some of their work in late March.

Crepeau characterized the legality of the agreement as “uncertain” and hinted at the possibility that it may not survive a legal challenge in Greek and European courts. Currently, people arriving illegally in Greece are sent back to Turkey. In exchange, Europe will take in refugees and migrants who go through the official process while in Turkey. The goal is to incentivize people staying in Turkey rather than making the dangerous trip to Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees are still stranded.

Critics of the deal say that it does not adequately solve the problem. Europe has taken on more than 1 million migrants and refugees in the past year – most people are displaced by Syria’s civil war and travel through Greece. A major conference this week featuring world leaders will seek to find a path forward to end fighting in Syria, but until the deal is finalized and enacted people are still looking for safety and security outside of Syria.

Shutting down the passage to Europe is just a Band-aid on a bullet hole. Crepeau’s main criticism of the Europe-Turkey deal is that it is short-term thinking without considering the long-term ramifications.

“I think that there is a lack of vision at the EU level – there’s no long-term human rights-based migration policy. We need a generational strategy of where we’d like to be in 10 or 20 years,” he said. “The (European Union) needs to respond to the crisis with pre-prepared tools and not try to invent them every time a crisis happens.”

As a result of the disjointed response, children are being held for as long as two weeks in police cells. Some are unable to even go outside. As a result, children already struggling and likely dealing with the psycho-social effects of the events that led them to flee in the first place are “traumatized and distressed,” said Crepeau.

Nearly 40 percent of the more than 150,000 people to arrive in Europe this year are children. According to Save the Children, some 2,000 children are in Greece unaccompanied. Of those children, three-quarters do not have a safe place to stay, according to the international charity. Children are in overcrowded spaces, making them more vulnerable to attacks and illness.

“The EU has let down children traveling alone and has abandoned its obligations by rushing to close borders and implement the EU-Turkey deal without ensuring that legal safeguards are in place,” said Amy Frost, Save the Children’s team leader in Greece, in an April statement. “The EU seems solely concerned with pushing people, including the most vulnerable, far from its shores as quickly as possible. Pope Francis is telling the world there can be a more compassionate way to deal with the refugee crisis and Save the Children agrees.”

Crepeau’s visit and briefing are proof positive that there is a growing problem facing child migrants in Greece. Those unaccompanied are particularly vulnerable, but it is also evidence of much larger issues with how the country, Europe and the world are handling the global refugee crisis.

“Detention should only be ordered when people present a risk, a danger, a threat to the public and it has to be a documented threat, it cannot simply be a hunch,” said Crepeau.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]