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Children live in ‘deplorable conditions,’ trapped in detention camps in Greece

A protest broke out Moria migrant detention center on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. Protesters, mainly unaccompanied teenagers, set fires and riot police were on standby. File April 2016. (Credit: Petros Tsakmakis/InTime News via AP)

Children, many unaccompanied, are among the thousands of refugees being held in detention camps on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios. Humanitarian groups argue that the months-long detentions are creating immense hardships, most acutely for the children who, the groups say, should never be detained in the first place.

“Children, under no circumstances, should be detained,” said Ruairidh Villar, communications manager at Save the Children.

The roughly 4,000 people who were stranded in Greece after the EU-Turkey deal in March live in “deplorable conditions,” according to a Human Rights Watch report. Under close police supervision, children are forbidden to leave the camps, trapped behind several meters high of fencing and barbed wire.

Though agreements like the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child state that the detention of minors should only be “for the shortest appropriate period of time,” children have been detained for months on end in squalid, overcrowded camps.

The camps are intimidating environments for children. They “are made to feel like criminals,” Villar said. The atmosphere is “very tense” and “often a violent one,” he said.

With temperatures reaching up to 113 degrees, children sleeping under canvas tents are in an “unbearable situation … both physically and mentally,” Villar said. There are frequent food shortages in both camps. Children receive just a quarter of their recommended daily intake, and babies receive a cup of milk to last 24 hours.

Children, including unaccompanied minors, “often don’t have any access to legal advice and are unsure about what their legal situation is,” Villar said. As a result, they are unable to file asylum claims through the relevant authorities in order to be reunited with family members.

Nongovernmental organizations such as Save the Children know that some family members of these children are waiting to reunite in other European countries, but the children are “having to wait for months on end in detention on the Greek islands,” according to Villar.

The Human Rights Watch report, which calls the deal between the EU and Turkey “deeply flawed,” reveals that thousands of people are currently waiting on the islands in detention centers without “proper access to health care, sanitation facilities or legal aid.” In April, the Guardian claimed that the deal has led to the detention of all asylum seekers and refugees landing on the islands because the Greek authorities have been “under-resourced.”

The deal has put pressure on camps on the island, which Human Rights Watch claims sees around 200 new arrivals per day. Currently around 3,000 people are crammed into police-guarded camps in Moria on Lesvos, a reception facility which Human Rights Watch claims should only have a capacity of 1,000. VIAL, an abandoned aluminum factory on Chios, holds more than 1,000. Forty percent of refugees in VIAL camp are children and unaccompanied minors.

Villar said that part of the problem is that there isn’t enough support for the Greek government and that the EU and other European countries need to provide more coordination and support.

The camps on the islands were originally set up as reception and registration centers for the hundreds of thousands, but were turned into detention centers as soon as the deal came into effect. Since then refugees have been living in facilities that were never intended to be used as formal camps.

It remains to be seen whether the situation improves or not. The Human Rights Watch report demands improvements in conditions within the camps, calling for the conversion of the detention centers “into camps with appropriate services and safety for people needing protection from war, persecution, and human rights abuses.”

Along with Praksis and Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children has helped to set up Mantamados camp, a temporary camp for children away from the closed camps of Moria and VIAL.

Though Villar welcomes this as “small steps towards making the solution better … it is not a long-term solution.” He said, “There really is no other conclusion than to say that European countries have failed these children.”


About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at