With the process of returning refugees and migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey underway as part of a European Union-Turkey agreement, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is reminding States of their duty to care and protect all children and give them a full and fair hearing when deciding on their future.
UNICEF on 8 April 2016 said in a press release that it welcomed 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 EU-Turkey agreement went into effect last month.
UNICEF called for a well-managed process to be put in place to determine each child’s best interests and fulfil 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, said UNICEF.
“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.
Poirier expressed concern about reports that some children are being detained due to their migration status. “Escaping war and seeking survival is never a crime,” she said.
Unaccompanied and separated children, are among the most vulnerable and make up about 10 per cent 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, in 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.
UN refugee agency urges safeguard compliance before any returns begin under EU-Turkey deal
The United Nations refugee agency on 1 April 2016 urged parties to the recent EU-Turkey agreement on refugees and migrants to ensure all safeguards are in place before any returns begin.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “does not object to returns of people without protection needs and who have not asked for asylum, providing that human rights are adhered to,” UNHCR Chief Spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.
According to a statement issued by the EU, the sides agreed that all new “irregular” migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands will be returned to Turkey, starting from 20 March, and for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU.
Across Greece, which has been compelled to host people because of closed borders elsewhere in Europe, numerous aspects of the systems for receiving and dealing with people who may need international protection are still either not working or absent, she said.
There are currently around 51,000 refugees and migrants in the country, 46,000 on the mainland and 5,000 on the islands. Recent arrivals spiked on 29th March at 766 after several days of arrivals averaging about 300 people a day.
Without urgent further EU support, the limited capacity of the Greek asylum service to register and process asylum claims will create problems, she said. Limited hours of registration, daily ceilings on registrations, a lack of access to the Skype system for registration set up by the Asylum Services, are at present adding to the anxiety.
In Turkey, UNHCR has requested access to people returned from Greece, to ensure people can benefit from effective international protection and to prevent risk of refoulement. UNHCR hopes that the Temporary Protection regulation required for granting or reinstating temporary protection status for Syrians readmitted from Greece will be adopted soon.
UNHCR has set out the safeguards that would be required for safe readmission from Greece to Turkey, most recently in a paper of 23 March.
In line with its global policy on promoting alternatives to detention, UNHCR has had to suspend services at all closed facilities, with the exception of protection monitoring and providing information on asylum procedures, she said.
In March, sea arrivals down in Greece, up in Italy
Greece saw more than 150,700 sea arrivals for the first three months of 2016, albeit with lower arrivals in March.
Sea arrivals on the other main Mediterranean route – from North Africa to Italy – increased to 18,784 from 10,165 recorded in the same period of 2015, representing a more than 80 per cent increase, with March arrivals showing a four-fold increase.
These are predominantly Nigerians, Gambians, Senegalese, Malians and other West African nationals. (Source: UN).