Ehsaan, a 16-year-old Pakistani, arrived in Athens in February and had no accommodation. "I sat on the bus all night while driving through town," said Ehsaan, whose name was changed to protect his identity, and remembered his first few weeks in Greece. "When I called my family, I told them that everything was fine, but in fact I was too afraid to fall asleep at night."
Only weeks after Ehsaan's arrival, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and bus traffic were limited. He started spending his nights outdoors in Victoria Square, less than a mile from two children's homes where he was on the waiting list. Without any kind of home, Ehsaan was vulnerable to robbery, police harassment, and even imprisonment if he was caught without his asylum application card.
When the Corona virus shutdown sealed off refugees from Greece's limited resources, European governments committed to relocating 1,600 unaccompanied children from the Greek islands. However, little attention was paid to boys like Ehsaan, who live on mainland Greece. When the Coronavirus blockage hit an already troubled Greek economy, the scarce youth spaces, food distribution centers and hygiene facilities for unaccompanied children on the mainland decreased. Even before the pandemic, many unaccompanied children relied on the smugglers who brought them to Greece to link them to undocumented job opportunities and unregistered accommodation to prevent homelessness. Coronavirus prevention measures have increased this dependency by restricting access to shelter from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and child protection programs. This, in turn, has increased exploitation by adult migrants and Greek locals who offer to pay for undocumented work or sexual activity.
Ehsaan is one of thousands of unaccompanied refugee children who have entered Greece by crossing land borders with Turkey or Bulgaria. Before migration increased in 2015-2016, these land borders were the main route through which refugees from Asia came to Greece. Since 2015, however, policy makers and humanitarian organizations have focused on refugees who enter Greece by sea and then settle in the Aegean Islands. Global awareness of children arriving across land borders is relatively limited, leading to differences in access to services between unaccompanied children on the islands and those who cross land. While children are camped on the islands, registered with NGOs and sent to children's homes, children who cross the country's borders usually travel to Athens without documents or humanitarian aid. They often stay connected to smuggling networks and are introduced to co-dependent informal economies such as agricultural workers, construction, and illicit drug trafficking – ways to make money despite their undocumented status and Greek child labor laws. Many children crossing land borders work on farms before they come to Athens, while others leave Athens to find undocumented jobs.
In Athens, these children are often left homeless or informal until they can be taken to a children's home. By February Greece had only 30 percent of its estimated 5,379 unaccompanied refugee children shelters. As a result, waiting times of six months or more have been common.
The Children's Rights Network is a child protection agency in Athens that transfers unaccompanied children to emergency shelters and provides case management services while on the waiting list. The vast majority of the unaccompanied children with whom it works are boys who have crossed the country's borders. Because of the pandemic, like most Greek organizations, it has drastically reduced its activities.
"All I can do for them are online referrals, nothing more," said Rizwan Muhammad, cultural mediator at the Children's Rights Network, referring to the drastic reduction in services during Greece's closure in March and April. During this time, the children's homes had stopped admitting new residents and forced the waiting children to stay on the streets, even if beds were available. "Those who are homeless were completely alone," said Muhammad.
Since the official end of Greece's ban on May 4, child protection services have resumed in line with ongoing social distancing measures. "We meet customers in the office, we accompany them to medical appointments," said Muhammad, "but we don't organize workshops for the children." Youth centers, which provided safe space for dozens of homeless children, now only offer essential services such as showers and laundry for four to five boys a day. To curb the spread of the coronavirus, most organizations limit the number of people who can be in the office at the same time. Unaccompanied children who are not established customers are generally not allowed to enter offices and have to contact employees online. This creates additional obstacles for children who do not have access to telephones or computers.
The most immediate need for Greece's estimated 3,800 permanently or occasionally homeless children is food. Youth centers, which usually provided meals to homeless, unaccompanied children, were closed. Cafes have closed their doors, making it practically impossible to buy a snack or meal, even if children can get change.
“You called us to ask about simple, basic things. Food and water, ”said Tassos Smetopoulos, founder of STEPS, an organization that supports homeless people in Athens. "Everything has been closed and these people have no chance of making money."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, STEPS has transformed its operations, which usually consisted of a food distribution center, a free medical clinic and a laundry service for the needy. Working with other local nonprofits in similar circumstances, the group is now delivering food packages to vulnerable people at drop-off points across the city.
"We tell people to meet us in different places at different times," said Smetopoulos. “We have three cars that drive through Athens and Piraeus every night. We have delivered more than 15,000 meals in the past 40 days. But it is not enough. "
The Khora collective, which also started delivering meals when it ceased its other activities, can only provide 1,000 to 2,000 meals a day while receiving requests for more than 5,000. Many children stay hungry.
Without institutional support, many unaccompanied children have no choice but to turn to black market jobs and homes to survive. Children whose survival depends on working on the farm were particularly at risk from COVID-19, as the pandemic brought most of the country's agricultural industry to a standstill. With little work available, unaccompanied children on farms had to borrow from their subcontractors to continue living in their overcrowded rural accommodation and buying food. By the end of the pandemic, many of these children are committed to their subcontractors and may not be able to leave the farms even if they are accepted by a children's home.
"I spoke to a child today who lived in a shed with 50 people, adults and minors," said Muhammad. “In such situations there is always a risk of sexual exploitation. Subcontractors in particular are often the perpetrators of sexual violence because they have so much power over the young. “Ehsaan himself fled a job in the fields when an older worker tried to harass him.
Unaccompanied children who have access to cash, whether through their own income or through money transfers from family members living abroad, turn to smugglers if they do not have access to accommodation. Throughout Greece, smugglers manage safe houses where refugees – men and children alike – can stay 10 euros a night. These are usually in dilapidated apartments with limited hygiene facilities and more than 20 people in one room.
Umed, 19, remembers living as a minor in a safe house. "There were so many people who did illegal things," he said. "I didn't feel safe. The police often searched for the house and then we had to flee through the windows."
Without increased humanitarian support from the Greek and European authorities, unaccompanied children on the mainland continue to be forced to contact traffickers and employment agencies to try to survive in Greece or to migrate to other European countries. As long as child protection programs are not sufficient to meet the needs of unaccompanied children, the black market economies will outperform them and offer children accommodation and wages in return for risky work. This will not only expose children to an increased risk of sexual and labor exploitation, but will also draw money from the local Greek economy and promote illegal activities and organized crime.
Muhammad said the children's rights network could help identify homeless, unaccompanied children if anyone was interested in relocating them during the crisis. "We know which of our customers are at greatest risk, but nobody asks us about them," said Muhammad. "It is great that they are helping the minors on the island, but our customers also need help."