Children's rights at risk in EU hotspots
The EU is falling short of ensuring basic rights of children in its "hotspot" migrant camps in Greece and Italy, a new report by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has said.
"The situation of children is a general concern in the hotspots; the one of unaccompanied children is a particularly burning one,” said Michal Nespor, an FRA official who presented the findings to the European Parliament's civic liberties committee on Thursday (8 December).
The FRA is an EU watchdog agency in Vienna.
The hotspots were meant to facilitate EU assistance to Greece and Italy by concentrating asylum procedures and EU support in specific locations. But the idea is not working in practice, Nespor said. Lack of lawyers and other staff has caused logjams on asylum claims.
"The hotspots have in some respect become a bottleneck when it comes to accessing international protection," the FRA official said.
He said children had the right to be put first in line when the authorities handled asylum cases.
But since the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, in March 2016, the role of hotspots changed focus from "registration and screening before swift transfer to the mainland [to] implementing returns to Turkey”, the FRA report said, quoting the European Commission.
Syrian nationals were being processed first, “in order to decide on their admissibility [to the asylum procedure] or their potential return to Turkey in light of the EU-Turkey statement”, Nespor said. Pakistanis, who have small chances of being granted asylum, have also been made a priority.
Other groups had to wait for months to have their claims processed, overcrowding camps as a result.
That also had consequences for the rights of children, Nespor said, who hadn't been able to unite with their families. Most seriously, the long waiting periods causes tensions, and contributed to some extent to violence in the hotspots.
"We have all heard of rapes of unaccompanied children," the FRA official said.
Some hotspot authorities tried to protect children from violence and stop them from going missing via "protective custody", which made the hotspots into de facto detention camps.
Nespor said many children say they are older than they really are to avoid being locked up and separated from their families.
"They are aware that in the current situation being a child is a limitation, rather than a benefit," Nespor said.
"While hotspots can in the future serve as a model for managing new arrivals in a fundamental rights compliant manner, some of the persisting gaps which are there at the moment and they need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The EU has a responsibility for managing the hotspots," he said.
Also on Thursday, the European Commission published a plan to reduce the number of people stuck on the Greek islands, which includes sending more EU officials and interpreters to deal with the backlog of applications.