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1st Aug 2021

Feature

Frontex 'mislabelling minors as adults' on Greek islands

  • William was sent to Moria, a ghetto camp for migrants, that was burned to the ground last September (Photo: Save the Children)

An African asylum seeker incorrectly registered as an adult by a Frontex border guard last year is today still grappling with that error.

"Right now, I am only about survival," 'William' (not his real name), told EUobserver in a Zoom call from Athens on 30 April.

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His lawyer in Greece, Elli Kriona Saranti, has lodged his case at the European Court of Human Rights, but for reasons linked to his quarantine conditions at Chrysi Ammos.

William has since been able to prove he was indeed only 17 at the time of his arrival, after Saranti helped secure his birth certificate later on.

But by then it was too late.

He had been sent to the adult section of Moria, an EU hotspot turned migrant ghetto on the Greek island of Lesbos.

There he was brutalised he said, because of his homosexuality. The camp eventually burned to the ground in September last year.

"Forgive me, I don't want to go into details," he said, before tailing off.

Minos Mouzourakis, a legal officer at Refugee Support Aegean, says William's case is not unique.

He has accused Frontex of systemic violations during the screening process of arriving asylum seekers on the Greek islands.

"Frontex records people as adults even where they declare being minors," he said, in an email.

Mouzourakis made similar accusations to the European Parliament last month.

He said Frontex officers also often do not keep any record of those that protest against incorrect information.

And minors declared as adults do not undergo an age assessment by the Greek authorities, he said.

That means they are unable to demonstrate that they had protested the decision in the first place.

Unlike William, most don't even speak English.

EU charter of fundamental rights

These practices, if proven true, are a violation of the EU charter of fundamental rights.

Among other things, the charter guarantees the right to good administration, effective remedy, and the best interests of the child.

All are being violated by Frontex, said Mouzourakis.

William among them. He was born early December 2002. But his registration form filled out by Frontex said 2001, making him a year 'older'.

William had contested the age Frontex had given him. But the 2001 date remained, rendering his life more onerous and difficult still today.

Frontex denies the accusation.

Its spokesperson said there are cases where smugglers tell under-aged migrants to declare they are older to avoid being kept in a closed reception centre.

"Or the other way round: an older person may declare to be minor to benefit from the privileges coming with this status," the spokesperson said, in email.

He said that in case of doubt, Frontex officers always refer the case to Greek authorities for an age assessment.

William's lawyer Saranti disputes that explanation.

"There might be cases where the children have been told by smugglers to state that they are adults," she said.

But she says there are also multiple complaints, often even immediately after the registration, by children who declared their real age and were still registered as adults by Frontex.

"The issue has been brought up in meetings with RIC [reception and identification centre] on multiple occasions throughout the four years that I have been working on the [Lesbos] island," she said.

Today, William is in Athens. But he had initially left his home country in east Africa because he is gay.

He has asked to remain anonymous, fearful of any blowback, and that his African state not be identified either.

EUobserver was unable to independently confirm the following events surrounding his story. But his age was proven to be true.

Bused to Turkish-Greek border

He arrived on a flight to Turkey on a Friday, the 6 March, 2020. He went to a hotel and was soon approached by two Turkish police officers.

By the following Monday, he had been shuffled onto a bus by Turkish police and taken to the Greek land border. He had no idea where he was going, he said.

But his arrival in Istanbul had coincided with Turkey's decision to bus thousands of people to the Greek land border, triggering a geopolitical crisis.

"When I got off [the bus] I was asking for my passport and I tried to ask them in English," he said of the Turkish police.

The Turkish officer ignored him and instead pointed to a road heading towards to the Greek border with Evros, he said.

"Then I again I tried to ask where is this and the guy just pushed us to move out of the bus," said William.

The buses then turned around and left.

Without a passport and unclear of what was happening, he started to walk towards Greece along with the others.

"I have no option but to join and follow these other people," he said. He said the Turks told them that Greece had opened the border. They stayed at the border for a few days, sleeping rough by the river.

A Syrian smuggler then approached William, promised to help in return for $300. William paid from the $1,200 he had on him.

He was then driven to Çanakkale, a port city in north western Turkey.

He agreed to pay another smuggler $800 to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece on a rubber dingy.

He waited for a few days for eight other passengers to show up.

They were driven to another site and put into a dingy. But a Greek Coast Guard intercepted them at sea, forcing them to return.

William said the Greek boat was making large waves near and around them.

The Greeks shouted through a megaphone, another threatened to puncture the dingy, and another pulled a gun, said William.

They returned to Turkey, where a few days later they then attempted again at night and on more seaworthy boat.

On 22 March, they landed on the rocky side of Lesbos near Mantamados. The small group was spotted by Frontex officers from Germany, he said.

They were led to a main road where they slept outside and offered blankets and small provisions by someone from the UN refugee agency. The next morning they were placed in a two week quarantine near Chrysi Ammos beach without toilets and tents.

"They couldn't go to the bathroom at night because there were snakes," said his lawyer, Saranti.

The small group of nine were later joined by others, and expanding to 32.

On 10 April, the Greek coast registered his details, including his age of 17. He was kept in quarantine until 27 April.

"They came at night and put us in buses and drove us to Moria," said William, arriving around 3AM.

Frontex inserts 'adult' age

Frontex then registered them one-by-one. When it came to William's turn, he said the officer refused to write he was 17.

"I asked him, 'excuse me, this is not my date of birth'. He wrote for me 2001," he said.

Unable to produce a passport, William signed the registration document.

He was then sent to the so-called 'Jungle' in Moria with the adults.

A birth certificate later proved he was indeed a minor. He was reassessed as minor on 26 June - but wasn't transferred to the section for minors in Moria until 8 July.

Around a month later, he was taken to a shelter in Athens. When he turned 18, they gave him an apartment and started to go to school. But the administrative nightmare doesn't end.

As an adult, William gets a UN cash card to help pay for food.

He got the card when Frontex incorrectly declared him as an adult. It was then taken away when he turned out to be a minor.

But now that he is an adult again, he still can't get the UN cash card because the system says had already been given the card. "I am here having trouble getting the cash card because in the system it shows previously I got a card," he said.

Without any income, he has been relying on food handouts from others, for the past month and half.

"If I was registered correctly, then I would be having a card already but now here. I don't know, it is difficult. I can't tell for sure that tomorrow I will have a cup of tea," he said.

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