Athens: Refugee kids stuck in EU limbo
A centre for minors seeking asylum in the outskirts of Athens offers an almost idyllic setting.
Surrounded by olive trees and overlooked by Mount Hymettus, the facility has become a sanctuary for children, some as young as eight.
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They come from Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere. All arrived alone, without a parent.
Last week, five children from Afghanistan absconded, boarding ferries in the Greek port of Patras, and are now thought to be in Italy.
"They have friends here at the centre and they told us that they arrived in Italy", a lawyer at the centre told EUobserver on Friday (February 10).
It is unclear why the Afghans left. But the centre has been struggling with bureaucracy as children are having to wait for months to reunite with their families.
Launched last October, the centre is financed by the European Union under the auspices of the International Organisation of Migration and run by Medecins du Monde Greece.
It offers 24-hour care, counselling, security, psychologists, educational and recreational activities in a building specially designed for children.
Located off a narrow dirt road from the town centre in Paiania, the facility has playrooms, common areas, a room full of instruments, a theatre, well-equipped bedrooms and a large bright canteen.
All is geared towards helping children deal with personal traumas and cope with being separated from their families and loved ones.
But administration, bureaucracy and the slow pace of getting kids reunited with the families in other EU states is a frustrating exercise.
Since its launch last October, only one child has been relocated and just three, out of 35 who applied, have so far reunited with their families in other EU states.
A 2016 report by the European Commission said that Greek authorities couldn't properly investigate if a child applicant had family in another member state. The burden of family tracing instead fell on the child applicant.
When EUobserver first visited late October last year, Nancy Retinioti, its programme director at the time, described the slow pace as also taking a toll on the staff.
"You have to deal with the disappointment of kids who ask why they have to wait so long to rejoin their families and all the trauma they carry on top of all the issues here. It's a bureaucratic process that makes us also feel very bad," she said.
Retinioti said they sometimes took the kids to see their friends in city centre Athens, some 12 km away. Many had found friends while in Moria, a camp in Lesbos island, and can now be found living near Athen's Victoria Square.
She said allowing them to leave, under supervision, is important so they do not feel locked in and isolated.
They also try to get the kids involved with the local community, have them play football in a nearby field, and "be present".
"I have to tell you that it is a conservative suburb so we had to deal with a lot of opinions about refugees," she said.
The parents of Greek children resisted at first, but later offered clothing and other help following meetings with MDM.
"It is a process, you have to inform them," said Retinioti.
Waiting to start school
Unlike other centres in Greece, the facility run by Medecins du Monde can accommodate up to 100 kids.
Last October, there were 20 with nationalities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Pakistan, and one child from Ghana. The kids are divided into age groups. The youngest are eight, the eldest 17.
Over a dozen older children had been accepted to and attended a nearby multicultural school.
Discussions had also been under way for those under 10 to attend schools in the neighbourhood with other Greek children.
But months later, resistance towards their presence among the community appears to be resurfacing.
Konstantinos Kolovos now runs the centre.
Earlier this week, he said some of the older kids are still attending the multi-cultural school but that they are struggling to get the younger ones into classes.
"We face difficulties because the area here in Paiania is very negative in the applications we made, the mayor also doesn't help in this situation," he said.
Four of the kids at the centre aged between 10 to 12 are hoping to attend secondary school.
"We cannot find a solution to include them," he said.
The centre is now home to 65 minors, down from 75 last week. Around 15 are from Iraq and Syria. In January, they ended up with 124.
"We are waiting for new children to come from the islands," said Kolovos.
The European Union is currently working on a reform of the Dublin asylum system, the draft proposal suggesting speeding up the waiting system to just a few weeks.
But the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the EU rights watchdog, opposes the move, saying asylum procedures must be long enough to assess and respond to the specific needs of children.
The European Parliament's negotiator, Swedish liberal Cecilia Wikstroem, instead suggests that family reunification should take place before any admissibility assessments kick off.
This article was independently created by EUobserver's editorial staff and is part of a series about unaccompanied migrant children. Costs for producing this article was funded in part by the Destination Unknown initiative.