Scoping mission: How do we protect refugee children from sexual violence?
Julie Freccero, associate director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, visited Greece, Serbia, and Germany during a research scoping mission in March to learn about the needs of refugees—particularly refugee children—and their vulnerabilities to trafficking and sexual violence. The scoping team, which also included Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the Sexual Violence Program, and Rich Weir, Berkeley Law JD ’16, interviewed government officials, service providers, and advocates. In Greece, they found that refugees lacked access to safe shelters and even basic medical services for sexual violence. HRC researchers will return to Greece later this year to assess the needs of unaccompanied refugee children, in hopes of improving protection and support services. Freccero shares her initial impressions of this crisis.
Q. What did you learn about the plight of refugee children in Greece?
A. An estimated 22,000 refugee children are stranded in Greece, and around 2,000 of them are unaccompanied by an adult. Some of the unaccompanied children were separated from a parent somewhere along the journey, but many of them actually started on this route on their own. According to EKKA, which is the National Center for Social Solidarity in Greece, over 90 percent of unaccompanied children are adolescent boys between the ages of 14 and 17. Many of them are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and countries in North Africa. More recently, Syrian boys have been traveling on their own.
Q. What efforts are made to identify and protect these children?
A. It’s important to note that the refugee situation in Greece is changing on a daily basis. But when I was in Lesvos in March, it was actually a Frontex border officer and a police officer who determined if the child was under 18 at the time of registration. They didn’t have any training in age assessment and weren’t using any standard process. Children were often claiming to be over 18 so they didn’t get stuck in the child protection system in Greece. They wanted to continue on to Germany, Sweden, or other destinations.
Children were detained until the social services agency in Greece placed them in a shelter for unaccompanied minors in mainland Greece. The Greek government was calling it “protective custody,” but it was definitely detention. I went to the camp in Lesvos where children were confined to a small area with this tall barbed wire fence around it. They were not able to freely walk around the camp. NGOs were raising a lot of concerns—that girls and boys were being housed together, that these areas had no oversight or management, and that they didn’t have sufficient access to psychosocial support services.
“Unaccompanied children are worse off since the formal closure of the Balkans route. Now all the shelters are full because children are no longer leaving to cross borders. When I was there in the Spring, there was a list of over 200 unaccompanied minors waiting for shelter beds. So even though they are being identified, there’s literally nowhere to place them now.”
Q. What is the strategy for protecting refugee children?
A. Before the borders closed in April, approximately 80 percent of the kids were running away from these shelters for unaccompanied children within two or three days. They just wanted to continue on the migration path. There was a lot of debate among child protection providers about whether they should even be helping the children to register as unaccompanied. Some felt that you couldn’t just send children off on the Balkans route where they would be exposed to trafficking and other kinds of exploitation or abuse. Other providers felt that when you put them in the Greek shelter system, you separated them from their peer group—literally their only form of social support—and because they would leave anyway, this was actually putting them at risk of greater harm.
Q. What changed when the borders closed? Where are most of these children now?
A. Unaccompanied children are worse off since the formal closure of the Balkans route. Now all the shelters are full because children are no longer leaving to cross borders. When I was there in the Spring, there was a list of over 200 unaccompanied minors waiting for shelter beds. So even though they are being identified, there’s literally nowhere to place them now. They’re staying for longer periods of time in detention centers and police facilities. They’re in overcrowded camps with the general population. Many of them are on the streets, near Piraeus Port in Athens, Victoria Square and the surrounding area, and other parts of the city. Having been stranded in Greece for months, many of these children are running out of money and are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and survival sex. And with only illegal options to continue to their migration, they’re also increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and more dangerous smuggling routes.
Q. What did you learn about risks of sexual and gender-based violence faced by refugees in Greece?
A. We heard a lot about rape and sexual assault by smugglers, by border authorities, and police officers, while people are in transit—particularly in Turkey. We heard a lot about sexual exploitation. Some people run out of money or robbed along the way and end up exchanging sex to continue to cross borders. There were a lot of concerns about young boys from Afghanistan and Pakistan, that they were being sexually exploited in some of the parks in Athens.
We also heard from service providers that there had been more reports of domestic and sexual violence in the camps once people became stranded and were staying for weeks instead of days. I spent one day in Eleonas, a refugee camp in Athens, and just during that time, we heard about four cases of domestic violence. One of them was a pregnant woman. It was a really urgent case. She wanted to be transferred to a safe shelter. They couldn’t find a place for her.
Q. Are we protecting refugees of all ages from sexual violence in the camps?
A. Sexual- and gender-based violence has been one of the most neglected aspects of this humanitarian response. The UN IASC guidelines for addressing GBV in humanitarian settings state that you should assume that gender-based violence is happening in crisis settings, regardless of the availability of data. Gender-based violence services are considered life-saving services and should be put in place at the earliest stages of humanitarian response. When I was there in March, there was very little in place for survivors who come forward. Even basic medical services for sexual assault, such as post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, weren’t available in most of the camp areas.
After a year of virtually no action, there is finally acknowledgement that SGBV is happening, and that prevention and response measures must be put in place. We’ve learned about recent progress in this area—there are now gender-based violence sub-working groups in every region, more NGOs planning GBV-related activities, and dialogue about how to respond is taking place. Hopefully soon this will be soon be accompanied by actual services.
Q. Is Greece up to this challenge?
The emergency has really shed light on these huge gaps in Greece’s own public systems. Service providers talked a lot about how services were cut back in the economic crisis. There are more than 50,000 refugees still stranded in Greece. So when we talk about sustainability and linking refugees to mainstream health and social services, this is a huge challenge. The systems were already strained before the refugee crisis. We met with some Greek NGOs that are doing some amazing work with unaccompanied and separated refugee youth—providing shelter, family reunification, and integration services—but the need is huge and capacity is limited.
Since Greece has transitioned from a transit country to a protracted refugee situation, and as new camps continue to be established, it’s critical to make sure GBV prevention and protection measures are part of the planning.