In the wake of a series of disastrous fires that reduced Moria, Europe’s largest migrant camp, to ashes, concern has turned toward the many unaccompanied minors that were housed there.
Greek Reporter spoke to Sofia Kouvelaki, the CEO of the HOME Project, an NGO that helps unaccompanied minor refugees in Greece, about the organization’s work and the situation in Moria. Although they don’t have a shelter in Lesvos, they provide housing and support to children who have been homeless or come from camps and detention centers all over Greece in their shelters in Athens.
Over 2,500 unaccompanied children in Greece are outside of any official protective service, which means that they are living in the streets, in detention, in camps like Moria or on other islands such as Samos and Chios.
Ranging from the toddler age but with a majority of them being teenagers, they are a particularly vulnerable group among the already at-risk migrant population.
Kouvelaki argues that these camps, which are notorious for their violence and unsafe conditions, are entirely inappropriate and dangerous for children.
Without parents or guardians, often traumatized from the dire circumstances in their home countries and the difficulty of traveling by themselves to Greece, these children need “to receive a holistic network of child protection services in long term accommodation structures,” Kouvelaki stated.
The existence of a coherent and strategic plan for the protection and support of lone refugee children in Europe is necessary in order to avoid misallocation of resources, according to Kouvelaki. Emergency solutions are necessary to take the children out circumstances like the ones at Moria but they should not become permanent ones, she holds.
The HOME Project believes that resources should be channeled for creation of long term child protection solutions, that ensure access to the required services and care in healing environments that lead to social inclusion for those children applying for asylum in Greece and family reunifications or relocations to other European countries.
Along with this major mission, the HOME Project aims to house refugee children and provide them with legal, educational, social and mental health support; create jobs for both Greeks and refugees, and support the local economy through the purchase and renovation of vacant buildings for use as shelters.
The ultimate goal of the HOME Project, according to Kouvelaki, is integration. Placing these children, often traumatized by their experiences in migrant camps, in urban environments is fundamental to achieving this mission.
It is in cities like Athens, she claims, that true integration with society is possible, since children are not isolated from the local population; rather, they engage and positively interact with the Greek community every day.
Currently, the HOME Project has eleven shelters in Athens which provide support to 220 unaccompanied minors, two of which house minor girls and under-aged mothers and their children.
In order for integration to occur, the HOME Project works with each child on an individual basis to formulate an individual development plan.
According to each plan, children are placed into public schools and private schools so that refugee children can receive an education and form social bonds in the community.
This is essential, as these children have often lost at least three to four years of education due to their journey to Europe and their sojourns in migrant camps.
The HOME Project also reaches out to employers who are willing to hire refugees so that they can begin to support themselves and participate in Greek society.
The Greek government acted quickly to remove 406 unaccompanied minors from Moria on Wednesday after the fires raged there. European Union member states have now pledged to accept some Greece’s unaccompanied minors, something that activists have been calling for since the start of the refugee crisis in earnest in 2015.
Kouvelaki recognizes as a positive development that Europe and the Greek government immediately committed to action to protect these children, Kouvelaki expressed concern that it took such a disastrous event to finally transfer all unaccompanied minors out of Moria.
She argues that Europe must take a hands-on approach to helping refugee children. “These children escaped from violence in their home countries, only to experience even more violence in Europe… we must break this cycle of violence,” she states.
“I believe that European society is in the position, financially, socially, historically and culturally, to do that. If we don’t break this cycle, this violence will continue.”
Despite COVID-19 challenges, the HOME Project remains dedicated to its mission of protecting and supporting unaccompanied minors develop, heal from their experiences and create a future for themselves.
The program has produced many successes in the past, according to the director. Children who have received support from the HOME Project grow up to be active citizens “who are grateful not only to the HOME Project, but also to Greece and the Greek people,” Kouvelaki states with pride.