Mohammed didn’t quite understand the question. A charity worker approached the 10-year-old Syrian boy and asked him what kind of supplies he needed to survive his new life in Greece—a tent, maybe? A sleeping bag?
Lacking any kind of possession, he eventually spoke up.
A football, he said.
Mohammed is one of 5,300 unaccompanied refugee children residing in Greece. He lives alone in a refugee camp on Samos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea. Turkey, one mile away across the water, feels so close.
Mohammed lives with 7,200 others in a refugee camp built for 640 people. Around 400 of these are unaccompanied children like him who have made their way to Greece, often fleeing war, abject poverty and political repression in their own countries. The densely packed camp they call home rises on a hill above Samos town, the island’s capital.
The population has grown so big that many people now live outside of the official camp boundaries. And every week more tents appear on the increasingly packed hillside.
The cramped conditions leave wide ranging and serious health implications for those living in the camp. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which focuses on mental health support for camp residents, has raised its concerns about the number of camp dwellers suffering from depression, post traumatic stress disorder and self-harming.
Ali is also from Syria. He is 14, and he too arrived on the island with no family or loved ones to watch over him.
Charity workers find him often sleeping on the beach. He finds it safer than the camp, he told them, where fights amongst the overcrowded population are common.
In spite of the challenges, the youngest children of the camp make themselves heard—playing games, chasing each other and squealing with delight when one catches the other along the narrow, muddy (or dusty, in summer) tracks that divide the rows of tents. The laughter stands out, belying an existence of dire living conditions for the children and adults alike.
Officials from Still I Rise an NGO, which runs a youth center for children on the island, told Fortune theft is a big problem. The unaccompanied minors store valuables—as much as they are—in lockers at the center. It’s the kids’ psychological wellbeing that worries them most.
As one worker recounted, some kids are really struggling, telling the staff: “I feel so empty” and even “I want to die”
The numbers are down, but the crisis persists
Those crossing the Mediterranean in search of safer shores has dramatically decreased from the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. In that year, 1 million made the journey, compared to just 125,000 in 2019, official statistics show.
The numbers may be down, but Europe’s refugee crisis persists, particularly on the Greek islands where officials report the refugee camps are thousands over capacity. Those who are most affected are children, and many of them are unaccompanied.
Of the massive number of unaccompanied children in Greece, 2,000 are live in camps on the islands. Last year UNICEF warned the number of minors on their own could easily go up.
A 2016 EU-Turkey deal means that everyone, including unaccompanied children, must wait on the islands to have their claims processed. On the island of Samos there are a shortage of adult guardians who can look after the children.
By law every unaccompanied minor must be assigned to a legal guardian. Guardians are essential for ensuring unaccompanied children’s access to healthcare, amongst many other basic services. But in the absence of enough qualified individuals, it often falls to the local public prosecutor, untrained in such matters, to take up this role.
The shortage of trained adults to look after the kids is evident. Many of the children have chronic scabies, amongst other ailments, aid workers told Fortune on a recent tour of the island.
Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, shared with Fortune observations that sounded like life in a war zone. He noted that eight unaccompanied girls had been taking turns to sleep in a small container. Other children make do with sleeping wherever they could find shelter, often without access to hot water or heating, he added.
UNHCR has consistently appealed to other European states to help provide funding and resources to aid the children living in the Greek refugee camps.
Hannah Green from Help Refugees, an NGO, echoed the plea.
“The situation on Samos is not some unavoidable state of nature. It is the obvious and inevitable product of years of hostile European refugee policies and underinvestment in desperately-needed support,” she said.
In a recent interview with Dutch media, Greece’s migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis, compared conditions at the Samos camp to that of the Ter Apel refugee camp in the Netherlands where he said there was a budget of around 60 euros allocated daily to each asylum seeker. In Greece, it’s closer to 20 euros per person.
Logothetis also noted that the budget of Ter Apel was around 80 millions euros compared to the 2 million for the camp on Samos. It’s unclear where the refugee crisis money is being spent in Greece. Figures published this January from the European Commission put the amount of funds Greece has received to handle the waves of migration to its shores as over €2.23bn since 2015.
The Greek government did not respond to Fortune‘s request for comment.
Katerina Glyniadaki, a researcher and teaching fellow in Migration Studies at the London School of Economics, told Fortune that a lack of transparency muddied the situation. She said that a range of issues, including complex bureaucracy, poor coordination among key actors and money mismanagement (intentional or not), could account for why the money hasn’t adequately trickled down to those on the ground.
Nevertheless, EU anti-corruption officials are investigating the matter.
Meanwhile, the failure of Athens and Brussels to find a sustainable solution to a crisis entering its fifth year is obvious on Samos. A maze of bureaucracy means asylum claims can take months—sometimes over a year—to process, and the fate of many unaccompanied children remains in limbo. Only those granted asylum have the possibility of formally re-starting their education in Greece or another European country.
Meanwhile, as the seams of the Samos refugee camp burst at the edges, ordinary children demonstrate a level of smarts and resilience beyond their years. They build their tent dwellings, teach each other English and begin to form friendships with other kids.
Living in the camp alone is a game of waiting and survival. They’re so close to their desired destination, but it’s futile to obsess over how they might get there.
Mohammed and Ali understand this much.
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