Afghanistan’s youngest migrants adrift on the road to asylum
By Niki Kitsantonis
International Herald Tribune
Published: March 24, 2008
PATRAS, Greece: Hundreds of child refugees from Afghanistan are camped around this port in western Greece, hoping to sneak onto a ferry to Western Europe. But the boys, some as young as 8, are being preyed on by traffickers in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls “a humanitarian crisis.”
Most of the children said their parents in Afghanistan had paid smugglers to escort them to safety. Many stopped off for months in Iran before fleeing westward to escape deportation to their war-torn homeland. For most, Patras is the penultimate stop of their long journey to Western Europe. But they are far from the sanctuary they seek.
The Greek office of the United Nations refugee office wants “immediate support” for about 400 children who scattered across Patras last month when the police dismantled a makeshift settlement that mushroomed near the port’s entrance over the past few years. The police detained half the camp’s 3,000 adult residents, almost all Afghans. Since then many of the children have slept on streets and in squares, falling victim to new traffickers offering an organized crossing, aid groups said.
Some children were rounded up this month before the city’s annual carnival – which attracts thousands of visitors – and sent to hostels in other cities. But most are still adrift in Patras.
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, said he was worried about the children and wanted the local authorities to set up camps for them. “Special assistance should be urgently given to the minors,” he said.
But the authorities here have refused to do so, arguing that a camp would become a magnet for ever more migrants.
Aid groups said children should be regarded as minors rather than migrants. Giorgos Karapiperis, a doctor with a local Red Cross team that is offering shelter and advice to the migrants, said: “We are closing our eyes to a real problem. There are laws which dictate that we help such children.”
The death of a 15-year-old on a ferry leaving Patras could have been prevented if such laws had been upheld, said George Moschos, the Greek ombudsman for children’s rights. The boy had hidden under a truck and had suffocated on its exhaust fumes. A deportation order was found by the Italian authorities in his pocket.
Port officials in Patras said children hide on trucks regularly. “Around 600 trucks board ships here daily,” an official said. “We try to check them all but it’s chaos.”
Members of relief organizations said most of the children refused to apply for asylum here because they wanted to move on. “They want to reach their final destination so they can start working and repay their debt to traffickers,” said Karapiperis of the Red Cross. He said they take out “loans” of €1,000 to €7,000 – on top of their parents’ payment – to continue journeys from Iran, through Turkey, to Greece.
The director of the UN refugees’ office in Tehran, Sten Bronee, said most adult Afghans entering Iran are “absorbed” amid two million fellow refugees. But he added: “The fact that no child migrants seek our help suggests they are being escorted by smuggling rings.”
Sometimes loans are agreed on in Patras. One Afghan, 9, said he paid traffickers €800 to take him to Italy. He was taken out of the port but then returned to Patras. He said his parents had given him the money, which was carried by an adult in his group.
The boy was one of about 900 migrants who were returned to Patras last year under the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that refugees seek asylum in the first EU country they enter. The authorities in Patras complain that they are flooded with “returns” from Italy.
Rights groups said people under 18 should not be included in the returns. “Authorities should give child migrants the benefit of the doubt if they are not sure of their age and let them stay,” said Giusy D’Alconzo of Amnesty International’s office in Rome.
The lack of a common European standard for tests to assess the age of young migrants who have no documents hampers efforts to protect minors, said Lars Olsson of Save the Children in Sweden, a popular destination for Afghans. “A child might come to Sweden and be returned to Greece without ever being recognized as a minor,” he said.
Norway – which stopped returning migrants to Greece last month because of concerns about “possible breaches of asylum seekers’ rights” – grants residence to most children. A few child refugees have disappeared from state-run centers but no forced labor networks have been traced to them, said Gunn Stangeland Fadnes who runs one such center. “They probably continue their journey to another European country,” she said.