The International Rescue Committee  (IRC) warns of a grave reality for unaccompanied refugee children who have fled conflict and crisis, as the statistics show that 18,290 of those who received initial support in Europe between 2018 and 2020 have disappeared from state care.

A new IRC report reveals the true extent of the vulnerabilities of unaccompanied children and the precarious nature of the safety net offered to children once they arrive in Greece. Over 37,000 unaccompanied children, having fled persecution or violence in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, have been referred for state accommodation in Greece since 2016. The volume of applications points to the scale of the needs; from the moment they arrive in Greece, children’s safety is impacted as a result of inadequate accommodation and reception facilities, an absence of identification and registration services, and lack of appointed guardians. 

For many children, the only hope of true sanctuary lies with family members who have already been granted refugee status in Europe but last year 74% of family reunification decisions were negative.  In Greece, waiting times for family reunification can be up to two years. As children wait to hear whether their application for family reunification has been successful, they are exposed to serious issues affecting their access to shelter, healthcare, education and the asylum procedure. The IRC has been supporting unaccompanied children in Greece since 2016, and providing safe accommodation for teenagers in Athens to support their independence as they navigate the asylum system for the last three years. 

Garyfallia Tsiara, IRC Child Protection Manager in IRC Greece said,

“Unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable groups of refugees arriving in Europe. Arriving unprotected by an adult guardian, having experienced unimaginable trauma along their journey, they are exposed to the dangers of trafficking, violence and abuse. With over 90% of unaccompanied children in Greece aged 14 or over and preparing to enter adulthood, the IRC’s Supported Independent Living programmes offers the chance of a better future while many of them await decisions on applications to be reunited with their families across Europe.

 “This support covers just the tip of the iceberg; over 37,000 requests for state accommodation in Greece have been made since 2016, and it is clear that more is needed to address and safeguard their needs. No child should be denied the right to grow up with their family and unaccompanied children should not be waiting for years to be reunited with family members already settled in Europe, nor should they be barred from attending schools while they are in Greece. Instead, EU countries should fulfill their pledges to relocate unaccompanied children swiftly, and put family unity at the heart of their asylum policies.” 

Imogen Sudbery, IRC Executive Director of Policy & Advocacy, Europe, says:

"No child should be left to languish at Europe’s borders alone. Yet, the findings of this report that three quarters of applications for family reunification are denied means that thousands of children are facing this terrifying reality. As one of the world’s richest and most stable regions, the EU and its member states have a moral and legal imperative to do more to ensure that refugee and asylum-seeking children in Europe are safe, warm and offered a brighter future.

The EU and its member states can achieve this by redoubling their efforts to create more safe, legal routes for children to reunite with family in Europe, so they don’t have to risk treacherous journeys alone. They must also step up and protect unaccompanied children in Greece who are not eligible for family reunification by relocating them to other EU countries. So far the voluntary relocation scheme from Greece has relocated just over 1,000 unaccompanied children - just two thirds of the total 1,600 pledges.

Supported independent living provides an alternative to dangerous, undignified accommodation and should be supported to achieve its full potential. Refugees make a monumental contribution to our societies - they must be supported to do so, starting from when they are children."

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been providing child protection services for asylum-seekers, refugees and other migrants in Greece since 2016, and have been providing Supported Independent Living services for teenagers in Athens in 2019. We believe that durable solutions that better address the needs and safeguard the rights of unaccompanied children must be urgently introduced or expanded. Our new report aims to highlight the importance of strengthening the multiple durable solutions available for unaccompanied children in Greece.