'You could see the happiness on their faces'
Ahmad*, a boy from Afghanistan, has no hesitation in summing up how relocation from a squalid camp on a Greek island to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has affected him and the other unaccompanied children relocated to Luxembourg.
“Up until now our lives were a question mark,” he said. “Now we have stability. I want my life to work now. I am free.”
Ahmad is one of 59 vulnerable refugee children relocated to Luxembourg and Germany in April this year from insecure and unsanitary reception centres on Greek islands. The move came at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the following months, six more went to Germany, 50 left Greece for Finland, 25 arrived in Portugal and 18 went to Belgium. Since Friday, 49 have gone to France, bringing the total to 207.
The children fled conflict in their home countries and endured hardship en route to Greece. There, many spent months living in flimsy shacks, often without toilets or running water.
For staff at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its humanitarian partners, the relocations offer hope after repeated calls for solutions for the children.
“You are seeing the happiness on their faces. They can see that something new is coming to them,” said UNHCR senior protection assistant France Matrahji on Lesvos island.
Eleven EU states have so far committed to transferring around 1,100 of the 1,600 unaccompanied children targeted for relocation from Greece. The country currently has a total of 4,558 unaccompanied children – around 25 per cent are on the Aegean islands.
This commitment was significant, said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR’s Representative in Greece.
“We have been advocating on this for years, particularly since the overcrowding on the island centres worsened in 2019. We have sought this solidarity for the most vulnerable, such as unaccompanied children who stay too long in the reception centres on the islands, at the land border, living in police stations or who are homeless,” he said.
"The first priority must be the safety and care of the children."
“These relocations are a solution that is good for the children and good for EU solidarity towards Greece,” he said. “The first priority must be the safety and care of the children who are alone in Greece.”
“The country needs to expand its own capacity to protect unaccompanied children with EU support, but the relocation to EU countries of some of the most vulnerable also relieves pressure on the Greek system,” he said.
The pandemic delayed the transfers but in April, Luxembourg and Germany notified Athens they planned to proceed under strict conditions due to the virus. This sparked a flurry of action for Eirini Agapidaki, Greece’s Special Secretary for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, UNHCR’s office in Athens, its staff and partners on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, and Samos.
“I get emotional each time I am at the airport to wave the children off and wish them good luck. So many people are highly committed and working hard to make the relocation programme work to offer these children an opportunity for a bright future”, said Agapidaki, whose department supports the children’s wellbeing, education and accommodation.
They had to comply with a 48-hour countdown before the Luxembourg departures. So Best Interest Assessment Procedures were conducted for potential travelers and UNHCR staff worked with partners from the Greek NGOs METAdrasi and PRAKSIS, as well as EASO, the relevant EU body, to select cases to submit to authorities in Greece and Luxembourg.
"We didn't sleep. We were working 24 hours a day."
UNHCR staff in Greece recall the race to conduct interviews in the reception and identification centres amidst COVID-19 restrictions and complete detailed paperwork. Each child required documents to be gathered, processed and submitted. Each had to consent and in some cases parents back in home countries had to be consulted.
One bureaucratic mistake could imperil a child’s chance at relocation, the staff said.
“We didn’t sleep. We were working 24-hours a day, having the interviews, sending emails and follow-ups and follow-ups on the follow-ups,” Matrahji said.
Staff from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) prepared the children for their departure, conducted all the health checks and accompanied them to the receiving countries, providing yet another example of good cooperation between the two UN agencies.
UNHCR, IOM, and UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, established standards to identify and prioritize the children for relocation.
In all, 12 children traveled to Luxembourg, while 47 went to Germany. The majority came from Afghanistan, though some were from Syria and Eritrea. Almost all are teenagers.
The plane to Germany landed in Hanover. After two weeks of quarantine in Lower Saxony, the children went to different places to begin the integration process. One third will live with relatives already in Germany, according to UNHCR spokesperson Chris Melzer.
Both countries welcomed the children.
In Luxembourg, the children were housed at a facility in the north of the country, under the supervision of Caritas Luxembourg, which deployed a multi-disciplinary team, including a psychologist and social workers who speak Arabic, Farsi and Dari.
Faruk Licina is part of the Caritas Luxembourg welcoming team. He said quarantine made the first two weeks tough. Schools were closed and the children had to wait to start learning the country’s languages.
"It all happened so quickly."
He said that some had suffered psychologically given what had happened to them in the last few years, but once settled they were able to play sports together and look around the town where they are based. They have been shielded from attention, but Ahmad told Licina about his newfound sense of freedom and stability.
Now they have comfortable beds, good food and more stable prospects, Licina said, adding that the experience had also been “very deep” for the Caritas team.
“It all happened so quickly … We had to look for a house for them to live in, to get the authorization. The social sector was paralyzed because of COVID but we had to look for colleagues to help look after them,” he said.
“But everyone has given their maximum so that they would be welcomed,” he said.
*Name changed for protection reasons.
The Relocation project is led by the Government of Greece with participating EU member states and is coordinated and funded by the European Commission. IOM, UNHCR and UNICEF fully support all aspects of the relocation process, in close collaboration with key partners such as the European Asylum Support Office.