News comment on the discussion at the Human Rights Parliamentary Committee on the situation at the Pournara Centre

© UNHCR Cyprus

UNHCR has been calling the attention of the competent authorities to the situation of unaccompanied children accommodated in the Pournara camp since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic.

UNHCR welcomed the Ministry of Interior’s plan to create a safe zone for minors during the expansion works and replacement of tents with prefabricated houses. However, the works were not concluded, leaving the unaccompanied minors without a safe zone in the Pournara camp, when the COVID-19 measures instructing the closure of the camp were implemented.

At the outbreak of the epidemic some 70 minors were hosted in the camp. Currently the camp hosts 47 unaccompanied or separated children. Later on during the epidemic, girls were accommodated with adult women in prefabricated houses, while boys stayed in tents. Both girls and boys are located in the main camp and thus share the same sanitation facilitates with adults. For example, the showers are separated with shower curtains, but with no possibility to lock the door. Additionally, the tents assigned to boys are grouped together but not fenced, thus accessible to adults at all times.

UNHCR has communicated the heightened protection risk this causes to the children in writing to the Ministries of Interior and Social Insurance, calling for adequate segregation of the unaccompanied minors. Sexual and gender based harassment and violence unfortunately often takes place in crowded camps, and therefore UNHCR always recommends strict separation of unaccompanied minors from adults and provides guidance on how to minimize the risks.

Due to confidentiality reasons, UNHCR cannot publicly discuss the details of incidents involving unaccompanied minors in the Pournara camp, but confirms that children interviewed by UNHCR last week did bring up situations that include inappropriate behaviour on behalf of adults towards the concerned children, which could amount to sexual harassment. This information has been conveyed to the competent authorities, and UNHCR reiterates its recommendation to conduct prompt age determination and place separated children with their relatives or at shelters for minors based on a best interest determination conducted for each child, and unaccompanied children at shelters or foster care. UNHCR also recalls the importance of providing separated and unaccompanied children with effective guardianship, to enable effective protection and access to rights these children have, based on their status as asylum seeking minors.