Unaccompanied refugee children seen at a park near the Thessaloniki train station. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis.
It is getting dark but Lilly Konstantinou and the other members of ARSIS- Association for the Social Support of Youth – mobile unit are still walking through alleys and parks, next to abandoned buildings and railway tracks in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece. They remain vigilant while scanning the area for homeless, unaccompanied refugee children, who may seek shelter there.
The mobile unit also stops by mini markets, restaurants, barbershops and other stores in the area, run by refugees and migrants. They provide information about their work and leave their contact details for someone to reach them in case a refugee child in need comes to their attention.
Engaging with the local communities made a difference in the case of Zabi*, 16, from Afghanistan.
Zabi left his homeland alone when he was only 13. He was fleeing war. “We couldn’t go to school, we were deprived of everything”, he describes.
A journey that lasted many years took him through Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. During that time, he learned that his mother and sister had lost their lives in a car accident. Zabi crossed the border in Evros and arrived in Greece in July 2021. He then walked for 14 days straight in difficult conditions, before he reached Thessaloniki.
“My legs were full of blisters, and I was often hungry”, he recalls.
In Thessaloniki, he had no place to stay and eventually found himself sleeping in a park. Like Zabi, many homeless, unaccompanied refugee children who arrive in Greece are unregistered and unaware of their rights. They have no one to trust and either become homeless or end up living in precarious conditions, exposed to the risk of many forms of exploitation.
The day after he arrived, other Afghans spotted Zabi and took him to the ARSIS Info Desk. There, the organization’s employees provided him with the care he so urgently needed; they offered him food and clothes. After collecting all necessary information, they accompanied him to the police station for his registration. A few hours later, they transferred him to safe temporary accommodation, suitable for children.
The ARSIS mobile unit and Info Desk operate under the National Emergency Response Mechanism for unaccompanied children living in precarious conditions, established in early 2021. The Mechanism’s objectives are the prompt identification of unaccompanied refugee children who are either homeless or live in precarious conditions, such as Zabi, and their transfer to safe accommodation.
The Mechanism was originally conceptualized by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, after observing an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied refugee children staying for long periods in abandoned buildings, parks, warehouses, or police cells.
Dora Tsovili, from UNHCR’s Child Protection Unit, describes how the Mechanism was created from scratch in Greece and was pioneering, even by European standards.
“It was not a model we replicated. It was created based on the needs we identified in Greece and our experience in addressing them and proposing solutions”, she states.
The Mechanism’s concept took form through the coordinated actions of UNHCR and the Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the NGOs ARSIS, METAdrasi and the Network for Children’s Rights, and with co-funding from the European Union (EU).
The Mechanism is based on the close and effective cooperation of many different agencies and the holistic support they provide. A 24/7 telephone hotline, mobile units for spotting children and informing the communities, Info Desks where children receive immediate support, as well as emergency shelters, compose a complete network of structures and interconnected services provided under the Mechanism.
A telephone hotline (0030-2132128888 and 0030-6942773030, also on WhatsApp or Viber), available in all languages, runs at the core of the Mechanism. It is accessible 24/7 to anyone, including refugee children themselves, who wish to raise an alert about a homeless unaccompanied refugee child.
A multidisciplinary group of UNHCR experts based at the Special Secretariat offices stands ready at the other end of the line. In November 2021 alone, the hotline received nearly 300 new referrals from local authorities, citizens and children in need.
Soon after tracing an unaccompanied child, either through the hotline or by the mobile units, the Info Desks run by NGOs provide them with immediate care, whilst social workers and interpreters accompany them to the police station, where registration takes place within a few hours.
The children are then immediately transferred to emergency accommodation shelters operated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). At the shelters, support is provided by a specialized team, including psychologists, social workers, lawyers, and educators. They prepare a complete file and after an assessment of the child’s best interests, they develop a personalized action plan, whose implementation starts shortly after the child’s transfer to long-term accommodation.
Lilly, head of the ARSIS’ mobile unit and Info Desk, describes how challenging but also rewarding the whole process of locating and protecting unaccompanied children is for her.
“I think that the biggest challenge in this job is how to build trust. We make a great effort to show children that we stand by their side and that we will do our best to provide them with anything possible to make their life easier”, she says.
A member of a mobile team looks for unaccompanied refugee children who are either homeless or living in precarious conditions during a visit to various abandoned buildings at the outskirts of Thessaloniki. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
A mobile team speaks with an unaccompanied child near the Thessaloniki train station about the Emergency Response Mechanism and the assistance it provides to unaccompanied children who are either homeless or living in precarious conditions. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Zabi, a sixteen-year-old asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, left his country three years ago to escape war. After a long journey through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey he eventually arrived in Thessaloniki in July 2021, unaccompanied and homeless. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Baran, a sixteen-year-old asylum-seeker from Iraq, managed to reach Thessaloniki in November 2021 after a perilous journey through Turkey. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Members of a mobile team look for unaccompanied refugee children who are either homeless or living in precarious conditions near the train lines at the outskirts of Thessaloniki. © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Baran*, 16, from Iraq, is another unaccompanied refugee child who experienced the nightmare of homelessness and found a safe haven through the Mechanism. He left his country to escape domestic abuse. He passed through Turkey, and arrived in Greece in November 2021, after crossing the border in Evros.
When he reached Thessaloniki, he had no other option but to stay in an apartment among complete strangers. Feeling unsafe there, he soon left and found himself sleeping rough in a park on a makeshift cardboard bed. Luckily, he met with a group of Iraqi compatriots who told him about ARSIS and helped him reach the organization.
Baran now lives in a long-term shelter and the word “safety” stands out when describing his current life.
“I feel very safe here and the atmosphere is nice. There is safety and people are good. I feel supported, in a more protected environment”, he says.
Likewise, Zabi has also experienced many difficulties from a young age. He now sounds calm and says that “if you don’t experience hardship, ease will not come”. He also describes how his life is easier today, thanks to the support he receives. Zabi lives in long-term accommodation and expresses his love for his school and his teachers. He now dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer.
The launch of the Mechanism has filled important gaps and drastically changed the accommodation and care prospects for unaccompanied refugee children in Greece. Children, like Zabi and Baran, no longer need to stay under protective custody in police stations. In fact, the practice of keeping unaccompanied children in police stations was abolished by law in Greece, in December 2020, when the Mechanism was proposed to the Ministry as a potential solution to cease this practice, which is harmful to children.
While challenges for unaccompanied refugee children in accessing the public healthcare system, social services, educational opportunities, legal assistance and information provision still persist, the Mechanism is a beacon of hope in their journey to safety.
In first nine months of the hotline’s operation, some 770 unaccompanied refugee children found shelter in appropriate accommodation and a second chance to rebuild their life.
*Names have been changed for protection reasons.
The National Emergency Response Mechanism for unaccompanied children living in precarious conditions is operated by the Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, supported by UNHCR experts, while NGOs Arsis and the Network for Children’s Rights operate field mobile units and information desks and METAdrasi provides tele-interpretation services. IOM provides emergency accommodation and case management services. The Mechanism is co-funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of the European Union.