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No child should be behind barbed wire

Thursday, 21 July 2016 10:44 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Why are they treating us like criminals when we’ve done nothing wrong?"

I heard these words last week from 16-year old Emir*, while visiting Moriadetention centre on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Once an open camp for refugees and migrants hoping to reach other European destinations, Moria became a detention facility after the EU-Turkey deal was implemented earlier this year.

As a result, as many as 90children like Emir*, who are travelling without a parent or guardian, are now held behind barbed wire fences in Moria in a grim environment, with little or no access to even basic health and medical services, or formal education. To detain a child in any circumstances is unacceptable – but certainly not for the 75 days Emir* has lived like this. And they don’t know when they will get out.

Despite their young age, children like Emir* have already experienced more than many of us adults can imagine. Years of war and conflict, followed by an often life-threatening journey to reach the Europe they thought would provide safety, has left many of them disappointed, frustrated, and dealing with emotional stress. This is now made worse by detention and uncertainty about their futures.

When I spoke to these boys, I thought of my own two teenagers at home. How would they have dealt with all the things these children have gone through?

I know that in the official language of the Greek administration, this might not be called detention. But for a 16-year-old living behind a locked door night and day, it sure feels like that.

Emir’s* fading hopes – the result of spending days and nights on end behind barbed wire on Lesvos – should send a loud and strong message to the world.

The Greek government is trying hard to manage the situation, but this is happening in Europe, and this will not be solved without a European solution.

I know this issue is difficult for European leaders. I have been there myself. I respect the right of European countries to set rules when it comes their homeland and borders. But, these children have rights as well. And today, on European soil, their rights are not being respected. We have rules about this and they are clear; children of any age should never be detained. 

I urge the public, Members of Parliaments across Europe, and European leaders to help find a solution now. It is not an impossible task to ensure these children are safe and treated humanely, and to move them out of detention as quickly as possible while their asylum claims are processed. It can be done.

No stone should be left unturned to ensure children are reunited with their families or guardians as soon as possible. Children travelling on their own are especially vulnerable and must be moved to long-term shelters where they can access education, basic services, legal advice and emotional support to help them deal with the horrors they have faced.

In Greece, we at Save the Children are working in eight areas –providing support to children – including those who are on their own – and ensuring their rights are respected, while their asylum applications are processed. 

We work to ensure that children are kept in clean, safe conditions, and have access to food, education, recreational activities and legal advice. We are doing our best, with the support of individual private donations and funding from the EU and Member States. But we cannot change the fundamental situation that conditions faced by children detained in Greece are not what Europe should stand for. European countries can do better than this.