Author: Chiara Perrone (Vienna Master of Human Rights)
“School is where refugees are given a second chance”, said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Paraphrasing his words, missing out on the opportunity to educate children who temporarily live in Greek Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) is both failing to give them the “skills and knowledge to invest in their futures” and losing a golden opportunity for the international community. Education for refugees is not only a right to acquire knowledge and continue their personal development, but it is also a way to “recover a sense of purpose and dignity after the trauma of displacement”. Education for all is therefore of utmost importance.
To fulfil its obligation to ensure refugee minors the access to primary and secondary education in the Greek public education system, the Greek government issued a Ministerial Decision in 2016 which established DYEP. The programme consists in afternoon classes for asylum-seeking children aged 5 to 14. It was implemented near places of residence of asylum-seekers on the mainland, therefore excluding from the fulfilment of the right to education most refugee minors who temporarily live on the Eastern Aegean islands.
In August 2019, only 1 refugee minor in 4 had access to public education in the islands, and as reported by the UNHCR, as of June 2019 no children in Moria (the RIC on Lesbos) had access to formal education.
In May 2019 the European Committee for Social Rights of the Council of Europe (ECSR) indicated to the Greek Authorities immediate measures to ensure access to education. However, the UNHCR reported that as of November 2020 only 175 refugee minors (out of 4,000) on the Aegean islands attended public education. Their right to education was further endangered and restricted by the government imposed COVID-19 lockdowns, which were prolonged for RICs residents than for nationals and tourists.
During the first period of isolation, the UNHCR ‘The Quarantine Monologues’ were realized, allowing 24 refugee minors to express their feelings and thoughts on the situation through poems. However noble this project might be, the international community continues to close its eyes before the violation of the right to education for children living in RICs on Greek islands.
The 1951 Refugee Convention cites: “The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education” [i] and the ICESCR and the CRC oblige them to make education “compulsory and available free to all”[ii]. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified that the right to education “is subject to neither progressive realization nor the availability of resources; it applies fully and immediately to all aspects of education” [iii].
Yet, Greece violates the international treaties above and discriminates against children based on ethnicity, social origin, and their status as asylum seekers.
In this situation of neglection operates Still I Rise, a Non-Profit Organization founded in 2018 by Nicolò Govoni, winner of the 2020 CIDU Award for Human Rights from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for his commitment to the protection and the education of refugee children. Also nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, Nicolò Govoni reacted to the degradation he witnessed in the RIC in Samos where he volunteered in 2018, with the creation of Still I Rise and Mazì, the first international school for refugee children on the island.
“We educate the last as if they were the first”
Mazì, ‘together’ in Greek, is a school where children 11 to 17 y.o. can go to restore their right to childhood and education. The activities that take place there are educative and recreational: English, Greek, Scientific and Humanity subjects, European Culture, Equal Rights, Sexual Education, Health, are studied in a welcoming environment where festive moments enhance the process of integration and experience of multiculturalism. Between 8 am and 6 pm, 150 children from the RIC in Samos receive emergency education in Mazì and are ensured 3 meals per day, healthcare, and psychological assistance. During the lockdown, its activities were suspended and restarted in Summer with the due precautions, but Mazì was highly damaged in the earthquake of last October and is currently not operating.
Still I Rise is an organization that does not receive funding from governments, the EU, nor international organizations. It sustains its activities through private donations and self-financing (inter alia through the sale of Govoni’s books) and therefore cannot substitute the state and the EU in the obligation to protect, respect and fulfil the right of refugee children to education. The implication of such degrading neglect impacts their future lives and denies the necessity to alleviate their meagre condition.
The integration of refugee children in public schools of Northern Aegean Island is, therefore, an obligation that the Greek government has to meet, but that the EU should support, being the Greek hotspots one of the main entries to the EU that thousands of refugees and migrants see as safety from persecution.
The integration of refugee children in public schools should be the ultimate objective. However, schools for refugee minors close to RICs and devoted to the centrality of the student, the study of a curriculum that eases integration and the alleviation of grief, are a good alternative and temporary option to provide a constructive relief in a safe place sheltered from the violence in the camp.
Offering protection, dignity and education to minors in Greek hotspots means helping them have a better future and, as N. Govoni says, “changing the world, one child at a time”.
[i] Art 22, 1951 Refugee Convention.
[ii] Art 28, 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.
[iii] Paras. 31, 34, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999 “General Comment No. 13, The Right to Education”.
I am Chiara Perrone, an intern at Equal Rights Beyond Borders (ERBB), a German legal NGO that offers free legal assistance to refugees in Athens, Chios, and Kos during the process of asylum-request. I am currently based in the Chios office, where my activities range from legal assistance to refugees, to research and draft of reports.
Lately, I was involved in the draft of a report to the Greek Ombudsman concerning the unjustified and discriminatory practice of the police to target and fine asylum-seekers that were not guilty of breaking the lockdown measures imposed by the Government. The interviews that I conducted for the report to the Greek Ombudsman were also useful to update the ERBB report concerning the living conditions in the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) of Chios, commonly called Vial camp.
Another important activity is conducting intakes and interview preparations with the clients who have their interview by EASO or the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) upcoming. In order to hold an interview preparation and pose the right questions to the client, I always do some research on the country the client comes from. If the client is highly traumatized and has psychological issues that don’t allow him/her to perform well during the official interview (which undermines the credibility of the story and consequently, the claim), we consider writing legal statements by using Country of Origin Information (COI) and IOs reports. We also submit legal statements when the story is out of the ordinary and the common knowledge about the situation in the country of origin is limited. If we think that the claim is strong and fulfills the refugee definition of the 1951 Refugee Convention, then the legal statement supports the refugee claim of persecution that the person would face if repatriated. Otherwise, if the case is a subsidiary protection one, the document focuses on the possibility of indiscriminate violence towards civilians in the home country.
The major problems that I encountered during the internship were during the ‘catching up’ phase which happened during a period of adjustment. Indeed, COVID19 measures affected many of the practices the authorities and ERBB performed. The second issue is that while some cases are similar to each other, others are so unique that I am unfortunately not independent in guiding the client and giving them the best answer.