The Pervasive Aspect of the Refugee Crisis

Violence and Sexual Exploitation of Migrant and Refugee Children in Greece

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by Ifigenia Pilatou

Recently, the refugee crisis monopolises the interest of the media and the wider public, at the same time much has been written about its impact on the most vulnerable groups, such as minors. The media is full of pictures of young children drowned and drifted on shore, infants rescued from plastic boats, and children trying to play or warm up in the plight of refugee camps. However, an equally serious issue, which only recently began receiving due attention, is the exposure of these children and, in particular, of unaccompanied minors to violence, abuse and, often, sexual exploitation.

One of the impressive features of this crisis is the number of children involved – a number that is only comparable to the population movements caused by the Second World War. To understand the extent of the phenomenon, of the 1.2 million refugees (UNHCR, 2016) and immigrants who have crossed Greece since 2015, about 480.000 of them are children. Out of them, 20.300 children are currently “trapped” in Greece (UNICEF, 2017).

Harvard University’s recent research (FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard University, 2017) documents the worrying increase in violence and sexual abuse of refugee children and migrants in Greece. Although Greece has ratified the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees the protection of all children, including those seeking asylum, the magnitude of the crisis and the existing problems of the child protection system in Greece have had dramatic effects on the safety and well-being of thousands of minors. Children are inherently more vulnerable and are at a greater risk of being subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Factors that affect the vulnerability of children include the conditions of detention and living, which, unfortunately, have been characterized as inadequate, precarious and insufficient to meet not only the needs of children but also the minimum required hygiene standards (FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard University, 2017).

Violence in Refugee Camps

Within a typical refugee camp, people with different cultural, religious and racial backgrounds are forced to live under demanding conditions, facing a difficult present and an uncertain future. The frustration they experience, coupled with harsh living conditions, is easily transformed into outbursts of violence and anger. Every day, teenagers and children become witnesses and victims of these outbursts. Violence incidents have a serious psychological impact on the physical and mental health of children, who are either in a state of panic, linking the violence they experience to the camps with memories of war and persecution, or imitating adults by perpetuating violent behaviors (FXB Center for Health And Human Rights Harvard University, 2017).

The situation is exacerbated as, in refugee camps, children are – most of the time – unattended by their parents or guardians. In fact, unaccompanied minors over 15 years of age are allowed to go outside unattended (FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard University, 2017). In both cases, nobody knows when riots can start, or who can approach these children. They may even be mistreated by their own parents, who are struggling with their own wounds of loss and despair (FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard University, 2017). Due to intense levels of pressure, adult guardians may ignore or not be able to respond to their children’s needs, which may lead to increased levels of abuse (UNICEF, 2012).

Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

Poor or inadequate protective structures within refugee camps increase the risk of sexual violence for minors. Unaccompanied children are at particular risk, and they can easier fall victims to adults, who seek to exploit them, but also to their peers. Most offenders are adult men, acting alone or as part of organized gangs, who exploit unsuspecting children, benefiting from their lack of proper supervision (FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard University, 2017).In other cases, the children themselves become perpetrators, for the reason that, in the detention camps, the livelihood of minors of different ages and backgrounds creates power and tension variations. In fact, research has shown that sexual violence can be used as a method of claiming power and dominance within a social environment (Warburton J., 2016).

Although many NGOs, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Townsend, 2016), have recorded the increase in allegations of sexual assaults against children, the diffusion of the phenomenon is very difficult to quantify. This is because the victims of such attacks usually avoid mentioning them. The most common reasons for this are the fear of repeated victimisation, feelings of shame and isolation, the likelihood of retaliation (FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard University, 2017), but even distrust in law enforcement mechanisms. Only in extreme cases, where there are serious injuries and, therefore, medical care is needed, such incidents are revealed.

Another issue appears to be the introduction of many minors into prostitution for securing their livelihood and find the resources to depart for other countries, which are their final destination (Taylor D., 2017). More specifically, Victoria Square and Pedion Areos are two areas known for the sexual exploitation of children. After all, these two locations, in the heart of Athens, have been well-known centers of drug and sex trade for many years. The image of young boys sitting alone on benches, while passers-by review the market (Howden, 2016) is a new reality that has come to exacerbate an already worrying phenomenon. In accordance with Article 34 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and Article 2 of the Optional Protocol on Child Prostitution (2000), prostituted children – whether with or without consent – are victims of sexual exploitation, as legally they cannot provide genuine consent and, therefore, they should be adequately protected.

Collateral Damage of an Endless Crisis

Sexual exploitation of children is one of the worst forms of abuse in a society. These children, having experienced physical or sexual violence, suffer from fear and distrust of a system that should have taken care of them. They arrived in Europe in search of a better life, and they were found to be collateral damage of an endless crisis. Society and the state can no longer ignore this situation, and remain idle, while children are being abused or forced into prostitution in order to survive. Without the necessary political will from the Greek and European authorities, these children will never be able to experience living conditions in a safe and stable environment.

In an era of extreme controversy over what constitutes truth and lie, what is right and what is wrong, the need for rule of law becomes more imperative than ever. In any case, even in the darkest times, one thing must never be forgotten; our solidarity and humanity. Because what can be the alternative to address the enormous challenges of modern society, if not the joint commitment to human dignity and respect for one another?



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