Unaccompanied children detained on the Greek Island of Lesvos feel they are being treated like criminals, Save the Children International’s CEO Helle Thorning-Schmidt said today.
Speaking after a series of visits to camps near Athens and on Lesvos, Ms Thorning-Schmidt said if European leaders could hear what she had been told and see it for themselves they would respond differently.
"The children I met today who are unaccompanied, they have no-one to look after them, they don't know what their legal status is.
"What they know is everyday there is a locked door when they go to sleep. They cannot leave that camp. It might not be called detention, but it feels like a prison for the kids that are in there.
"What they told me today has to stay with all of Europe’s leaders. They are saying ‘why are we being treated like criminals when we have done nothing wrong’?"
Ms Thorning-Schmidt added:
"I can see the Greek authorities are trying very hard.
"But what we are seeing here in Lesvos is not good enough – and if European leaders were here with me and could speak to the women, speak to the children, they would realise that as European countries we cannot allow young people, children, to be behind barbed wire.
"We can do much better than we are doing here."
More than a hundred unaccompanied and separated children are being held in detention centres or in police custody as Greece faces a chronic shortage of shelter spaces.
The flow of refugees and migrants into Greece has reduced since the EU deal with Turkey — but has left many children waiting in limbo, stranded in hotspots on the country’s eastern islands.
The deal has also led many fleeing war and conflict to simply shift their routes, often being forced to resort to more dangerous journeys – putting children at increased risk of harm, abuse and exploitation.
Across Lesvos and other islands, children have been living for months in detention centres in degrading circumstances, often with limited access to basic services.
During the summer months, temperatures climb as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) during the day, making living conditions nearly unbearable, with many children forced to live in tents with no means of escaping the heat.
Children have told the charity they are distressed and suffering from psychosocial issues both because of the events leading to their arrival in Europe, and their treatment since then.
Legal options for unaccompanied children are failing, with young people being left to wait for months to be reunited with family in other European countries – which is pushing some into taking riskier options, including turning to smugglers.
There is little legal information or support, and limited access to formal education.
“No child should ever be detained, as this is a clear violation of their rights,“ added Thorning-Schmidt.
"Yet these children have been trapped in overcrowded camps for months on end, without access to information about their rights, leaving them uncertain about their future.”
"The terrible conditions children face here are a betrayal of everything Europe claims to stand for.”