A lost generation with missing children and no childhood?

Antigone Liberaki, General Manager, SolidarityNow

Lost generation?

From 2016 onwards, the global civil society raised the issue of schooling of refugee children.[1] With half of the world’s 19 million refugees being children, and most of them being denied access to education, the timing seemed right, if not already delayed. Most states followed this lead and Greece has indeed gone a long way since then. We can now talk about 65% school enrolment and counting, with the weakest percentages still found at the secondary school level, where there is much room for improvement.[2] Given the already overstretched national education system, due to the austerity crisis, it is inspiring how much has been done during the last two years to cover this unacceptable gap, which unfortunately has created one ‘lost generation’. But no more.

As SolidarityNow, we are aware that the usually short-term funding cycles of NGOs cannot be the sole source that will see children through their entire schooling years. This is an admission of paramount importance, which has shaped our approach on refugee education. As a first step, we had to work on dismissing the fear of governments and, surprisingly, of refugees alike. School enrolment makes the living conditions seem more permanent; an undesired feeling both for the local society and the population on the move, who often sees Greece as a transit country. Nevertheless, political and ideological debates can wait, while education cannot. After circumventing this first barrier, through advocacy, the next challenge was to avoid creating a parallel system, but simply to find ways to strengthen the public one with targeted interventions. Providing non-formal education services in 8 different locations across the mainland, we managed to reach 4.100 students from 36 different nationalities, in one and a half year, keeping a fair gender balance[3]. Paving the way for school enrolment prerequisites has also been a big part of our daily work; advocating for timely appointment of extra teachers, surpassing local xenophobic reactions, covering schools’ needs on additional supplies, securing vaccines, linking parents to school through interpretation and keeping them involved – reinforcing their parenting role – are only a few such examples.

I had to choose among many, due to time restraints, yet at least one pilot[4] education intervention of SolidarityNow is worth a separate mention. We chose to focus on math and not only language courses, providing a continuity in the learning process, linking pre-existing knowledge the children bring with them from their home-country to the learning experience in the host one. Contrary to language classes, where everything is new, children feel more confident with math, as the language is common, a fact which we reinforced with the publication of a dictionary of mathematical terms in 6 languages.[5]

It is important to no longer have to speak about a lost generation. At SolidarityNow, we strongly believe that NO child should be out of school for more than one month, even in displacement living conditions. The education gap can and is being bridged, but there are no grounds for complacency. In this spirit, we are happy to announce that in 2019 our non-formal education services are extended to cover 15 different locations throughout Greece, from the initial 8 ones.

Missing Children…

Taking another look at child rights milestones in 2016, a few months prior to the ‘lost generation’ debate, Europol talked about 10.000 missing children in European territory and EU was silenced by the shock.[6] Yet, it should not have been an unforeseeable development. Where legal options are absent and official pathways are inhumane, illegal networks are bound to flourish. Smuggling and trafficking networks put us all to shame, while it is not up to the civil society to address independently theses issues. On our part, as SolidarityNow, we are proud to have joined the larger network of Blue Dots – a term coined by UNICEF, UNHCR and Red Cross to represent Child and Family Support Hubs established throughout the Balkan migration route. The cross-border link between these safe spaces has helped reduce this inconceivable number. We are proud to have supported more than 700 unaccompanied minors, having lost track of only 1! Maybe one too many. We had to be very creative to counter-fight the attractiveness of illegal networks in the eyes of teenagers. Alternative tools to keep contact with children have been mostly social media, while videos presenting the legal pathways have been proven effective communication tools.

Nevertheless, standing here in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, I feel ashamed of the recent convictions of Greece[7] and France[8] by the European Court of Human Rights[9] for violations of children rights. Especially, in H.A. v Greece, it was the cornerstone of the Convention, the principle of the best interest of the child that was breached (art. 3). The messages of the Court are loud and clear with a judicial order – just a few days ago added to the list –  addressed to the Greek authorities, in order to put an end to the administrative detention of two unaccompanied girls.[10] However, are we listening? Are the states and the relevant stakeholders ready to make the necessary changes, which would guarantee adherence to the legal framework that we created? The obstacles are known, while the legal basis to overcome them is already there. More precisely, the de facto situation is considerably different than the legal guarantees. First, the detection of minors is impeded, among others, due to fear of administrative detention in inhumane conditions.[11] This leads to the lack of access to accurate information about legal options, as many minors are being briefed on their rights as adults.[12] Furthermore, even if an unaccompanied minor is identified and chooses the legal safeguard of family reunification, which he/she is entitled to, the waiting period by far exceeds the 6-month limit set by the Dublin Regulation. The lengthy procedures are among the top reasons of the high absconding rate from shelters, thus increasing the number of missing children. All these factors can and should be corrected.

Lost childhood?

Education and protection are obviously in the forefront. However, in my opinion, our forum would be moot if the debate would not at least glance towards the overarching issue, which is none other than childhood, when it comes to children. But how about refugee children? The civil society and donors often speak about a smooth transition to adulthood and are preoccupied with shaping children into active citizens. At some point, during a visit in one of the many refugee camps in Greece, I found myself wondering how we can talk about a smooth transition to adulthood, when there is nothing to transition from. The proactive, yet premature, focus on a future adulthood, has sidelined the present childhood. The causes of this anomaly are multiple and complex to convey. The poor psychological condition of most refugee parents, the overwhelmingly poor living conditions they find themselves in, the cumulative traumas that surface when safety is reached, the lack of options within isolated camps vis-à-vis the need of children to be kept busy and many more abnormal conditions have deprived children of their childhood; right here, right now, not in the days to come, not in the days of their adulthood. Roles have become blurred and parenthood is under crisis, while childhood is under extinction in refugee camps.

We see so commonly, to the point of acceptance, young girls as young as 10 taking up household chores and caring for younger siblings, instead of playing with them. Working always with a bottom-up approach, it shocked me to hear that it took one of our field teams two months of weekly meetings with teenage girls to identify one interest of their own, not linked to household. Just one! The first requests were knitting, infant care for their siblings etc. We settled at pencil drawing! This is a quote of the daily routine of a 14-year old girl! Not to mention the ‘violent’, yet common, practice of using children as interpreters, as they pick up the language faster. There is nothing natural or child-like about a 13-year old boy interpreting his mother’s words about how she was raped before managing to flee.

Education reduces the risk of stigma, isolation, intra-community tensions, marginalisation and radicalisation; while, adherence to the core child rights should be a given. Yet, these two elements are not enough on their own. In fear of a dark adulthood, we failed to notice that the childhood has been stripped off its colors, as well. Being a child should be the end goal.

In SolidarityNow, we believe in our everyday heroes and we like color! We create colorful child-friendly spaces and we fill them up with colorful smiles through hours of playtime! Because the right to play is no less important for the well-being of a child (art 31 of the convention on the rights of the child)[13] than the rest of the children rights.

We believe, with constant effort, we can do it! Not just for the children, but with them!

[1] It was first raised in an organised manner at the World Humanitarian Summit held in Turkey in May 2016, resulting in the creation of the “Education Cannot Wait” fund, the first global fund to prioritise education in humanitarian action.

[2] 80% enrolment in primary school and 50% in the secondary level. The lowest percentages are of course encountered in the islands.

[3] 50-50 in primary school, 70-30 in secondary education.

[4] Other interventions to choose from are the following:

– An element that is lost for children on the move, as they struggle to integrate, is schooling in their mother tongue, which leads to losing an important bond with their parents and their community. We offer mother tongue classes in Arabic and Farsi, in order to maintain this connection, but also because having strong reading, writing and expression skills in one’s own language aids a child’s cognitive development, builds on critical thinking skills, and improves children’s intuition in the overall learning process.

– Making sure to match what is learned in the classroom with real-world skills, we periodically launch different life skills seminars. These have included professional interpretation seminars, computer literacy lessons (aiming for the ECDL certification), and nail art courses! We are continuously exploring options to expand the wide variety of talents of children.

[5] Usually non-formal education projects in this context focus on language classes. SN chose to highlight math and science skills, validating the pre-existing knowledge the children carry with them from their home-country. This continuity of learning was achieved, among other things, by the publication of a mathematical dictionary in 6 languages (Greek, English, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish). This slight shift in focus increased children’s self-esteem and devotion to school considerably.

[6] The statement is attributed to Brian Donald, Chief of Staff at Europol, in January 2016.

[7] H.A. and others v Greece, https://www.asylumlawdatabase.eu/en/content/ecthr-ha-and-others-v-greece-greece-violated-convention-placing-unaccompanied-minors

[8] Khan v France, https://www.asylumlawdatabase.eu/en/content/ecthr-khan-v-france-france%E2%80%99s-failure-protect-unaccompanied-minor-breached-article-3

[9] Another even more recent case has been the O.S.A. and others v. Greece, where the ECHR found a violation of Article 5 – Right to liberty and security and Article 3 – Prohibition of torture, as Greek authorities failed to offer asylum seekers the essential, namely legal protection and documents translated in a language they could understand. I am not including it because it is not related to children.

[10] https://www.efsyn.gr/ellada/koinonia/188715_dikastiko-stop-stin-praktiki-tis-prostateytikis-fylaxis?fbclid=IwAR0INZGg–2WhTKwUlpKJJ4Ajdu3WvSWv-e7PqxOvceYiJFUKhJga7c_sC8

[11] Upon registration, the limited capacity of the First Reception Service, the non-cooperation of the minors due to the fear of detention and the disuse of the medical age assessment methods, might result in many unaccompanied minors being undetected by authorities and hence deprived of their right to family reunification.

[12] There is no channel of information on family reunification, while the Prosecutor cannot play an active role in the decision-making process. Additionally, there is no family tracing mechanism. As a result, a lot of minors cross Greece without considering family reunification as an option.

[13] 1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

  1. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.