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Refugees at the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos in April 2016. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

Child Refugees Forced to Sleep in Dirty, Vermin-Infested Cells: Report

Human Rights Watch investigation reveals that Greece is violating both national and international law by detaining refugee children in unsanitary police and coast guard jail cells for months at a time

Nika Knight

A scathing report from Human Rights Watch reveals the degrading and inhumane conditions under which hundreds of refugee children in Greece are being forced to sleep in dirty, vermin-infested police station cells, detention centers, and coast guard facilities for months at a time—in violation of Greek and international law.

"I swear to God, I sleep next to rats."
—Houari Z., 15-year-old boy from Algeria held in an Athens detention center

"The Greek government justifies the detention of unaccompanied children as a temporary protection measure in the child's best interest," the report notes. "In practice it is anything but."

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have arrived in Greece so far this year as a wave of asylum seekers attempts to enter Europe through the coastal nation, as the report, titled "'Why Are You Keeping Me Here?' Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece," observes.

Thousands of unaccompanied refugee children have also endured horrific sea crossings, the threat of trafficking, and other abuses to reach Greece, only to then face the country's chronic shortage of facilities and lack of a protection system for minors, Human Rights Watch found. The situation was made even worse when other European nations closed their borders to refugees.

Some children interviewed by Human Rights Watch were forced to sleep on the bare floor, and all said they were not interviewed by authorities. Most were also not given access to an interpreter, psychological services, or the legal guardian they are entitled to by law. Some were detained with adults, which increases the risk of abuse and sexual violence, the organization observes, and also violates national and international law.

"Children also face ill-treatment by police," the report notes. "While most of the children interviewed did not report abuse, four children said they had been slapped or humiliated by police officers."

"I asked the police why I am here and they didn't respond. I told them 'I am a minor and I haven’t done anything. Why are you keeping me here?' And they didn't respond. I feel like I have killed someone."
—Wasim T., 16-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq,
held in a Filiates police station

The report includes harrowing testimonials from children detained in egregious conditions.

"I swear to God, I sleep next to rats," said Houari Z., a 15-year-old boy from Algeria and living in the Amygdaleza pre-removal detention center in Athens.

"I don't want to be in a prison," said Mukhtar G., a 17-year-old boy from Syria detained at Paranesti detention center. "I asked the police why I am here and they didn't respond. I told them 'I am a minor and I haven't done anything. Why are you keeping me here?' And they didn't respond. I feel like I have killed someone."

"Wasim T., a 16-year-old Kurdish boy who said he fled Iraq after ISIS executed his father, said that before he was at the Filiates police station, he was detained for 15 days in the Igoumenitsa Coast Guard facility, 12 days at another police station, and that a couple of months prior, he had also been detained briefly in Thessaloniki," Human Rights Watch reports. "Wasim described his transfer out of the Coast Guard facility: 'Then they took us to another prison. I thought they were taking us to a camp but they took us to another prison…. I don't count the days anymore.'"

"If we asked for anything, like food, they never had it and they would yell at us…it was so dirty. We didn't have a way to bathe or shower, there was just a washing basin where we could wash our hands or feet," said Javed S., a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan, who was also being held at the Filiates police station.

"Greek authorities face real challenges because of the significant number of arrivals, but these don't absolve Greece of its obligation to protect children who have fled violence, endured traumatic journeys, and are alone," said Rebecca Riddell, Europe fellow at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "If EU member states are serious about protecting vulnerable children, they should urgently move these children out of Greece and into member states."

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