Athens, Apr 15 (efe-epa).- As Europe grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, a dozen unaccompanied minors living in overcrowded camps on the Aegean left Greece on Wednesday and were relocated to Luxembourg as part of a wider initiative to find safe dwellings for refugee children.
This is the first group of 1,600 children the Greek government wants to relocate to other European countries.
In total there are around 6,000 unaccompanied migrant children in Greece, half of whom live in makeshift camps that are beyond the control of the Greek government, placing them in dangerous and highly vulnerable situations.
Although the number of children being relocated in the first transfer is small, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conservative government said Wednesday was a “special” day.
Deputy Minister of Migration Giorgos Koumoutsakos, who bid farewell to the group at Athens airport alongside Luxembourg ambassador to Greece Paul Steinmetz, acknowledged that the launch of the relocation program had been modest but that he was confident other countries that had agreed to take some of the children would follow suit with more momentum.
Kumutsakos said people should not forget that behind each child there is a very human story.
He gave the example of a little boy who had initially been selected to travel to Luxembourg but who decided to stay in the field where he was living because he did not want to be separated from his friends.
The minister added that for a country like Luxembourg with 600,000 inhabitants, the figure was significant.
On Saturday a second group of around 50 children will leave for Germany, a somewhat higher number than on Wednesday but still a long way off from the 500 unaccompanied minors Angela Merkel’s government has agreed to host.
The issue of relocating migrant minors has unleashed strong criticism towards the government in Germany.
More than a hundred cities have offered to welcome unaccompanied children and teenagers, and critics say Merkel has chosen to avoid becoming the main host country again, as happened in 2015 and 2016 when Germany took in over a million refugees.
In statements to the public television channel ERT, the only medium that had access to the airport due to the Covid-19 lockdown, Kumutsakos said the minors had come from the Lesbos (9), Chios (2) and Samos camps (1) and had undergone extensive medical examinations before boarding.
In addition to Germany and Luxembourg, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, France, Ireland, Lithuania and Portugal have offered to relocate minors.
Beyond the European Union, Switzerland is to take in 20 young people and another yet to be agreed number later, while Serbia will relocate 50.
One of the biggest problems in the implementation of this initiative is that there is no generalized selection criteria.
Each country has its own selection criteria, some by gender, others by age or nationality.
Both the Greek government and the International Organization for Migration have asked the countries concerned to be more flexible with their selection process and welcome teenagers regardless of their gender, age or nationality.
The coronavirus pandemic has paralysed air traffic adding further obstacles to the relocation process.
Although this was a positive moment amid the drama of the migration crisis, NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have urged people to remember that there is a growing number of refugee children being kept in “unhygienic police cells and detention centres in Greece.”
HRW said that according to the National Center for Social Solidarity, while in January there were 180 unaccompanied children behind bars, as of March 331 children are living in these conditions even though they had not committed any crime.