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Is UNHCR failing to protect unaccompanied refugee children?

Human Rights

Syrian refugees coming ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos. by Freedom House

It was 11.00pm at night when 15 year old Shahram from Afghanistan arrived in Lesbos. He had travelled on a rubber dinghy boat from Turkey with 45 strangers and stood alone bedraggled on the shoreline, staring out to sea.

Caroline Dillerud, a volunteer from Norway, was on the coast that night, greeting boats and ensuring safe disembarkation. She had been on the island for a month but like many volunteers, did not know the procedure for dealing with unaccompanied minors.

‘I called the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who assured me that someone would meet me and take care of the child,’ said Caroline. She was instructed to drive to Moria registration camp, 65 kilometres away, where a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative would meet her.

‘When we got to Moria, there was no one to meet me. We waited for some time and at about 2.00am, a man showed up who wasn’t from UNHCR and said: “So, what am I supposed to do with this child?”’

Like many of its activities, that night, UNHCR had outsourced its work to volunteers. On this occasion, a volunteer from Britain who usually did crowd control in the camp was sent to collect the child. The volunteer had no experience dealing with unaccompanied minors and had not received an appropriate briefing.

It was only at 3.00am, when the child was exhausted, that the volunteers were able to figure out what to do. ‘UNHCR had assured me that there would be someone to look after the boy. Being the UN Refugee Agency you feel that you can trust them. That trust was broken that night’, Caroline lamented.

Up until now, there is still no clear policy in place to deal with the identification and transfer of unaccompanied minors who arrive in Lesbos, despite calls from volunteers and aid agencies for UNHCR to develop a standard operating procedure. This lack of process creates situations where children may be at risk: unaccompanied minors have ended up being transferred to the wrong place; or they have not been registered as being unaccompanied minors at all.

With volunteers still doing the majority of the frontline work on the island, the failure to have clear policies and processes means that there is a lack of both coordination and clear lines that demarcate responsibilities.

Annie Risner, 18, and Ruby Brookman Prins, 19, have been volunteering at Moria refugee camp for the past seven weeks. According to Ruby, ‘We do the basic things that the aid agencies should be doing: food distribution; identifying vulnerable cases; calling for ambulances; taking people to hospital; and putting up tents and tarpaulin.’ In recent weeks, they have been helping UNHCR distribute blankets, clothes and high energy biscuits.

Annie explained: ‘There was no briefing on the tasks. Last week, I complained to the UNHCR worker that she had only given me 60 blankets to distribute when there were thousands of people sleeping outside. She said it was in case people steal them. Firstly, this was illogical. Secondly, she has no idea about the outside of the camp where thousands of people sleep rough every night because she is based inside the barracks. The worst thing is that she is the one deciding how many blankets are given without knowing the reality of the situation.’

Annie and Ruby also identify vulnerable people in the crowds to be brought inside Moria camp for shelter. Ruby outlined the difficulty: ‘It was a big problem that we weren’t given a criteria for vulnerability. So we had one set, another volunteer group Mercy had another set, and UNHCR had another. At night, it was only us and Mercy working there, so UNHCR weren’t involved. We decided.’

In the month of November alone there have been an average of 3,300 refugees arrive every day in Lesbos but UNHCR only has 29 staff currently deployed. Filling the gap are volunteers who continue to execute critical tasks and operate outside working hours. Up until September, NGO presence on the ground was extremely limited and almost invisible. So it was up to autonomous volunteers like Annie and Ruby to deliver almost all humanitarian aid. Now that the aid agencies are present, there is not only poor coordination but also a sense of anger and resentment.

Ruby is sitting on the floor at Moria, having spent the evening collecting bags of rubbish in the refugee camp. She said: ‘Where were they six weeks ago when there was nowhere for people to sleep? When people were being teargassed every day? When volunteers were having to pay for food for refugees? Still now, we are the ones doing critical things like taking people to and from the hospital. It’s hard to believe. It’s made me lose faith in the big aid agencies.’


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