Greece is in mourning following the wildfires that took at least 80 lives on Monday near Athens. Several hundred people were injured and the emergency services are still searching for dozens more reported missing by their families.
There are more than 60,000 refugees in Greece today, and an estimated 3,790 of these are unaccompanied children. While no refugee children have been reported missing in the context of the fire, the tragedy has intensified concerns among grassroots organisations about how many child refugees are living there alone; "no one is checking if they make it home safely," Help Refugees' chief executive and cofounder Josie Naughton told Refinery29 this morning. "These kinds of incidents highlight the fact that there’s no protection for these children. No one would even know if they were in the fires."
Naughton and her team at Help Refugees are at the Royal Courts of Justice today and tomorrow appealing the closure of the Dubs Amendment, a 2016 government bill which promised to bring unaccompanied minors to the UK. "They [the British government] still haven’t filled the 480 places they promised for vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children... in over two years... when there are 140 kids in Calais and nearly 4,000 in Greece, two-thirds of whom are homeless, living on the streets and with no one to protect them."
Help Refugees made major progress in 2017 contesting the Home Office’s decision to cap the number of child refugees allowed into the UK at 350, a number they believed to be entirely arbitrary. "Through our challenge and the evidence that we submitted, the government 'found' another 130 places," Josie explains. But just 250 children have been allowed into the UK under the Dubs Amendment, meaning there are still 230 places vacant.
Our #DubsNow appeal regarding the closure of the Dubs scheme has now begun. We have packed out the courtroom and want to send our thanks to everyone in court today, and the thousands of people have supported the appeal over the last 2 years. Together we hope we can win this case! pic.twitter.com/1qR0y8vy66— Help Refugees (@HelpRefugees) July 25, 2018
The situation in Greece, Josie continues, is back to what it was like three years ago, when the refugee crisis hit headlines. "Arrivals are increasing and there are no real facilities or referral pathways for them. The homeless population of refugees in Greece is really rising; at the Moria camp in Lesvos, there are 7,000 people now, in a camp built for 2,000." Josie shows me photos on her phone of tiny kids living in sunken, muddy tents.
"We’re having to say no all the time to very, very basic requests for aid from people in Greece," she explains, "like food, underwear, basic hygiene kits. Nappies is something we spend a huge amount of money on because there are just no nappies; families in camps are literally having to use the shirts off their backs. And on sun-tan lotion because kids are getting burned, and mosquito repellent. All very basic things." Help Refugees works with 45 grassroots organisations in Greece who "do everything from search and rescue off the coast of Greece, to providing food and accommodation if they can, to a skateboarding programme for kids and a youth centre in Athens."
CEO of Refugee Youth Service and project manager of Velos Youth in Athens, Jonny Willis, says the situation is particularly grim for minors over 17, who would have been eligible for the Dubs Amendment two years ago when it opened but in the years since, while the places have been left open, they’ve been aged out. "Seventeen-year-olds will almost never gain access to shelters. If not in shelters then [in Athens] squatted buildings are the most common next accommodation type, and if they can't get into one of those then living on the streets or in public parks is not uncommon. We have also had many cases of young people being exploited in return for accommodation (most commonly labour but of course sexual exploitation is also taking place)."
Since media coverage has receded, Help Refugees is struggling to meet needs with donations. "We have to work hard for them now because it’s not in the media," says Josie. In May, a 2-year-old girl called Mawda was shot in the face by police as her family tried to cross the Belgian border. Mawda died from her injuries, becoming the sixth refugee to die trying to get to the UK in the six months from December. "Three years ago that would have been front page news," says Josie. "The whole situation everywhere is extremely fraught and crazy and awful. This population of people – because they’re not seen as people – are falling through the gaps."
When the need is so great, particularly at this time in Greece, the British government's failure to fill the measly 230 open places they promised they would, is incredibly frustrating. "Even if they only filled one more place," Josie says, "that’s one more person’s life."
The judge who granted Help Refugees the right to appeal the decision to close the Dubs scheme noted that it was an urgent case, but Josie and her team won’t know the outcome for at least another month. "The British public are amazing though, still every day, we go on Instagram and see people doing fundraisers in their houses, sponsored cycles and swims." According to Twitter, there were so many Help Refugee supporters this morning (including Labour peer Lord Dubs, who spearheaded the Dubs Amendment), they couldn’t fit in the courtroom.
Help Refugees continues to take donations and you can find more information about how to help on their website: https://helprefugees.org/help/