Greece Diary: Athens, Day 1

Graffiti near the youth service

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and has just travelled from the North – you can read about her time in Thessaloniki here, here and here – to Athens. She will be based here for a few days, before going to Lesvos.


The differences between Thessaloniki and Athens are subtle, though certainly present. Many of the issues remained the same, formal accommodation being the most obvious; however, the city and the response to so many of these questions felt more overtly political. Occupied squares and graffiti (resisting fascism and welcoming refugees and migrants, for the most part) all bore witness to both the challenges, and the responses, faced by newcomers. One thing is clear, though: as in Thesslaoniki, there is an incredible range of groups who offer diverse support to those who need it.


My first visit was to Velos Youth Centre, a safe space for 16-21 year olds that was established by Refugee Youth Service. On the 6th floor of an apartment block, it is light and spacious – with a gorgeous balcony outside, where young people can do craft activities or relax with their friends. The centre’s dedicated staff provide a range of support and advice on the multifaceted issues faced by young people in Athens, from education to asylum, psychosocial support to housing.

Accommodation is a major issue faced by unaccompanied minors, due to the overwhelming lack of capacity in specialized shelters and spaces. The most recent figures estimate that there are 3, 350 unaccompanied minors in Greece, and only 1, 101 places available in formal transit or long-term shelters. The waiting list for shelter is therefore more than twice the total capacity.


The majority of young people who use Velos’ space live in squats across Athens. Members of the Velos team do discuss accommodation possibilities with the children – but the reality is that there is often no practical, de facto alternative to street homelessness. A limiting factor can be that children need a white card in order to access accommodation, which proves that they have begun to seek asylum in Greece, but this can often take five or six weeks to obtain. During that time, they are homeless – and as minors, they are not entitled to the UNHCR cash support scheme. The unavoidable need to raise a little money, just to get by, puts them at immediate risk of exploitation.


Minors are formally under the protection of the Greek public prosecutor, who can act as their temporary guardian; however, as noted by this Oxford Border Criminologies blog points out, “the existing framework for the protection of minors in Greece…is inadequate to address the special needs of third country national children who arrive in Greece alone.”


It goes on to say that,

“as the daily acts that require the consent of a guardian are numerous, the absence of an effective guardian, be it temporary or permanent, has implications for all aspects of the protection and exercise of unaccompanied minors’ lawful rights. It’s also an obstacle to their integration into Greek society, impeding access to basic social goods such as housing, healthcare, and education. Forced to fend for themselves, children struggle daily for survival. As a result, children are repeatedly exposed to trafficking and exploitation networks.”


The risk of exploitation is obviously compounded by the lack of specialist shelter; however, the prosecutor’s responsibility for children may also have negative consequences. Police are technically within their rights to detain unaccompanied minors in “protective custody” (in police stations), or in detention centres or closed zones within camps. While this may better protect them from exploitation, young people do not want to be detained – for obvious reasons. Consequently, anecdotal evidence from youth workers suggests that unaccompanied minors are willing to stay with older members of the community who can pose as their guardian, to ensure that they are not detained. Yet the risks of this, in terms of exploitation, are clear: children have reported that they are expected, or required, to work (whether formally or within the household, e.g. cleaning) in order to stay there.


Organisations are exploring methods to redress the guardianship issue, which would allow quicker access to accommodation, healthcare and the like. For now, though, Velos’ space fills important gaps in the provisions for young people, offering informal education, vocational support (like CV workshops), and access to medical care. It also provides a space where young people can relax – where they can play video games, do craft activities, wash their clothes – and receive a hot and healthy meal each day. Perhaps most importantly, though, it is staffed by trained youth workers who can listen and offer support to the young people – and help make them feel heard, in a situation where they could so easily feel overlooked.


Refugee Youth Service

It is clear that the challenges faced by young people, and particularly young men in their late teens, are multifaceted – but visiting the centre and speaking to the wonderful Jonny and Clara, who manage it, was an inspirational start to my time in Athens.


I’ll write more soon, but for now, please follow these links to learn more about RYS and Velos’ incredible work.


– Amelia x



Help Refugees has long supported Refugee Youth Service’s work, both in Calais and Greece, and projects like this across the countries we work. To help us to help them, please donate here.