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Le Temps on the recent relocations of unaccompanied minors to Luxembourg and Germany

Le Temps publishes an article by Jasmine Caye on the recent relocations of unaccompanied minors to Luxembourg and Germany.

English translation follows.

You may read the article in French, here.

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Relocations of unaccompanied minor children are possible despite COVID‑19

It’s almost unimaginable. The relocation of unaccompanied minor children stranded for months on the Greek islands is finally possible, despite the border closures due to COVID-19. All it takes is political will and good coordination to allow unaccompanied children (3 to 15years old), stranded in Greece for months, to travel to Luxembourg and Germany. The images of very young children boarding the plane that will take them to Germany do so much good.

Momentum of solidarity towards unaccompanied minor children in Greece

At the beginning of March, numerous humanitarian organizations alerted the European Union member states to the worrying humanitarian situation in hotspot centers in Greece, and demanded that unaccompanied minor children be quickly relocated. Several states have responded to this call. This is the case of Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal, which have agreed on the gradual relocation of 1,600 unaccompanied minors stranded on the Greek islands for months. The relocation promises also concern unaccompanied minors with no family ties in Europe.

First relocation operations

On April 15, 11 children flew to Luxembourg, on April 18, 49 children (between 3 and 15 years old) arrived in Germany, and other relocation operations will follow in the coming weeks. Switzerland will join the effort with the imminent transfer of 22 unaccompanied minors to Switzerland, to join family members (1).

In Greece, the METAdrasi organization participated in all four escorting missions for children selected to be relocated in Luxembourg and Germany; it says these were the most complex and demanding missions ever implemented, out of the 5,100 such missions undertaken during the past nine years (2). According to Lora Pappa, founder of the organization, “these transfers are a reason for great joy and they show that things are done quickly when there is the political will.”

Determining the best interests of children and the role of guardians

From picking up the children dispersed on the islands, to their last-minute boarding on the ferries leaving for Athens, to their interview and medical examinations, and up to their takeoff, it took just a short week to organize the departure of more than 50 children between 3 and 15 years old; a full-fledged obstacle course.

It all starts with the personalized interview called “BID” (Best Interest Determination). This step is very important, since it must establish the best interests of the child, especially when he/she is supposed to join not a father or a mother, a brother or a sister, but an adult cousin, a distant aunt or… nobody. Before this step, the guardians responsible for supporting the child as soon as he/she arrives in Greece, are the ones who best know the child’s file. Therefore, their role is paramount (3).

It is the best interests of the child that count. Our guardians are in regular contact with the unaccompanied children on the islands, as well as on the mainland. They are the ones who know the children, their files, backgrounds, family ties in Europe, if any. This is why our role is important in organizing relocations; this is something the Greek authorities and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recognize”, Lora Pappa explains to me.

In a few days, the EU Agency For Fundamental Rights (FRA) will publish a document on good practices for the resettlement of unaccompanied children from Greece. The recommendations are based on research and nearly 50 interviews conducted between November 2019 and March 2020 in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Portugal. One of its recommendations is the creation of a guardian hub, aimed exclusively at organizing relocations of unaccompanied minor children. The report also mentions METAdrasi’s expertise and recommends that it may continue to play a key role in this procedure, in collaboration with the Greek National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA).

Thorough medical testing

The other important step is medical testing, especially during the COVID-19 epidemic. No sick child is admitted for transfer. All children selected for relocation are subjected to COVID-19 screening and other medical tests. So far, the authorities have not announced that they have detected any COVID-19 infections among asylum seekers on the islands; on the mainland, cases have only been detected in three different camps, which were quarantined (3).

Abandon exceedingly restrictive relocation conditions

At first, Luxembourg and Germany had set too restrictive conditions for relocation. By initially accepting 12 children under the age of 14 from Syria, without prospects of family reunification, Luxembourg imposed unfeasible conditions, because the vast majority of Syrian children have family in other European countries; thus, they would not have been eligible. Initially, Germany asked that the children only be girls, under the age of 14, with serious health problems. Then, Germany included boys under the age of 14, without country of origin restrictions, and agreed to take in children, most of whom have no family in Germany.

The Dublin Regulation establishes responsibility criteria in examining asylum applications by unaccompanied minors. It provides that the applicant may join a family member (father, mother, brother, sister) or a close relative (uncle, aunt, cousin) located in another Dublin State by respecting the principle of the best interests of the child, and that the member states may derogate from the responsibility criteria, if necessary, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds (Articles 8, paragraphs 13, 16, 17). Thus, relocation of unaccompanied minor children with no prospect of family reunification is already provided for in the Dublin Regulation. In applying this text, States Parties, including Switzerland, have the habit of “minimizing their own responsibilities and maximizing the responsibilities of others”; as Professor Francesco Maiani explains, they have long acted “to the limit of what is allowed by the Regulation (…) by imposing excessive requirements on proof of family ties.”(5)

Switzerland’s commitments

On April 21, Switzerland announced that it would increase its aid to minors in refugee camps in Greece with an additional credit of 1.1 million swiss francs, for projects carried out by aid organizations. This aid was already announced last February. In addition, Switzerland promised to bring in 22 unaccompanied children who have family in Switzerland. Their arrival is imminent. This help is a good start. But the Swiss government must go further.

Switzerland could be a transit center for unaccompanied minor children who must join their families in other European countries in accordance with what is provided for in the Dublin Regulation. Switzerland would thereby do an immense service to Greece, relieving the heavy administrative work involved with complicated reunification procedures. This would especially help the children concerned, who have been confined for months in unbearable, dangerous and unhealthy camps. Like other European countries, Switzerland should also consider receiving unaccompanied minor children with no family ties in Switzerland”, suggests Lora Pappa.

Voices are increasingly rising for Switzerland to do even more for Greece. More than 100 humanitarian organizations in Switzerland, numerous commentators in the Swiss media, and certain Swiss politicians and political parties have called on the Swiss government to receive part of the refugees trapped in the overcrowded and unhealthy Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece.

The tide may be turning. On April 23, the Political Institutions Committee of the National Councilexamined the situation of refugees in Greece. It decided to introduce a motion instructing the Federal Council “to commit at the European level to a substantial improvement in the situation in the Aegean islands and become involved in reforming the Dublin agreements, leading to a fairer and more balanced distribution of refugees” (6).

As Alexandra Dufresne (7) explains for Swissinfo.ch “Switzerland is, per capita, one of the richest countries in the world, with a strong humanitarian tradition. It has an exceptional, well-organized and strong NGO community, willing and able to help.

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  1. On this subject, read the METAdrasi post explaining the operation of transferring children from the islands to the mainland.
  2. In particular, see Article 8 of the Dublin III Regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the Member States by a third country national or by a stateless person (recast), June 26, 2013.
  3. Until the end of 2019, the guardianship network of the METAdrasi organization was funded by the EU. Now, following the non-renewal of financial support, the NGO had to restrict the number of guardians. The guardianship network is made up of members acting in close cooperation with Public Prosecutors for Minors and with First Instance Court Prosecutors in their respective areas of activity. The network operates in Athens, Thessaloniki, Kavala, Orestiada, Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, Leros, Thiva, Chalkida and Ioannina. It supports minors detained or accommodated in accommodation facilities and open or closed camps.
  4. On the continent, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has quarantined three accommodation facilities, where infection cases have been detected. See this information: https: //www.iom.int/news/iom-responding-new-covid-19-outbreak-greece.
  5. Francesco Maiani, L’Unité de la famille sous le Règlement Dublin III : du vin nouveau dans de vieilles outres, Schengen et Dublin en pratique : questions actuelles, p.279. Read also The Protection of Family Unity in Dublin Procedures: Towards a Protection-Oriented Implementation Practice, October 2019, University of Lausanne.
  6. 20.3143 Mo. CIP-CN. Reception of refugees from Greece and reform of the Dublin agreements.
  7. Alexandra Dufresne is a lawyer for refugees and children. She taught immigration and refugee law at Yale from 2006 to 2015 and currently teaches law at several higher education institutions in Switzerland. She has served or currently sits on the board of directors of several NGOs providing services to refugeesin the United States and Europe: IRIS, Asylos and New Women Connectors. She writes frequently on law and politics.