More than 5000 children and approximately 1100 unaccompanied minors are currently living in Moria refugee camp on Lesvos. They carry traumas from a life as a refugee. Additionally, many of the refugees have experienced acts of violence, or witnessed others being victim to it. They liver under horrifying and undignified conditions in the refugee camp. A Drop in the Ocean works inside the refugee camp, as the only Norwegian organisation. We contribute daily to provide activities for children aged 0 to 17.
Written by: Vibeke Hoem, former Information Officer at A Drop in the Ocean / Translated by: Hanne Buller, HR – and Information Assistant. Photos: Knut Bry.
– No other organisations were on duty during the evenings. This led to a gap of activities for the children, and the only people who were present in the evenings were security guards.
Angelika Sogn, project coordinator for A Drop in the Ocean, explains why the organisation started preventive and supportive offers for unaccompanied minors in Moria refugee camp in March 2019. The work was established in Section B first, where unaccompanied male minors live, and later in Section A, which are two secluded areas in the camp.
– The evening hours are difficult, especially when we are not enough adults to properly look after the children. Our efforts with the minors became a tool to prevent consumption of alcoholic beverages, drugs, and fights. Rather we give the children an arena to play and explore, when they have nothing to do.
A Drop in the Ocean had a well-established presence and a good reputation. The news about the newly established activities got around fast, and rapidly the activities became a hit.
– We were well-received and the boys appreciate our presence in the sections. Like yesterday, when we were leaving the camp, they asked us “are you coming back tomorrow?”. Our work has been meaningful from the beginning. Simultaneously, it is lovely to witness the boys’ development regarding their language, behaviour, mentality, level of understanding, and respect for rules. This kind of work is quite different from our other projects.
Angelika is very passionate about working with unaccompanied minors, something she previously worked with at the child protection services in Oslo municipality, Norway. She was with us from the start, when A Drop in the Ocean established our Drop Center outside of Moria refugee camp. Working inside the refugee camp versus at the Drop Centre outside of the camp, are two different worlds, according to Angelika.
Angelika Sogn Koutsofotinos, prosjektkoordinator. Photo: Maria Sagen Vodentsis
– The major difference is that people visit Moria Village because they are eager to learn, want to socialise, and are mentally stable enough to get out of bed. People in the refugee camp are maybe not able to get out at all. Two days ago, a volunteer from another organisation told us that there is a boy in one of the sections who is not older than 10 or 11, who spends all of his time in his room, expect for the few hours when we are present. It is nice to know that we can contribute so he at least gets a few hours outside of his room every day.
Freedom to choose activities
A Drop in the Ocean organises a multitude of games and activities for the approximately 400 male unaccompanied minors who resides in sections A and B. The aim of the work is to create a safe space for the children and give them a break from their difficult daily lives, in addition to prevent conflicts and drug use.
– It started as informal activities that anyone could join, Angelika says, where we had an array of material so people could choose which activities they wanted to do, and for how long they wanted to join. As a project coordinator, I did not want to make the activities too structured. It is my perception that refugees are leading a life where they are not able to make any choices, so I was firmly stating that we should not make anyone participate in any activities, as the decision should be left for the individual to decide.
The activities quickly gained popularity, with many people coming back to join the activities, day after day.
– Approximately 20 to 30 residents participate every evening. I think it is quite interesting that many of the same boys come back every evening. It shows that it means a lot to them. Angelika thinks the name ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ is very fitting, as you quickly realise you cannot help everyone.
– If you can make difference in one person’s life, you have achieved a lot, which makes it worth it. She adds that they strive to not put too much emphasis on the challenging conditions in the camp.
– Rather, we try to distract, as we are not therapists, and we see that, to an extent, it works. The two hours that we are present, the boys can think about other things. This can be enough to make a day more meaningful than it would have been any other day. It’s the little things.
Expansion of activities
The work inside the camp was shortly extended to include the Safe Zone where the youngest children live, including girls. A Drop in the Ocean organise activities for female unaccompanied minors under 18 and males under 12. These include boardgames, painting workshops, crafts, yoga for children, physical activities, greenery (plants), and ball games.
– It is the youngest children that live in the Safe Zone, many of them are girls. It is hard to sit with five to seven-year-old children who act nothing like ordinary children. We are present for three hours every day, and we witness a lot of development with these children as well; for example, a child that previously did not have eye contact with anyone, slowly stayed longer at the activities. After a few weeks they can open up a bit more, and feel comfortable enough to sit down and make drawings for a couple of hours, which they did not do in the beginning.
Angelika emphasises that we separate strictly between the roles as volunteers and therapists such as psychologists and nurses. A Drop in the Ocean has a high turnover of volunteers, which makes it important that no one gets too attached to the children.
– Simultaneously, it is important that the children don’t grow too attached to us either, which is easier said than done. If we notice something out of the ordinary, we report to the people who work with them regularly.
What can be difficult, is to leave the children behind when you exit the camp.
– That’s the hardest part of the job, especially if there has been tensions and fights. Angelika pauses for a few seconds before she continues:
– As field workers we are able to get out, but we do not know what it is like just after a riot or fight for the residents, if there are any grown ups who come to the rescue, or if anyone is hurt. We had a boy who was stabbed during the night in August. It started as a fight between teenagers and resulted in the death of a boy because there were not enough personnel at the scene. I received that message with a heavy heart. To be able to do this job, it is crucial to accept and acknowledge your limitations. It is difficult, but it is important to fully understand the role you must play. We want the best for all children, especially unaccompanied minors, as that is a matter close to my heart.
In January, there was another incident where to male minors were stabbed. One of them was critically injured. Both had participated in our activities.
Undignified conditions for unaccompanied minors
In 2019, 2600 unaccompanied minors arrived in Greece by sea. More are continuously arriving each month. Angelika highlights that Moria refugee camp is not a place for unaccompanied minors, and how long they have to stay in the reception centre:
– Everyone will agree that this [Moria] is no place for unaccompanied minors. The plan is to find a home for them other places in the country, and the hope is that there are more available places on the mainland. Currently, more than 500 unaccompanied minors live in the reception centre for new arrivals. Some of them have lived there for five to six months.
The UN high commissionaire for refugees (UNHCR, Desperate Journeys, 2019) confirms that unaccompanied minors must stay in overcrowded reception facilities whilst waiting for a suitable place to live. They describe the situation for unaccompanied minors as «worrisome».
Angelika hopes that in the future, unaccompanied minors do not need to stay in reception facilities for a long time, but adds:
– The situation will remain the same, if the process takes the same amount of time as it currently does, and if the lack of willingness to move refugees to other European countries remains.
The question is; how long does it take before Europe wakes up and takes a collective responsibility for these children?
Facts: Unaccompanied minors in Greece
- Approximately 5300 registered unaccompanied minors were in Greece at the end of 2019.
- Since January 2019, 2600 unaccompanied minors arrived in Greece by sea. Most of these people come from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq; Countries affected by conflicts, violence, and human right violations.
- In Moria refugee camp, there are approximately 20 000 residents as of January 2020. 5-6000 of these are children below the age of 18, and approximately 1100 are registered as unaccompanied minors.
- More than 70 000 people arrived in Greece during 2019 (59 726 sea arrivals, 14 887 land arrivals)
UNHCR: Desperate Journeys – https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/71703