How lack of legal status is leaving children unprotected in Greece

Image: © UNICEF/UNI372238/Canaj:Magnum Photo

Without papers, there is no life and we left everything to seek asylum here.

 Qasim*, a 17-year-old boy from Pakistan, now living in Thessaloniki, Greece. 

A record number of children are on the move. Around 103 million people were forcibly displaced by mid-2022 and children account for 41 per cent – or 42 million – of all those who have been forcibly displaced.

They are facing extreme risks to their well-being and development, including many forms of violence including abuse, exploitation, forced labour and trafficking. And all of these risks are exacerbated by their lack of formal legal status. 

Save the Children and the Greek Council of Refugees have spoken to children about the challenges confronting unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Greece. Their report, based on in-depth interviews with unaccompanied children and youth and an analysis of the asylum system laws, identifies barriers children face in obtaining documents and the effects this has on their lives. 

Not having proper documents is a violation of children’s rights. It deprives them of their basic needs and makes children unsafe and lacking protection. 

The Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) has noted a substantial number of undocumented refugees in the country. In 2022 alone, GCR provided legal aid to at least 1,912 people including 149 children, with a fifth of these cases focusing on the legalisation of their stay. The true scale is hidden with no official statistics for undocumented people in the country.

Lack of the basic necessities 

“They left me on a road and 10 days later I arrived in Thessaloniki. I have no papers, I have no appointment at the Asylum Service, I’ve been trying for 3 months already. Now where I live, I owe them 800 euros for food and shelter, we live together 5 people. If I had papers I could have a job, I would rent a house,” shares Qasim*.

Like him, most children spoken to for the study found it very difficult to get basic needs met. This includes not having access to education, despite having the right to regardless of their legal status. Lack of support and planning, transportation issues, and insufficient inclusive school practices create school segregation.  In 2022, of 17,281 refugee and asylum-seeking children aged 4-15 in Greece, a quarter did not attend school.

Children face difficulties in accessing affordable healthcare without documentation. From denial of medication for pain to neglect to chronic issues, children’s medical needs are poorly attended to and sometimes impossible to acquire at all.

No protection from violence, exploitation and abuse without legal status 

Unaccompanied children on the move are among the most vulnerable to violence. 

“They put me in a brothel, I didn’t know what was there. That’s where I met my boyfriend, he told me ‘this isn’t right, you have to get a good job, I’ll take care of you like a man takes care of a woman,” shares  Anna*, a 17-year-old girl from Pakistan, living in Athens. 

Although there is no official data, a notable rise in the number of cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse in Greece emerged after the pandemic. They are also exposed to smugglers and traffickers. The experiences of children shed light on the scale of the issue. For example, about half of the undocumented Pakistani children interviewed reveal being victims of sexual harassment.

They put me in a brothel, I didn’t know what was there. That’s where I met my boyfriend, he told me ‘this isn’t right, you have to get a good job, I’ll take care of you like a man takes care of a woman.

Anna*, a 17-year-old girl from Pakistan, living in Athens. 

Child labour is another major form and enabler of exploitation. Children shared that it is impossible to work legally without residency documents and they often resort to invisible labour such as in family households. Unaccompanied children have reported that they had to leave the protection and necessities provided in shelters because they had to work to survive. Children can also accumulate debt from covering their basic needs, leaving them even more exposed to abuse and potential involvement in criminal activities.

Widespread mental health concerns

Children interviewed reported constant fear and loneliness as the second highest risk to their well-being after access to food and shelter. In fact, about  54 percent of them met the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. 

The report draws out recommendations for the government as well as the EU at large to strengthen legal support for the increasing number of refugee children. 

Laws may be different from country to country, but learnings from this report highlight the reality of the extreme challenges refugee children are facing and the urgent need for governments and public services to take action for their protection and well-being. 

Read the full report here. 

The End Violence Partnership’s evidence-based Together to #ENDviolence policy proposal to protect children from violence in humanitarian settings is calling on governments and donors to prioritise child protection in humanitarian response plans and provide funding to meet the needs of children in crisis to help prompt action by leaders to make sure that all children are safe from the threat of violence. Learn more about what can be done. 

*names of children changed to protect identity 



Image: Image: © UNICEF/UNI372238/Canaj:Magnum Photo