Across the world, a uniting thread connecting all parents is the desire to make sure their children are safe. For millions of families, this has meant having to flee their homes due to conflict or extreme poverty, and make a perilous journey in the hopes and search of a better, safer future.
All the refugee and migrant families I have met on the Greek islands have lived through this nightmare. But instead of finding safety, they remain stranded in overcrowded camps, amidst increasingly dire and dangerous conditions.
The number of refugee and migrant children arriving on the Greek Islands has risen by 32 percent this year, compared to the same period last year. This means that 7,000 children have arrived since January. That’s an average of 850 children every month.
Greek authorities and communities – who have shown laudable generosity and commitment to helping these families – are completely overwhelmed, and services are overstretched.
When refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek islands, they stay in so-called Reception and Identification Centres where, according to Greek law, they are to spend no more than 25 days to complete standard arrival procedures.
But the centres are now housing families and, consequently, have become incredibly congested. Two weeks ago, I visited the centre in Moria on the island of Lesvos which has a maximum capacity to host 3,100 people. Yet, there were nearly 9,000 people there, including more than 1,700 children. Some people have been there for a year – including children.
The realities of these centres are such that 70 people are sharing one toilet. Families live in broken shipping containers. Children are playing beside sewage.
UNICEF has a child family support hub close to the Reception Centre in Moria, where the most vulnerable children and women have daily access to essential services, including psychosocial support. UN Agencies and humanitarian partners are providing other vital services.
But this is not enough.
While all children are incredibly resilient, such conditions certainly make it difficult for them to recover from the psychological distress they are experiencing. On the islands of Lesvos and Samos, many children seem fearful when people approached them.
Violence, protests and unrest are daily occurrences now as the cramped conditions are taking their toll and frustration boils over into anger.
It is clear to me the situation is reaching breaking point.
To begin to recover and regain a semblance of a normal childhood, children need to be able to access a classroom, counselling and somewhere they can call home. Yet, despite efforts by staff and authorities in these centres, the influx of people has meant they cannot refer all vulnerable children and families to necessary services.
Greek authorities have started transferring some of the most vulnerable refugees and migrants on the islands to the mainland this week. This is a positive and welcome development – but with new arrivals every day, more needs to be urgently done.
All refugees and migrants – especially children – need to be immediately transferred to the mainland without further delay, so that they can have adequate accommodation and access to protection, healthcare and other basic services.
UNICEF is working with Government and humanitarian partners to expand capacity on the Greek mainland to accommodate additional children and families, this includes increasing services such as access to education and healthcare.
It is also vital there are more resettlement pledges that prioritise children and speed-up family reunification procedures from other EU Member States.
I come back to that common desire among parents and caregivers to make sure that children are safe. No matter the cost. As the winter months are fast approaching, a broken shipping container is no place for a child to live.