Refugee children who survive Alan Kurdi's journey face bleak future of detention, danger and abuse

His family was heading for Kos, where refugees are now detained in camps

Lizzie Dearden@lizziedearden
Friday 02 September 2016 13:14
Clashes and a huge fire broke out at the Moria detention camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving tents torched
Clashes and a huge fire broke out at the Moria detention camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving tents torched

When Alan Kurdi and his family boarded a tiny dinghy in the early hours of 2 September 2015 they were attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos and travel onwards to mainland Europe.

The disaster that killed the three-year-old Syrian boy, his mother and brother destroyed that dream but many desperate refugees continue to risk their lives undertaking the same treacherous journey.

Alan and his brother are among hundreds of children who have drowned, with their small bodies washing up along the coasts of Turkey, Greece, Italy and Libya.

Turkish police officers stand next to the dead bodies of drowned children i Izmir, Turkey, in February 2016

Those who survive are the lucky ones, but they face a bleak future in an increasingly hostile Europe, whose leaders struck a deal now seeing all refugees arriving on Greek islands imprisoned under the threat of deportation.

“If Alan had survived he would probably have made it somewhere in Europe with his family – but not now,” says Sacha Myers, from Save the Children.

“Last September, we would see children for a few hours or a day and then they would move on, but now they are stuck here for weeks or even months.

“We have more people arriving every day but there’s just not space. Tensions are increasing and parents are so concerned for their children.

“Many of them have lost loved ones or have seen awful things in their short lives, and now they are locked in camps.”

Sexual violence and abuse has been reported in Greece’s many detention centres, which have also been hit by riots and violent police crackdowns seeing tents burned and tear gas fired at refugees.

Some families – mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – have been left too frightened to leave their shelters at night or to even venture to use the toilets that are shared by thousands of men, women and children.

In Kos, where almost 5,000 refugees have arrived this year, Ms Myers described deteriorating living conditions as “absolutely miserable” as authorities scrabble to expand the reception centre into a car park.

“Children and adults arriving in Kos are forced to sleep on the ground or abandoned or ruined buildings because there isn’t enough accommodation available,” she told The Independent.

“The hotspot is a fenced area far away from town and is not a safe environment for children, especially those who have fled conflict and extreme poverty in their homeland.

“Tensions are increasing due to the poor conditions and because many people have been waiting for months with no end in sight. People are losing hope.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recently warned that the island’s reception centre had far surpassed its capacity, calling on local authorities to ship refugees to a neighbouring island to reduce overcrowding.

Asylum seekers trapped on Kos are just a fraction of around 60,000 currently stranded in Greece, facing being returned to Turkey if their applications fail, or stranded at the country’s border if they are granted protection and wish to travel onwards.

Only 119 of the 8,000 relocation places pledged by 22 European countries remain, while almost 500 migrants have so far been sent back to Turkey since the implementation of the controversial agreement with the EU in March.

Naval and coastguard ships were sent to patrol the Aegean Sea to intercept migrant boats, prevent the hundreds of thousands of crossings seen last year and crack down on people smuggling.

Daniel Esdras, the International Organisation for Migration’s chief of mission in Greece, warned that although the measures had seen an abrupt drop in drownings, they were making refugees’ journeys to Europe “expensive, more difficult and more dangerous”.

Poor health conditions for refugee children in Greek camps

“If you have money you can pass any border – let’s face it – and the more difficult the border is the more expensive it will be,” he told The Independent.

“Some people go back to Turkey so they can try again, take a different route to Europe. No one can be sure what will happen now.”

Humanitarian agencies have long warned that the closure of borders along the Western Balkans route towards Germany would push refugees into the hands of ruthless people smugglers, amid reports of brutality by police and local vigilante groups.

A 20-year-old Afghan asylum seeker was shot dead while walking through forests from Bulgaria thorough Serbia, while a Syrian was arrested after being shot by Slovakian border guards in May.

In Hungary, four criminal cases are underway against border guards accused of excessive force as the government plans to build an even “more massive” anti-refugee fence than the existing razor wire construction.

Frontex, the EU’s border agency, acknowledged in a recent report that the border closures have made it more difficult for refugee flows to be monitored, as desperate asylum seekers evade checks with more “dynamic and dangerous” routes.

More than 280,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, according to UN numbers

Lucy Carrigan, from the International Rescue Committee, said refugees arriving on Europe’s shores were being greeted by “much less compassion”.

“The events of the past year have made people much less welcoming to refugees and less understanding about who they are and why they need protection,” she told The Independent.

“I don’t think that anybody who cares about refugees wants to see them risk their lives at sea. We have to do better for these people.”

More than 280,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, according to UN figures, with at least 3,169 dying so far, setting 2016 on course to be the deadliest year on record.

The Missing Migrants Project lists causes of death including drowning, asphyxiation, boat fires, hypothermia and illness.

While most asylum seekers this year have crossed the Aegean Sea, numbers are rising in the Central Mediterranean, which has become the deadliest sea passage in the world since the start of the refugee crisis.

At least 6,500 people were rescued on Monday alone and aid workers fear further disasters as smugglers continue to pack desperate asylum seekers onto dangerously overcrowded boats.

Ms Myers said that while Alan’s death alerted the world the harrowing consequences of the refugee crisis, the ongoing plight of child migrants must not be forgotten.

“We have got to acknowledge the children who are still drowning and those who are stranded,” she added. “They are still suffering.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments