ATHENS, Greece (AP) — It is "unacceptable" for any unaccompanied refugee and migrant children who arrive on the continent to be held in detention centers, one of Europe's top human rights officials said Thursday, calling on European countries to ensure such children can be housed in special facilities and quickly reunited with their families.
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland also criticized the increasingly restrictive legislation some European countries are adopting that would make it harder for such children to be reunited with parents already living in Europe.
Speaking after visiting a facility run by the Praksis charity in Athens housing 24 such children aged between 11 and 17, Jagland said he would appeal to European institutions, the European Commission and all 47 Council of Europe member states to help Greece finance efforts to care for unaccompanied minors.
"It is unacceptable from our point of view that minors, unaccompanied children, are in detention places. They should be in places like this," Jagland said after meeting some of the children housed at the center.
Greece has been the main gateway into Europe for hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, fleeing war and poverty. In March, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement to stem the flow, under which anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 20 faces deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
This and the accompanying European and Balkan border closures led to more than 54,000 people being stranded in Greece, while thousands are being held in detention centers on the islands.
As of April 20, those detained included 545 unaccompanied minors who are waiting for places in special centers. Another 572 unaccompanied youngsters have already been placed in special housing, said Praksis head Tzanetos Antypas, who met with Jagland at the facility in downtown Athens.
Jagland called for further financing for centers such as the Praksis home. "This is not a task only for Greece, this is something Greece does for the whole continent," he said. Praksis runs six centers for unaccompanied children in Athens, the western city of Patras and on the islands of Kos, Samos and Lesbos.
While children who arrive on Europe's shores alone can apply for reunification with family members already in Europe, in practice the bureaucratic delays are such that many turn to smugglers to get them to their destinations.
Jagland said several countries were adopting legislation that would make family reunifications harder.
"I have ... criticized the new laws in Denmark and Norway that are very strict and are clear obstacles for resettlement or family reunion of boys that we have seen here," Jagland said. "So I will appeal to the member states now to look into all this and make it easier for facilities like this to re-place the boys that are living here."