Borderlands: Minor migrants imprisoned in Europe

Stavros Malichudis/Ingeborg Eliassen

The boundaries are barbed wire

Reza has been in prison for exactly one year and eight days. He is seventeen, his last birthday spent in a refugee camp in Hungary near the border with Serbia. There are two such camps in southern Hungary, one in Tompa and one in Röszke. They are prisons, surrounded by high metal railings, but they have another name — ‘transit zones’ — because they are not completely closed. The exit, to Serbia, is open. The entry into Hungary, and the European Union, is not.

Reza is a young Iranian who arrived in Hungary with relatives — his cousin, his cousin’s wife, and their children. But Reza quickly became an ‘unaccompanied minor’ when the authorities in Budapest refused to grant him any protection status, such as that given to his family, and did not allow him to leave the camp. While his cousins left the camp and went into Hungary, Reza stayed in limbo.

Reza is in Röszke, with 99 other minors, in this ‘town’. The houses are containers, the boundaries are barbed wire, and everything is guarded by armed soldiers. We spoke to him on the phone, thanks to the help of Hungarian lawyer Timea Kovacs, who represented Reza in his two failed attempts to obtain asylum.

“I went to the doctor yesterday. I have not slept for two days since I received the last decision three days ago that my asylum application was denied again,” Reza told us. “The doctor gave me a pill to take for a month and told me to try not to stress. Maybe he’s right. I can’t sleep at night. Sometimes I play with my phone, but then I just lie there thinking. The doctor told me not to think too much, I’m trying, but it’s hard. It’s hard here. Every morning I wake up and I see the same things, it’s very boring. The biggest problem is we’re locked in here.”

“We came from Serbia, with documents, not illegally. All of us. The immigration office plays with us, they drag everything out for months,” he continues. “Besides, when we go to another sector, the police come with us. Why is that? We didn’t do anything wrong. Why are we locked in here? Thinking too much is like a bomb in your head. And not just for me. It’s hard for everyone. Why is the immigration office doing this to us?”

“The doctor gave me a pill to take for a month and told me to try not to stress. Maybe he’s right. I can’t sleep at night. Sometimes I play with my phone, but then I just lie there thinking.”

Fair Treatment?

The United Nations Global Report on Children Deprived of Freedom 2019 is clear. To detain minors because of their migration status is to deprive them of their liberty, whatever ‘the name or justification provided by the State for depriving children of their liberty or the name of the facility or place where the child is deprived of liberty.’

The detention of migrating children, whether alone or with their families, is a widespread practice in EU member states, concluded a joint report from the NGO coalition, Initiative for Migrant Children, in 2019. The practice is recurrent and underestimated, the report states.

“The detention of migrating children, whether alone or with their families, is a widespread practice in EU member states.”

When contacted by Investigate Europe, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the Greek European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, stated that the EU Return Directive allows the detention of children “only as a last resort when less coercive measures are not available to complete the return procedure.”

But this idea of “last resort” is disputed by the United Nations (UN). A UN study on children deprived of their liberty, also published in 2019, concludes on page 12 that ‘the detention of migrant children cannot be considered as a measure of last resort and is never in the best interests of the child and should therefore always be prohibited. This applies to unaccompanied and separated children, as well as children with their families. The detention of children to “keep families together” or to “protect” them, where alternative care is lacking, can never be a justification.’

The study tried to collect data from all countries. Only 42 states responded to the UN. Of the 24 countries that have said they ban the detention of migrant children, only one is a member of the European Union: Ireland.

On the near horizon is a forthcoming revision of the EU Return Directive. In a recast proposal, the European Commission advocatesa more effective use of detention to support the enforcement of returns.’ The main concern seems to be to ensure that more rejected asylum seekers are deported. In point 8 of the same proposal, the Commission points out that several Member States have much shorter maximum detention periods than the return directive allows, and that this is an obstacle to the effectiveness of the measure.


Europe has strange borders. It is bureaucratically inaccessible to any refugee. Whether fleeing a war in the Congo, religious persecution in Syria, or a drought in Ethiopia, no one can ask for protection status from any European country without trying to enter it by land, air, or sea. On arrival, any asylum seeker has to submit to contact with the border police, not a consulate or legal aid office.

This is why, while applications for asylum or protection are examined, migrants are settled in places that have very different names, but all mean the same thing: they can be transit zones (in Hungary), security zones or protective custody (in Greece), hotspots (Italy and Greece), controlled alien stay centres (Spain), detention centres and waiting zones of airports (France), national administrative centre for transmigration (Belgium) or family unit (Norway).

‘Although they are not officially called detention centres, many of these places are in fact closed institutions and individuals are not at liberty to leave, which in fact turns them into places of detention,’ criticised a UN working group. The book Privatising Punishment in Europe by Michael Flynn estimates that there are 260 of these camps in the EU ‘with a total capacity of 47,000 beds’.


The Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos occupies an old military facility. It is surrounded by high fences and with barbed wire rollers on top. The main entrance has a gate, guarded by the police, but it’s open. The refugees live in tents and use the inner fence to dry their clothes. The fence is decorated with cartoon animal posters with messages in Greek, English, French, Arabic and Dari. One has a colourful butterfly and an I am beautiful message. I am strong says another, with a drawn lion. A poster has a smiling goat and reads I’m happy to jump around. Some of the nearly 5,000 children in Moria do just that. A poster with a monkey says, I always have smart ideas.

I’m very proud of who I am says the peacock on a poster under barbed wire. The cruellest message is a poster of a banana, bearing the phrase: I am special.

I’m very proud of who I am says the peacock on a poster under barbed wire.

Investigate Europe met six boys who all arrived on the same day in Lesbos, the Greek island that holds Moria. The youngest is fifteen, the oldest is seventeen, and they all came from Afghanistan.

They were placed in the ‘safe area’ of Moria’s camp, where minors live alone and where adults theoretically cannot enter. But the safe area is overcrowded, so they didn’t get a tent. They had to buy one in the town of Metilene for 30 euros. Their tent is pitched a few steps from the communal bathrooms, which are unsafe at night. They all sleep together.

We started talking in Moria’s canteen, sitting on plastic chairs, while people stared at their phones and drank coffee. Young people do not receive any kind of financial support at Moria, while adults receive up to EUR 150 per month. If the boys want a juice, what do they do? “We can ask someone older for 1-2 Euros,” one of the boys explains.

The boys left school in Afghanistan and receive no schooling in Europe. They crossed the Mediterranean in a fragile boat. “That’s how everybody gets here, on a rubber boat,” another boy tells us. “We all came the same way. We were approximately 40-45 people, both children and adults.” They were found halfway through their dangerous journey by the Greek Coast Guard, which usually approaches boats when they are sighted and then follows them to the Greek coast. “The Coast Guard was with us but they didn’t ‘catch us,’ they just told us to keep going and that they would accompany us.”

Stavros Malichudis/Ingeborg Eliassen
Their journey stopped in the Moria camp in Greece, where they are sharing this tent next to a row of toilets. Nine out of ten unaccompanied minors in the camps are boys. Nine out of ten are over 14 years of age.

The boys call Greece Yunanistan: “Our plan is not to stay in Yunanistan, but to go to Europe. We want to have access to education and a safe life.” They have cousins and uncles in Europe: Belgium, Germany, Sweden.

“Where we live in Afghanistan most of the district is controlled by the Taliban,” another boy says. “That’s why the people who live there don’t have access to school, to the university, and that’s why people in the surrounding areas are afraid that if the Taliban also take their place, we won’t have the opportunity to study”. That is the fear they ran away from.

An older boy says that the day before our interview, there was a big explosion in Kabul which killed dozens of people. Two days before our conversation, there was a violent fight at Moria’s camp. On the same day we began to hear rumours of the death of a baby — here in the middle of the European Union, in one of the tents that are spreading out of sight.

“Where we live in Afghanistan most of the district is controlled by the Taliban,” another boy says. “That’s why the people who live there don’t have access to school or to the university.”

Failed deterrent

Moria can best be described by re-reading the wish of the young Afghan who wants to leave and “go to Europe.” It is an apocalyptic, insecure, muddy field.

For Marco Sandrone, field coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Moria, this is the European Union’s conscious implementation of a policy of deterrence. In other words, Moria exists to prevent more migrants from arriving there. It is an idea he describes as both cruel and fallible, because people keep coming: “It is quite clear to me and to MSF that this policy of deterrence has completely failed.”

Panagiotas Nikas, from the NGO Zeuxis, helped create the Moria camp in 2013 to receive incoming refugees. That the countryside has not improved at all over the past seven years, he says, is a political choice. “I say it clearly. It’s a political choice because these conditions are used to dissuade others, like What kind of hell is there, is that where you want to go? Or in a mentality that says “Okay, they came here, they’re leaving, what we can do.

We hear the same thing from Erik Marquart, MEP and Green spokesperson on migration policy: “We have a situation where the EU Commission and the European Council talk about a good asylum policy when the number of people fleeing to Europe decreases. By creating situations like those on the Greek islands, they are just making better statistics. European policy aims to make the external border as badly managed as possible so that people love to stay in war zones instead of coming to Europe.

Meanwhile, aid workers in Lesbos watch a daily flow of new families and individuals climb off buses and pass through the barbed wire gates of Moria.

Unless the water is safer than the land

A poem by Warsan Shire reads:

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well


you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

But neither the poetry nor the cold statistics seem to convince European Commissioner Avramopoulos who insists that: “Ensuring the rapid return of irregular migrants will not only take the pressure off Member States’ asylum systems and ensure an adequate capacity to protect those who really need protection, but it will also be a strong signal against dangerous irregular travel to the EU in the first place.”

Such insistence was meaningless for Idriss and Ahmad*, two young Moroccans who fled by swimming in the Mediterranean. They arrived in Melilla, one of two “European” cities in Morocco, since the territory — along with that of Ceuta — is still held by Spain. Melilla and Ceuta are the only two land borders between the European Union and Africa. They’re full of walls, barbed wire fences, motion detectors, video surveillance cameras, and police. Yet, every day, young people cross the border.

For Idriss and Ahmad, the city of Melilla was just a waystation. Now they have crossed the Mediterranean to Marseille in continental Europe. The port city of Marseille provided inspiration for the French national anthem La Marseillaise, an anthem which speaks of the ignoble obstacles to be overcome.

It is 5pm and the sun is setting, Idriss and Ahmad leave the hotel where they have lived for a few days. Sitting on the terrace of a café in the town hall square, the climate is mild. Sixteen year old Idriss is wearing a grey cap and sipping a cup of coffee. His friend Ahmad is seventeen and wears a black cap, he does not want anything to eat or to drink. Since they met in Melilla, the two have become inseparable.

“I ran away. I lived in Fez, my mother’s old and sick,” Idriss says. “My brother is ten years old. I fled the country to help them financially, to help them live better. I tried to cross the border several times a year. The police in Morocco grabbed me, hit me, hit me again. I managed to cross the border, then swim for three hours to Mellila, Spain. I can’t remember exactly when, it was winter. In Mellila I met Ahmad, we stayed together. We stayed there for between eight months and a year. Then we tried to find a boat.”

Ahmad joins in with his story: “My twin sister is still at Fez. My father and mother died six years ago. I lived there with my twin sister, we were orphans. I went out to live better. I tried to get on a boat once, but the Spanish police hit me and released me. Then we got on another boat. ”

Eventually Idriss and Ahmad tied empty bottles together with rope and strapped them around their hips. Trusting themselves to the sea, they swam three hours to the Spanish border and reached Mellila.

Idriss and Ahmad tied empty bottles together with rope and strapped them around their hips. Trusting themselves to the sea, they swam three hours to the Spanish border and reached Mellila.

The next step of their plan required them to smuggle themselves aboard a boat and hide. Their first attempt — to hide on a large tourist ship — went wrong. “I tried to get up along the rope, into the boat. The rope turned, I fell in the water,” Idriss says. “I tried to get up, I made it, I was on the second floor of the boat, the crew found me, caught me.”

Then, on October 30th, at 3am, they managed to leave Mellila. “We found a boat and stayed hidden for two or three days,” Idriss continues. “We stayed on the boat for a total of five days. We had no idea of the destination of the boat. Would it go to China? To Africa? I didn’t know.”

Idriss and Ahmad slept huddled together so they would not get cold. Sometimes they heard voices very close to each other, those of the crew. It was a cargo ship. “On the third day, we went into the kitchen, we were hungry.”

When they were discovered, the freighter crew gave them warm clothes and food: “Meat, not pork,” because they’re Muslims. The captain was Ukrainian, but he spoke Spanish, English and French. “If they’d brought us back, to go around, I’d have jumped in the water. I didn’t want to turn around,” said Ahmad.

“On the fifth day, on the boat, we saw through the window: France, Marseille.” The crew called the police. “For fifteen days, I felt anguish: Will I stay in Marseilles? Am I being returned to my country?” Idriss recalls. “The police came, took our picture, didn’t ask us any questions. They took us and handcuffed us. We went to the hospital for a medical exam, then to the police station.”

“In prison I don’t know what day it is, what time it is. For me, it’s not fifteen days, it’s fifteen years, almost. A lady, with a white car, came at night, picked us up and took us to the hotel”.

When Idriss and Ahmad went to court for the first time, they had spent eight days inside the “prison”, as they call it. “I’d rather stay here in prison than go home,” Ahmad says.

The same woman with the white car, then took them to a hotel called ‘Le Croissant.’ Since then they have changed hotels two or three times.

“Now that we’re in France, I want to work.” Ahmad wants to be a hairdresser, Idriss was a plumber in Morocco and wants to restart this work in Marseille. But to work they will need official recognition from the French State — something which for the boys seems simple in comparison to the rest of their journey.

“In prison I don’t know what day it is, what time it is. For me, it’s not fifteen days, it’s fifteen years, almost.

Toxic stress

France, however, is not an easy place to be a minor migrant: “France is the country that has the most migrant children detained, after the US and Mexico,” Manfred Nowak, the Austrian human rights lawyer who directed the UN report, explains. “But there are huge differences. There are approximately 100,000 children in migration-related detention in the US, about 18,000 in Mexico in 2018 and 2,500 in Mayotte, while in mainland France there were 275 children in the same year.”

So why was France one of the European countries that most criticized Trump’s policy in the case of migrant children? “We don’t have the same model of society,” said a spokesman for the French government. “We do not share the same values.”

But on an island in the Indian Ocean, France holds a record number of children. Mayotte is a French département d’outre-mer (DOM), located between the African continent and Madagascar. This special location explains the huge number of people trying to enter France through this French island. The vast majority (about 98%) of migrants come from the other islands in the Comoros archipelago, and the rest come from Madagascar and western Africa, using fragile boats to cross the sea.

The number of minors held in the Pamandzi detention centre (CRA), the largest in France, is enormous. In 2018, 1,221 children were arrested in Mayotte. France has been condemned six times since 2012 by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to respect legislation on the detention of minors.

The consequences of arrest are clear: trauma, ‘toxic stress’ and ‘psychological emergency.’ Jack P. Shonkoff is a senior paediatrician who has studied the effect of the detention of migrant children. He teaches at Harvard, where he runs the Center on the Developing Child. In October 2019, Shonkoff published an article defining the health consequences of ‘toxic stress’ which occurs when ‘a significant adversity triggers a massive biological response “inside” the child, which remains activated until a sense of safety and security is restored.’

The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published an article in March 2017, Detention of Immigrant Children, stating: ‘The expert consensus concluded that even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.’

A document, supported by the European Commission, prepared by The Initiative for Children in Migration, together with Eurochild and other partners, published in March 2019, stated that ‘Immigration detention is an extreme measure with long-term detrimental impacts on children. Medical professionals report that 85% of parents and children in detention suffer negative consequences for mental health.’

‘For children, the impact on health, psychosocial and academic development is even more profound,’ the report continued. ‘Children in detention have symptoms of depression and anxiety, sleeping problems, including nightmares, eating difficulties and somatic complaints, as well as emotional and behavioural problems. Detention can have long-lasting negative impacts on development and life outcomes, even if it is for short periods and takes place in so-called “child-specific facilities.”’

The European Court of Human Rights concluded in its rulings that the ‘extreme vulnerability’ of children ‘is the decisive factor and prevails over considerations of illegal immigrant status.’ [Article 91 of Popov v. France and Article 55 of Mubilanzila Mayeka and Kaniki Mitunga v. Belgium.]

“Detention is never in the child’s interest under any circumstances,”

Seeking refuge

At the Casa de Acolhimento para Crianças Refugiadas, there are currently 51 young people who have arrived unaccompanied in Portugal. There are only four girls. They are almost all teenagers from Africa, though the youngest are eleven and twelve years old.

The Casa was built to house thirteen minors. With 51 occupants it is overcrowded. Managed by the Portuguese Council for Refugees (CPR), it has already produced several exceptional athletes and helped an Afghan refugee to become a national boxing champion.

Young people arrive here after spending a maximum of seven days in detention. At the request of the Aliens and Borders Service, the CPR is responsible for the custody of minors. In the Casa they have open doors, public schools, support and advice, and bicycles. Two carpets, facing Mecca, are available on the top floor.

Arriving at the Casa, young people are almost always scared and anxious. “Distrust is part of survival ability,” explains Monica Farinha, the President of the CPR. As a result, a key rule set by the women who run the Casa is that everyone must keep their promises.

On the wall of the house library is an A4 sheet with a question: “What makes us happy?” There’s only one answer, so short it’s missing a letter: “Lot of things.”

In Portugal, according to the latest official data, 24 unaccompanied children were arrested at the border in 2018. They were deprived of their liberty on average for six days. The 51 children who tried to enter the country with relatives were detained at the border ‘for periods ranging from 1 to 59 days (on average 16 days),’ explains an Asylum Information Data Base (AIDA) report which concludes: ‘This practice continues to be of concern in light of international standards that prohibit any detention of migrant children.’

In Portugal, according to the latest official data, 24 unaccompanied children were arrested at the border in 2018. They were deprived of their liberty on average for six days.

In a European context, Portugal is one of the relatively ‘good examples’ in this field. First of all because it does not have the same migratory pressure as Greece, Spain or Italy and so the numbers of migrant children trying to enter Portugal are much smaller. The rhetoric of Lisbon is also different from countries like Hungary – which make migration a flag of political combat.

Portugal has announced that it is willing to accept 10,000 refugees – three times its quota agreed with the EU. “We need more immigration and we will not tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric,” stated Prime Minister António Costa. Portugal has signed a bilateral agreement with Greece to rehouse 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers and undertook to admit 1,100 from Turkey and Egypt.

But this is just one side of the story. When asylum seekers make applications at the country’s borders, they are systematically detained – an issue that was flagged up in 2019 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In a Periodic Review of Portugal, concerns were raised about the systematic detention of asylum seekers at the border.

Inês Carreirinho, coordinator of the legal department of the CPR, says that in Portuguese airports, migrants who arrive to apply for protection status are “systematically” detained: “Until 2016, usually children, families, pregnant women, were exempt from special procedures, and entered national territory. From 2016 onwards, detention periods have been extended”.

“Detention is never in the child’s interest under any circumstances,” Carreirinho concludes. “There is no crime.” And yet, all across Europe, children are being victimised many times over – fleeing from dangerous situations, submitting to human trafficking networks to migrate, and then facing imprisonment.

*names have been changed.