On Tuesday I went to visit a group of refugee children in police custody in a village near Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia. The policeman banged open the lock of the black metal cell door and it swung forward. The other boys moved aside to let Harith through. The door clanged shut. Harith and the seven boys with him are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan; they are all aged between 14 and 17. Under Greek law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be held in police custody only until they can be transferred to centres for young people. But, all over Greece, the centres are full. Harith has been in jail for more than two weeks.
Before the border was closed, unaccompanied minors could sneak across, lying about their age or attaching themselves to families, claiming to be a nephew or a cousin. Not any more. It’s supposed to be protective custody, but what’s the difference between that and jail? ‘In terms of facilities, nothing,’ according to Kyriaki Chionidou, the Idomeni programme co-ordinator from ARSIS, a Greek organisation working with unaccompanied refugee children. ‘It’s a cell,’ Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency, told me. ‘We’re trying to come up with a new system.’ He says there are about thirty refugee boys in police stations dotted around northern Greece.
A month after Islamic State captured Mosul in 2014, they came looking for Harith’s father, who ran an internet company. They accused him of helping government forces. At two o’clock in the morning on 24 June 2014, militants took Harith’s father and 20-year-old brother away. Two days later they came for him. But he climbed out of a second storey window and made his way across the rooftops to a friend’s house. His friend’s parents drove him to his uncle’s house where he called his mother. ‘Don’t come back,’ she said, ‘they’re looking for you.’ Two weeks later he fled to Turkey. He was 14 years old.
He had been arrested by Islamic State before, for wearing a necklace. He was held in custody for four days and beaten repeatedly, until his father came up with $5000 ‘bail’.
In Turkey, Harith made his way to the city of Samsun where a friend of his had a barbershop. ‘He invited me to work there,’ Harith said., ‘I started out cleaning, getting tea. After six months, I was a barber.’
A friend in Mosul told him that Islamic State was asking for $20,000 for the release of his father and brother. Harith saved everything he earned and borrowed from friends and eventually came up with $11,000. He sent the money to Mosul and waited. Two days later Islamic State released his brother, who said his father was alive. Since then Harith has heard nothing.
He doesn’t have any relatives in Europe. Some of the other boys have brothers, uncles or cousins in Denmark and Germany. Harith hopes to settle in the first place that will allow him to live in safety and continue his studies. He tries to speak to his mother as often as he can. In much of the Arab world, 21 March is Mother’s Day. It was Harith’s sixth day in custody (in a different police station from the one he’s in now). ‘I said to the officer, “God keep you, I kiss your hands and feet, I just want to call my Mum and hear her voice on Mother's Day.”’ They refused.
One day a boy named Saleem screamed in pain. He had kidney stones, Harith said. A policeman came to the cell and the boys told him Saleem needed a doctor. The officer opened the door. Abdullah, another boy, had to carry Saleem out because he couldn’t walk. Saleem continued to cry out; the police hit him. When Abdullah tried to defend him they hit him too and sent him back to his cell. Eventually, they took Saleem to hospital.
The boys have since been moved to another station where conditions are marginally better. But it’s the uncertainty that makes it unbearable. Some of the boys have cut themselves with razors in protest.
‘They told us we would be here for ten or 15 days. But some boys have been here a month,’ Harith said. ‘If we knew when we were getting out, even if it were in a year, it would be easier.’ They are given two meals a day, at 2 p.m. and at 6 p.m. This is difficult for the boys who need to take medication with food in the morning. ‘Sometimes the food arrives early and we can see it through the bars but they don’t give it to us for a long time.’ There are no electrical sockets inside the cells and they have to call a guard when they want to charge their phones. There are five beds for eight boys so they take it in turns to sleep on the ground. If they make too much noise the guards shout and swear at them. Every two or three days they are allowed into a slightly larger, brighter room to walk around.
There are more than 10,000 refugees camped in and around Idomeni. The small towns and villages are struggling to cope with the influx of people. The police are no exception. As Chionidou pointed out, they are not trained to deal with the situation, looking after a group of teenage boys who do not speak their language or understand what is happening to them. ARSIS and other humanitarian organisations are trying to set up facilities for unaccompanied minors in the refugee camps.
The one thing that helps, Harith said, is having each other. ‘Between ourselves we are more than brothers,’ he says. But the conditions and the uncertainty are taking their toll. Several of the boys suffer from mental illness, and are sometimes taken to hospital to see a psychologist. ‘Those who have mental illness will be let out of jail and those without will get a mental illness from being in jail,’ a translator who came to visit them recently joked.
‘We are psychologically exhausted,’ Harith said.
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