America’s treatment of refugee children is abhorrent, so is Europe’s

‘’Hamid* and his kids are in jail, they were rejected again,’’ a volunteer on the Greek island of Chios called to tell me late last year. Chios has received the second largest number of refugees fleeing to Europe via. Turkey since the refugee crisis began in 2015. The youngest of the imprisoned Syrian Kurdish family was three-years-old. In the preceding days I had sat beside Save The Children with a fourteen-year-old who had sliced up his wrists for the third time and spent a morning kicking my legs over the sea with a fifteen-year-old who wanted to know if I thought he should take anti-depressants. Both of the unaccompanied boys were Syrian.

The outrage that has followed the barbaric treatment of asylum seeking children being forcibly separated from their parents in The United States must continue and result in action. Though, it’s absolutely essential we remember that European governments attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees are not all that different to those across the Atlantic.

French policies and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees are notoriously horrific. Just days after French President Emanuel Macron criticised Italy for refusing to take in a rescue ship with over 600 people onboard, Oxfam alleged French authorities have been detaining kids as young as twelve without food or water, taking their sim cards, cutting the soles from their shoes and then illegally deporting them (to Italy.)

The Calais camp was finally burnt to the ground by French riot police last year, leaving hundreds of unaccompanied minors on the streets — rather than in a shanty camp. The UK has exacerbated this suffering by repeatedly refusing to take in unaccompanied children. In Serbia, Hungary and across the Balkans minors lived through freezing winters in abandoned warehouses and are trafficked for work and sex. Human rights groups warned over a hundred teenagers travelling alone were detained in police cells in Greece in 2017.

In Greece, I have met countless minors who have family members in other European member states, many waited over a year to be reunited and I know others still waiting. One sixteen-year-old, whose family is in Germany, initially skated around the island using his English to translate for a range of organisations. Now, over a year has passed and he is listless — he is neither with his family or receiving a proper education — he speaks three languages fluently and is a talented footballer.

In Europe, it’s true, we do not systematically separate children from their parents when they reach our borders. Though, it regularly happens directly and indirectly. Less than a year ago, I met a mother whose nine-year-old-son was returned to Turkey during a rescue operation when their boat sank, she was brought to Greece. He was then detained in Turkey for months and forced to make the journey to Europe alone with smugglers — no legal routes existed for them to be reunited. One morning in Chios port I met three shivering Afghan teenagers travelling alone who had just been pulled from the sea, they asked me for cigarettes. Each time I saw them again they sniggered, whispering ‘’baby’’, as I had called them that cold morning.

The landmark piece of legislation in response to the European refugee crisis is a deal with Turkey that aims to simply stop refugees arriving at the Greek island entry points and return those who do. It was widely regarded as against principles of international law and the refugee convention when introduced in March 2016. Now, it’s failure and cruel procedures have resulted in a largely silent, stagnant humanitarian crisis on the edges of Europe.

In Italy, occasionally, we hear of the huge numbers of people who continue to cross the Med in search of safety in Europe — most recently when the Italian government refused to let the rescue boat dock that was eventually taken in by Spain.

Most good weather days still see at least one boat reach a Greek frontier island carrying an average of about forty people. Those who arrive are trapped in island camps for periods regularly surpassing nine months before proceeding to the overcrowded mainland and beginning an asylum case that could be rejected. Many people have received interview dates that are over a year away. Over half of these people are women and children.

In Europe, our refugee crisis may have gone silent yet it continues unabated and with reinvigorated cruelty. We absolutely should be protesting what’s happening in America but not without turning our attention to what’s happening here. Indeed, when searching my pictures for this article, I came across photos of a mother seperated from her 8-month-old baby for two weeks; the nine-year-old Syrian girl who lost her own mother and was injured during violence in the camp and the three-year-old girl who was nearly burned alive when fascists detonated a molotov cocktail on her tent.

Hamid’s children were imprisoned for three days before being released with their mother. Police then waited outside their home for 24 hours a day. ‘’Now whenever they see a police officer or car they get scared,’’ he told me.

Izzy Tomico Ellis

*Hamid’s name was changed in order to protect his identity.


This text was first published at Izzy’s Medium blog