by Apostolos Kouroupakis
Managing the exponentially increasing number of unaccompanied minors or unaccompanied alien children (UAC) is a problem that must be solved by the government in collaboration with NGOs and other relevant actors. Furthermore, the numbers speak for themselves: in 2012, Cyprus hosted only 26 UACs, in 2016, 224, and by October 31, 2022, the number of UACs hosted in Pournara will be 841. According to Ms. Anastasia Anthousi, Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, unaccompanied minors are a big challenge for her Deputy Ministry, as the number of minors is increasing, resulting in the constant need to create more accommodation structures, which must, of course, meet specific criteria. Mrs. Anthousi went on to say that the goal for unaccompanied minors is twofold: first, to establish the underage status so that the numbers of minors are accurate and there is no abuse by adults who declare themselves minors, and second, to strengthen the reconnection of minors with relatives in other European Union countries.
the percentage of people who were referred for testing suggests that a disproportionately high number of people are discovered to be adults despite their initial allegations
This issue has been raised with the EU by the Republic of Cyprus in meetings with representatives of the relevant EU Directorate and the provision of expertise from the Union has been requested. The importance of the issue of reunification, as Mrs. Anthousi stated, is demonstrated by the fact that many of the minors arrive in Cyprus believing that they have arrived in Central Europe to reunite with the rest of their family. On this subject, it should be noted that some countries, such as Germany, are particularly hesitant to make decisions to reunite minors with their relatives, whereas others, such as Finland, Sweden, and France, are more willing to grant reunification requests.
As Mrs. Anthousi stated, it is critical to strengthen the Dublin Regulation implementation and focus on reunification issues in order to reduce the number of unaccompanied minors hosted in the Republic of Cyprus and thus provide greater comfort in supporting those who remain. By investing in these two axes, namely, the identification of actual minors through age assessment and the strengthening of reunification, as well as providing information to the countries of origin, the number will be reduced, allowing the Republic of Cyprus's social structures to improve minors' accommodation conditions. "The accommodation of unaccompanied minors is a major challenge," which extends beyond meeting basic needs such as housing and food, given that this is a vulnerable group of people, to issues such as education.
Inclusion by means of creation
In terms of creative occupation and broader education for refugee minors, Dora Irakleous, coordinator of the SYNTHESIS Research and Education Centre, tells K that one of the Council of Europe's key claims is the importance of children with migrant backgrounds actively participating in social life. So, in September 2021, they launched a large-scale pilot project in public kindergartens and primary schools throughout Cyprus under the thematic umbrella "The Adventures of the Little Prince in the World" as part of the European project NEW ABC - Networking the Educational World: Across Boundaries for Community-building (Horizon2020). According to Ms. Herakleous, the goal was to co-create activities that would be responses to locally identified needs determined by the linguistic, cultural, social, and emotional challenges faced by children and young people with migrant backgrounds within the educational system. Ms. Herakleous states that "the culmination of this is the theatrical performance they are preparing on 13 December at the Mascarini Theatre with children aged 10 to 15 years old, who are staying at the Reception and Accommodation Centre for Applicants for International Protection in Kofinou," and adds that "working with these children demonstrates how access to activities, such as theatre workshops and collective work for the realization of a theatre performance, allotment." Participation in such activities provides the foundation for bettering children's lives, going beyond the scope of simple tolerance and allowing the development of relationships based on reciprocity and respect because they imply working together to forge a shared future.
Ms. Herakleous also emphasizes the importance of institutional support and strategic planning in order to implement extracurricular activities such as music, theatre, dance, sports, and so on on a daily basis and with the participation of children of all ages in the Centre's premises. "In the case of Cyprus, we believe that more actions on the part of the State are required to allow for greater and more meaningful participation of all children living in restrictive environments, in this case in a Reception Centre," adding that more cooperation between school units and services is required for a more holistic assessment of needs and utilization of children's talents. Finally, all teachers and educators who work with children with migrant backgrounds, including in the context of evening recreational activities, should receive ongoing institutional support and training.
Our top priority is to deal with the skyrocketing numbers
The age assessment of people who report being minors when applying for asylum, according to the Deputy Minister, is a critical component in the effort to manage the AOs (the age determination was first implemented in 2016). According to Ms Anthousi, this aspect is especially important because proper assessment and determination of minors will not only correct distortions but will also protect those who are truly minors.
-Ms. Anthousi, what are the challenges when trying to establish the migrant is a minor?
The law allows for the possibility of referring the applicant to non-invasive medical examinations in order to certify his or her actual age, in addition to the interviews conducted in Pournara by the various services there and in cases where there are plausible suspicions as to the actual age of the "minor." From our experience up to this point, the percentage of people who were referred for testing suggests that a disproportionately high number of people are discovered to be adults despite their initial allegations. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of applicants who have refused to take the relevant exams. As a result, the competent authorities have decided to classify these applicants as minors, which only makes the issue worse. In order to find the best method of assessment through a series of procedures that will enable us to get to the actual minors more safely and get past the challenges presented by the refusal to submit to medical examinations, the issue has already been identified, and instructions have been given in consultation with the Ministry of the Interior.
-What initiatives is the State taking to assist unaccompanied minors in Pournara and other facilities where they are housed?
We must be upfront and emphasize that the large numbers also place a limit on our ability to offer minors the full range of support services that we would like. Our top priority is to deal with the soaring numbers, and we are constantly looking for accommodations that will allow us to evict unaccompanied minors from Purnara. Of course, this does not imply that we have raised our arms in the air. In order to increase the number of accommodations available in the various semi-independent living facilities, we are in constant contact with NGOs and other organizations. Unaccompanied minors who stay at the site are housed separately from the rest of the population in a separate security zone that has been established at the Pournara site in conjunction with the Interior Ministry. Additionally, we have moved forward with modernizing the fostering legislation, and within this framework, we have also added the option of fostering unaccompanied minors.
-Is the State's potential limited in terms of kids with disabilities?
The odds are not in our favor, and the numbers are relentless. You can compare the number of arrivals this year alone to the average of the previous years, which was about 100, with 800 arrivals this year. There are currently 1200 unaccompanied minors in Cyprus, and despite all efforts, there are significant challenges because Cyprus is unable to provide the necessary support. The risk of adults being included in groups of unaccompanied minors, which I previously mentioned, makes the situation even more complicated and makes it more challenging to provide the necessary services.
-Are state and non-profit organizations working in harmony? And have inter-agency issues been noted as well?
The state's efforts to provide shelters for unaccompanied minors are supported by close collaboration with NGOs and other organizations. The government is utilizing private actors by purchasing services and funding programs through state aid in an effort to meet expanding needs. However, specific safeguards are also required to guarantee that the funds spent accurately reflect the services received and to prevent potential abuses. As I've already stated, there is a need for constant coordination and to identify all necessary synergies in order to provide comprehensive support. Support for unaccompanied minors involves not only the State Ministry but also other ministries such as the Ministry of the Interior, Health and Education, Sport and Youth. To define roles and responsibilities in the best interests of children, a number of cooperation protocols are also being introduced in this context.
The psychological factor
The role of the clinical psychologist for refugees is particularly significant, according to Tona Loizidou, a clinical psychologist at the Cyprus Council for Refugees. "A person who travels to another nation to apply for asylum will likely experience significant psychological challenges as a result of what they have gone through in their home country that compelled them to leave, what they have encountered on their journey to a safe place, the loss of their previous life and loved ones, and the uncertainty of whether their application will be granted so they can begin their new life. Additionally, a significant stressor is the challenges the traveler might face in the host nation" Ms. Loizidou says. According to Ms. Loizidou, psychotherapy is crucial for people who will develop post-traumatic syndrome (a psychological condition in which the person experiences nightmares, disconnecting episodes, and numbing of emotions, among other symptoms), as the early intervention will help the person regain the strength and confidence to move forward as functionally as possible. And as a result, he or she will be able to fit in with society, whether that means picking up the local language, finding employment, or even developing a new network of supportive people.
[This article was originally published in Kathimerini's Sunday edition and translated from its Greek original]