Feature: UNICEF, NGOs help debt-laden Greece protect refugee children's rights

Source: Xinhua| 2017-11-20 02:00:17|Editor: Mu Xuequan
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By Maria Spiliopoulou, Alexia Vlachou, Valentini Anagnostopoulou

ATHENS, Nov. 19 (Xinhua) -- Faced with a dual crisis in recent years, the massive refugee influx and the debt drama, the Greek state has found critical aid in UNICEF and other local NGOs specializing in the protection of children's rights.

Through multi-level cooperation, strives have been made to assist refugee and migrant children, but more should be done to ensure a better future for children in need, UNICEF and NGOs' representatives told Xinhua.

On the occasion of the World Children's Day marked on Nov. 20 over the past six decades, Sofia Tzitzikou, President of UNICEF Greece, and Myrsini Zorba, co-founder and Honorary President of Greek NGO "Network for Children's Rights" offered an insight of how children in Greece are faring in key areas covered in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and what Greece is doing to promote their rights and ensure their well being.

Greece's National Committee of UNICEF was established in 1977. During the course of 40 years it has provided life changing support to millions of children, but the needs are endless.

"Basic rights today are not for granted even for kids born here, such as the right to life, the right to food, to education, the right of access to healthcare and so on," Tzitzikou told Xinhua, pointing to data in annual reports conducted by UNICEF Greece in recent years on the state of minors in the debt ridden country.

According to the latest report 55 percent of children in Greece are living on the threshold of poverty. The approximately 20,000 refugee and migrant children out of 62,000 people who have been stranded in Greece in reception centers and other facilities, after the closure of borders, are in particularly vulnerable.

Among them are about 2,300 unaccompanied children living in shelters and special safe zones inside camps. These minors are a priority group for UNICEF Greece.

"Every day we must remind people that these rights are there and we are obliged, it is our legal and ethical duty to protect and promote them," Tzitzikou said, outlining UNICEF Greece's actions towards improving all children's welfare.

As many partners are involved in this effort, UNICEF Greece opted to put emphasis in the field of education, without overlooking programs promoting breastfeeding or immunizations. In the past two years UNICEF Greece in collaboration with the Health Ministry provided vaccines for 62,000 refugee and migrant children who reached Greece.

In addition to providing material to thousands of children in need -- Greek and refugee alike -- to attend school, the National Committee also runs campaigns to inform parents, teachers and children of their rights.

Some of the programs concerning refugee children are covered by European funds, but in general due to the financial crisis UNICEF Greece faces a shortage of funds, as it relies solely on donations by individuals and enterprises.

"Due to the crisis what we are facing as a National Committee is of course a decline in our funds, but not a decline in peoples' willingness to help ... Greek society's support regarding the refugee crisis has been enormous, not only in actions run by UNICEF staff, but also in programs where we ask for volunteers," Tzitzikou said.

Myrsini Zorba, a former member of the European parliament, co-founded in 2004 the "Network for Children's Rights", one of the local NGOs cooperating with UNICEF Greece. Zorba always believed in the power of volunteerism.

Over the past five years the Network welcomes children at the "Culture Workshop" in central Athens where kids are taught foreign languages, including Chinese, as well as photography, dance and painting.

The NGO puts emphasis in culture and education, organizing visits to museums, as well as educational games in playgrounds, in addition to running libraries and providing healthcare and psychological support in collaboration with the City of Athens and other partners.

The Network aims to provide more opportunities to refugee children to leave the camps, Zorba explained. Although living conditions in many refugee camps in the mainland improved in recent months compared to the still overcrowded hotspots on the islands, much remains to be done. For Zorba no child should be growing up in a camp and citizens' mobilization can help.

"We have to keep in mind that as citizens we need to demand from the state and institutions to make policies with tangible results, because each day passing by that a draft bill is not voted, or a program is lagging, or a court is not announcing a verdict, can be crucial, some times of fatal consequences, for the life of a child," she said.

"We need to find a way to actively participate in actions, to get closer to what is happening around us," she stressed, urging more citizens to get involved in projects to help.

The refugee camp at the Piraeus port suburb of Schisto which is run by the Migration Policy ministry is an example of how the cooperation of the state, NGOs and local society can help.

When the camp was first established in the winter of 2016 on a former military site, 2,200 refugees were living in tents. Today 609 people, including 275 minors, are hosted in 159 containers with air condition, heating and kitchenettes.

The 92 percent of residents are Afghans, 5 percent Iranians and 3 percent Iraqis. Most are members of a total of 124 families. The 34 unaccompanied minors are hosted in a so- called "safe zone" within the camp.

The army and police provide security, NGOs such as the Network with the support of UNICEF, offer social workers, psychologists, medical aid and teachers, while local society helps in the integration of children.

Most minors at Schisto camp, along other 5,100 refugee children nationwide, attend classes in public schools. When they do not go to the nearby public schools they attend classes inside the camp, visit the library or play games.

Yorgos Triantafyllou, a social worker with the Network, and his colleagues are there to listen to their problems and assist.

"Through gatherings with parents and briefings on legal rights organized here at Schisto camp, we are trying to explain children's and women's rights in Europe.

"For me, the most important thing is when several mothers in such meetings are telling us: we do not know how to raise our children right, because we were brought up in a certain manner, please help us and show us the correct way," Triantafyllou said.