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Multiple dimensions for the role of civil society organizations, seen from Greece

By Marc Van den Reeck

For decades we have been witnessing in Europe, from afar, the genocides, regional wars and consequent refugee crises throughout the world, with feelings of disgust, incomprehension for so much inhumanity, pity for victims, anger and frustration. Frustration about our incapacity to turn things around, to make them more humane, frustration about not having a deeper impact than a pledge to a humanitarian fund or a show of solidarity by a public demonstration against the ongoing cruelties.

Today, however, the refugee crisis is at our doorstep. Europe is called to act from the front line. One figure says it all: of the politically agreed 160.000 refugees to be relocated, only 8.000 relocations from Greece and Italy have actually taken place so far to other European countries.

Worrying? Yes. Meanwhile, the refugee drama is still unfolding on European soil. Children and their families without heating in camps, not knowing what is next, unaccompanied children without shelter, children and adults alike trying to get around the walls and closed borders which have recently re-divided the continent. For once, the world is watching Europe. Whether Europol’s announcement early 2016 that 10.000 migrant children have gone missing, is statistically accurate, is irrelevant: what counts is that there is a serious problem and that there needs to be more political and operational attention to the matter.

‘Lost in Migration’ is therefore a very welcome wake-up call, underscoring what is supposed to be obvious: as a society we should do much better, at least to prevent children, the most vulnerable among refugees, from going missing in migration; and if they go missing, we should enable a more streamlined and coordinated operational mechanism to find them before they end up trafficked. 

Here are some thoughts on how civil society can play a role.

Faster and more comprehensive registration at entry points is an absolute necessity. In the absence of some sort of registration, one does not even know that a child has gone missing. Preventing this, is of course a prime responsibility of authorities, national and European. But civil society organizations can help, as they have early and direct humane contact with arriving refugees, and they are often in a position of gaining the trust of refugees who otherwise may want to avoid registration for fear of being sent back to their country of origin or detained in view of ‘processing’. 

Refugees, including children, often do not want to stay in the country of their first entry in Europe. Invariably they want to travel on to the Northwest of Europe, trying to pass through the officially closed borders, or by-passing them, illegally, as there is no way to do so legally. No policy will ever be able to stop this phenomenon completely. Family reunification, relocation and resettlement are ways to provide at least to some of the refugees an effective way of reaching their destination without being pushed into illegality and into the hands of smugglers and traffickers. Experience with a limited number of cases shows that there is quite a potential for civil society organizations like “The Smile of the Child” and others to be instrumental in family reunifications, when things are handled in a smooth cooperation with authorities on both ends.

Refugee children who venture onto the risky migrant paths of Europe, are also driven by their desire to simply get away from the substandard conditions they encounter upon arrival. It is no secret that in many camps the conditions are humanely unacceptable in general, and even more so for children, whether in a family context or unaccompanied. Efforts to respond to an unexpectedly large inflow with shelter, humanitarian assistance and protection have definitely been made, even if the result does not quite correspond with the needs and even with coordination by authorities being largely insufficient. Efforts have also been made financially: considerable amounts of money are floating around, particularly from the European Commission, in the case of Greece also through ECHO on top of the more common channels. One can however question the way in which the absorption of these funds is being coordinated and how these 3 funds are being allocated to actors in the field, including civil society organizations. Transparency of allocation is an issue, especially as surge organizations receive funding for actions of limited scope, whereas well established and structured organizations with a comprehensive and recognized quality approach can get no access to European funding. Domestic civil society could play a major role in improving the conditions for stranded refugees, if there were better coordination and faster, more adequate allocation of the available funds. 

Finally, we must not overlook the potential of the already existing instruments to prevent migrant children from going missing and falling victim to human trafficking. “The Smile of the Child” as national operator of the 116000 hotline, has played a crucial role in several children being saved from disappearing and from falling victim to traffickers. The potential of the 116000 hotline as an instrument to combat child disappearance is definitely much more significant, if higher rates of reporting can be generated and cross-border networking of national operators and all level authorities can be further enhanced.


About the author

Marc Van den Reeck is a retired volunteer. He is now heading the International Cooperation and Programs Department of Greece’s largest civil society organization in child care and child protection, “The Smile of the Child”. As a career diplomat he served i.a. as the Belgian Ambassador to Greece from 2011 to late 2015.