“They never lived like children do—I don’t know how to put it into words—but like wild humans” (Zsófia 2018: 392). With this statement, a Greek father voiced a concern held by many parents about the integration of refugee children into Greek public schools. A ‘wild’ human: a chilling description of a child. Children are innocent victims of war and displacement. Some arrived in Greece with their families, some overcame the arduous journey on their own. Having worked with small children including children with refugee backgrounds in Germany, I found myself questioning why such a stigma against refugee children exists – they are children after all. Throughout this article, I will attempt to deconstruct the above-mentioned stigmatization of the refugee child in Greece, specifically in the context of scholarly integration. I disclaim any notion that all Greeks uphold this stigma – on the contrary, many Greeks have shown remarkable solidarity and acceptance to the refugee community since 2015. Nevertheless, the stigma exists, which is problematic enough.
In the first section, an overview of the situation of child migrants and child refugees in Greece will be given. The time frame of the analysis covers the years between 2015 to 2021. In the following section, the development of refugee education in Greece is analysed the ways in which segregation was implemented from its beginnings. In the third section, the stigmatization of refugee and migrant children is analyzed within Greek reactions to educative integration. These concerns are analyzed in broader frameworks of hospitality and hostility, as well as through the process of ‘othering’. In order to link theory with practice, three interviews were conducted with Greek natives between the ages of 25 and 30. Two out of the three people interviewed did not have experience with refugee children directly, whereas the third interviewee worked as a primary teacher in a school with refugee children. The interviewees provided answers in their own words and raised points they deemed important.
Forced migration amongst children
The number of children forced to flee their home countries is disheartening. Global conflict, particularly in the Middle East and Africa contribute to the major influx of forced migration into European countries since 2015, which have become transit or final destinations for a great number of refugees, including children. According to UNCHR, an estimated 30 to 34 million people under the age of 18 are displaced worldwide (UNHCR 2021). In 2020 alone, 94,800 children arrived in Europe through Italy, Greece, Spain and Bulgaria (UNICEF 2020). Although every child’s story is different, many share experiences of conflict, violence and hunger.
In Greece, the estimated number of child migrants and refugees is currently estimated at 44,500 (UNICEF 2020a). The majority are of Afghan, Pakistani or Syrian descent (E.K.K.A. 2020). In 2020, 74 percent of child arrivals were under the age of thirteen (UNICEF 2020). Most children arrive in Greece with their families, yet some 4000 children have arrived unaccompanied (UNICEF 2017a). The journey to Greece is dangerous, especially for those traveling alone. Their existing vulnerability has become exasperated by recent events, including the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the fire at Moria RIC, which have harshened children’s living conditions and has left many of their basic needs – including education – unmet.
Refugee education in Greece
In Greece, every child has the right to education, regardless of their legal status. Greece is a signatory to both the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention, treaties that guarantee and protect a child’s right to an education. However, the administrative enrollment and social acceptance of refugee children into Greek public schools was one of the biggest gaps in Greece’s humanitarian response. With the onset of the 2015 refugee crisis, most children arriving in Greece had either experienced an extended break from formal schooling or never attended it in the first place (UNICEF 2020). In combination with the closure of the Western Balkan Route in 2016, the Greek government was simply overwhelmed: instruments that were previously used to integrate migrant children into public schools were not sufficient or appropriate for the often-traumatic conditions under which the large numbers of refugee children arrived in Greece (Crul et al. 2019: 7). Between 2015 and 2017, education for refugee children in Refugee Accommodation Centers (RACs) was improvised at best, more a distraction rather than an appropriate education based on age and needs (Crul et al. 2019: 5). In those two years, the situation remained largely stagnant: according to a report by Save the Children, not one refugee child in Greece was attending school in May 2016 (Save The Children 2016: 2). Living in “detention-like” conditions, the abnormal and confusing situation for children was prolonged. The lack of routine increased their insecurity, which in turn, deteriorated their mental health (UNICEF 2017b).
In response to the report by Save the Children, the Greek Ministry of Education drew up a plan to gradually integrate refugee children into the public education system. Within a year, only 4,000 of the 18,500 refugee children were in school (UNICEF 2017c: 20). The plan also saw the establishment of Reception Facilities for Refugee Education (RFRE), which were meant to be temporary preparation classes before integration into mainstream classes. These prepatory reception classes were offered to children between the ages of six and fifteen, and were to be held in the schools closest to the respective RAC. Children from RACs were to be taught separately from native Greek children. In practice, this meant that Greek children were taught in the mornings, and refugee children in the afternoon. They were to be transported from the camps and brought back after their classes had ended. Thereby this plan had laid the foundation of segregation between refugee and native children, only to be reinforced through the education system.
Stigmatization, concerns and theoretical classification
Although unexpected, their plan triggered strong reactions in both the Greek and the refugee community. Although reactions to enrollment in the Greek education system are noteworthy on both sides of the spectrum, this article mainly focuses on the Greek response. The plan to integrate children in the Greek education system was largely met with skepticism. Concerned parents gathered at the school assemblies, speaking of hygiene, contagious diseases, violence and safety of their children (Zsófia 2018: 391-392). Hostilities escalated when members (one of whom was a parent of a child at the school) of the far-right group “Golden Dawn” assaulted parents and teachers at an assembly in primary school in Perama who were in favor of enrolling refugee and migrant children from the camp nearby (Ekathimerini: 2017).
One of the major topics that played a big role in the stigmatization of refugee children was vaccination (Vergou 2019: 1367). Due to lack of information about the situation, the image of the refugee as a contagious agent invading and potentially infecting the host community has gained traction. It is fair to say that children (no matter of what origin) practice limited hygiene. However, this fans fear: refugee children were now seen as uncontrollable transmitters of disease to some Greek parents. One parent went as far as to worry about “what kind of detergents [the schools] will use to clean the classrooms after the refugee children leave” (Zsófia 2018: 392). Naturally, parents want to protect their child from the unknown. Yet the stigma of sick, under-vaccinated child refugees extends beyond the parental community. I spoke to a 25-year-old Greek male, who told me what he believed to be the reason for different standards of health of the refugee and native community:
“Back in their home countries some things are overlooked or not done, like vaccines […] from a cultural point of view, they [doctors and parents in countries of origin] have a different opinion on health and hygiene.” (Personal communication)
However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), most refugees arriving in Europe from Middle Eastern countries have a high vaccine coverage, and vaccines are widely accepted (World Health Organization 2015). Although there is evidence for low coverage of child vaccination in refugee children, most refugee children become over-vaccinated once they are in Europe. Numerous reports state that doctors would almost always revaccinate or boost immunization of refugee children, especially those who are unaccompanied (Nakken et al. 2018: 6).
The health-based stigmatization was also reflected in the judicial process of scholarly integration: access to education for refugee children was only granted if vaccinations are provided, a criterium set down by law (4415/2916). A wider framework comes into play here – the rules of hospitality (Zsófia 2018). The concept of hospitality holds inherent tensions, as it stands contrary to hostility, yet is determined by it at the same time. Studies suggest that a hierarchy exists between the refugee and the native community, by which the refugee guest is placed in submissive (if not lowest) position to the host. The refugee guest is forced to accept and play by the rules of the host, just like in the case of the vaccinations. In addition, the rules become stricter, if not more hostile as time passes. I asked another Greek native about his opinion about hospitality towards the refugee community in Greece, and he responded that “it is very hard, especially in this challenging economic time for Greece, people are not acceptant and open minded and cannot take a step back when looking at these other people”. (Personal communication).
The Greek crises: an obstacle to integration?
Although a substantial part of Greek society has shown a remarkable amount of solidarity and compassion towards refugee and migrant children, growing tensions and oftentimes straight forward hostility towards refugee communities are no exceptions. Since 2010, Greece has become the epicenter of two crises: an economic one starting in 2010 and a refugee one by 2015. The way in which these crises are perceived by the Greeks are strongly interrelated. The refugee crisis is understood as a crisis within a crisis, a sense encouraged by Greek media. Although Greeks speak about it as something of the past, the economic conditions of the crises are firmly embedded, and its structures have become permanent (Zsófia 2018: 374). The refugee crisis is largely perceived as an economic one, making the ‘refugee’ yet another external strain creating significant problems for the growth of the Greek economy. The economic factor is thereby also transferred on the way in which refugee children are perceived by Greek parents. Public schools were hit hard by austerity measures. In 2015, schools were chronically understaffed and did not have the resources to provide adequate support needed (Crul et al. 2019: 7). Concerns about the fairness of resource distribution are common. Essentially this notion is part of in- and exclusion processes, making it a question about what group of children deserve the resources available:
“Are we a rich country? Can we afford the luxury of inviting guests in? The school already is in shambles [….] But now it turns out that there is money, after all. And instead of repairing schools in the morning, instead of providing quality education, quality schools for our children, we spend that money not on Greek children but on other children. I don’t think that that is fair.“ (Zsófia 2018: 392)
Another major concern of Greek natives was the potential of violence amongst refugee children. This assumption is as prevalent as it is problematic, even amongst teachers. I spoke to a teacher who formerly taught at a school near Malakasa Camp, 40 kilometers north of Athens. She told me that “the parents and the director of the school did not want the Greek students to come into contact with the refugee children” (Personal communication). She talked specifically about her experience with refugee boys, recalling how “they came here to play, and the playing was to fight”(Personal communication). She put emphasis on adjectives such as “dangerous” and “violent” when describing the children. As she shook her head she said, “these children try to kill one another” (personal communication). She went on to describe an incident between two young refugee boys:
“I remember one day they were playing, and one boy threw a stone, a big stone, at the head of another boy and he had to a big wound, and he had to get stitches. I tried talking to them about it, to make them understand but they did not understand what they did.” (Personal communication).
This emphasis on fighting and the incapability to understand the moral wrongdoing is seen in a lot of statements. When asked why, most point to “cultural differences” or that “they were brought up differently”. Still, the depiction of refugee children in this way goes beyond cultural differences. Through the process of “Othering” (a term coined by Edward Said in 1978) refugee children are defined and labeled as different – they do not fit in with the norms of Greek society, specifically when it comes to the behavior of children. This process influences how people perceive Greek children as part of their in-group children, making refugee children part of the out-group. To sum it up, it is about “us” and “them”. When put in connection with terms like ‘wild’ or ‘dangerous’ refugee children are perceived by some as barbarian figures (Zsófia 2018: 392). This conception does not make a refugee child evil, rather the child is unknown and thereby unpredictable. In this framework, refugee children need to be changed, or even tamed in order to make them acceptable to the host’s in-group (Zsófia 2018: 392). It is understandable that this process does not happen without opposition. Whilst speaking to the teacher, she shared her frustration about the lack of willingness refugee children to change their behavior:
“We tried to explain that we were trying to help them. […] but they did not understand. They thought that we were their enemies and they were the victims. They did not understand that we were trying to help them.” (Personal communication).
Linked to this perception is the fact that some Greek spectators overlap their assumptions about Roma and Sinti children with refugee children. When asked about refugee children, a friend of mine told me that she thinks “of those little kids that, you know there is this assumption that they are sent by their parents […] basically just begging. The Sinti and Roma basically.” (Personal communication). In Europe, the portrayal of Sinti and Roma is clouded with myths and assumptions – essentially, they are perceived as nomadic outsiders (Petrova 2003: 113). When framed through this depiction, refugee children are immediately stigmatized and perceived as “other”. It is as though refugee children are viewed through a colonial lens, one that categorizes the refugee community in a lower hierarchical position than the native community.
The experience and effect of trauma
There are numerous studies identifying links between experienced trauma and problematic social adjustment of refugee children. In relation to the stigmatization of refugee children in Greece, it is important to note that it is unclear if culture or ethnicity are relevant to the discussion that follows, and therefore these two concepts should be disentangled. (Hodes 2000: 63). ‘Typical’ traumatic experiences before arriving in the country of refuge include persecution or fear thereof; experiencing or witnessing violence of war; direct or indirect suffering from loss or murder of family or their community (Hart 2009: 354). Sources of distress and trauma are not limited to a child’s experience before they flee their country of origin. In fact, there are many factors during and after migration that strain a child’s mental health. These experiences include the dangers of their often-prolonged journey to a country of refuge, separation from their family and community and poor accommodation (Hart 2009: 354). Furthermore, child refugees experience alienation, much of which is caused by persecution and racism (Hart 2009: 354). A number of these experiences are shared by children arriving in Greece. Moreover, unlike other immigrants, child refugees are confronted with a greater sense of social instability, one that is only intensified through stigmatism and exclusion (Hart 2009: 354).
The effects of trauma are diverse, not all children’s emotional wellbeing is affected in the same way. Studies suggest that between 15% and 90% of children exposed to trauma develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a rate that is higher than that of adults.(Hart 2009: 355). The symptoms of PTSD are varied. These include depression, heightened anxiety, aggression, self-harming behaviors, and adjustment disorders, just to name a few (Hodes 2000: 60-61).
The effects of PTSD in refugee children are serious and may be persistent. A vicious cycle can develop, by which the effects not only alienate children from within, but can also cause misinformed bystanders to interpret their behavior through a lens of stigma. Studies of refugee children suggest that the symptoms PTSD are socially impairing (Hodes 2000: 61). In school settings, refugee children may exhibit poor concentration, develop learning disabilities, and show little progress in new language acquisition (Hodes 2000: 61). Simultaneously, refugee children are often exposed to bullying and isolation from their peers, increasing their social vulnerability further (Hart 2009: 356).
However, many refugee children also show remarkable ability to cope. It is often pointed out that some children are more resilient than others (Hodes 2000: 62). Resilience is a term used to describe a number of processes and mechanisms that allow children to engage with stress-inducing events either before, during or after they are experienced. Resilience is enhanced through a number of factors including the protective factor of family, who act as a buffer to the psychological processing of adverse events (Hodes 2000: 53).
Spatial separation and segregation of refugee children
Lastly, the spatial separation of the RACs and the lack of communication between them and the schools contribute to the othering of refugee children even more. The RACs are either located on the outskirts of communities or in rural areas, thus far away from the schools. Bus rides to school can take up to two hours for some refugee children. The spatial distance encourages social distance between the native and refugee community. According to one study, the placement of refugees RACs encourages social exclusion and “territorial stigmatization” but also for segregation within the education system (Vergou 2019: 3174). Not only is it difficult for children to build relationships with native children outside of the few hours of school they have, native parents and teachers also do not interact with the refugee community. The teacher told me that she found it extremely difficult to develop a relationship to the parents of refugee children. Her attempts were hindered by administrative obstacles:
“we could not communicate. It would have been helpful, especially for the children. The director and the manager of the camp did not allow us to have any communication with the psychologists in the camp.”
She ended up visiting Malakasa Camp in order to speak to the parents of the children she taught. Reflecting on her experience she told me that “After going to camp I felt that I understood them”. Her statement is proof that a simple step towards those deemed unfamiliar can help to overcome xenophobic assumptions.
Throughout the analysis of this case study, it has become clear the simple dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can strongly impact and limit the way that refugee and migrant children are perceived. Although the stigmaziation of refugee and migrant children is a specific, and overall minor occurrence, the stigmatization still exists throughout the Greek community. As the interviews have shown, assumptions about refugee children prevail among parents and young adults. The processes of ‘othering’ children is highly problematic, and will – if not addressed properly – lead to the hardening of divisions in the future. Discrimination and prejudice hinder the way to an understanding and inclusive climate in schools and the wider Greek community. Thankfully, several campaigns have been launched to battle discrimination against refugee and migrant children in Greece. These include the “School for All” project launched by the European Wergeland Centre as well as a number of anti-discrimination workshops with children and adolescents in Greek schools.
Refugee and migrant children deserve to heal from their experiences, and not to be judged for them. This process should be aided by inclusion and unquestioned integration into the education system. A sense of normality and routine is key for healing, and if denied for much longer, their wounds could transform into resentment. Overall, it is vital to remember that refugee children -and all the stigmas attached to their character and their being – are just children after all. Children that long to be accepted and to be loved.
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