24th November 2016

ECPAT UK’s current Children’s Champion, solicitor Kalvir Kaur, recently returned from volunteering in Lesvos. Here she details her concerns that some refugee children arriving in Europe are being left vulnerable to exploitation.

As I was in-between jobs I thought I would make the most of my time and volunteer in Lesvos. My friend, based in Athens, had been doing a lot of volunteering there and was raising funds to support the refugee crisis; she very kindly agreed that I could spend my time with her.

We spent the first day in Mytilini during which we went to help out in Pikpa – home to the most vulnerable and those who have applied for asylum. Pikpa is a place run by The Village of Altogether, an association of volunteers. On the second day we drove to Skala Sikaminia in the north of the island, near Molyvos. Skala Sikaminia is a small fishing village in the mountains with a rocky dirt path to the west leading to Eftalou.

Across the water from Sikaminia one can see Turkey – it seems so near. It is across this stretch of water that many refugees arrive onto the shores of Sikaminia and thus Lesvos. They arrive on dangerously overcrowded rubber dinghies which lie low on the water.  Many people will be wet. Most will be emotional.

The refugees on the boats include children of both sexes and a range of ages. Some arrive with adults, some in groups and some alone.  They come from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

Sikaminia is now awash with NGOs and volunteers, journalists, and artists. Most do their respective tasks diligently and with integrity and the volunteers, in particular, are some of the most hard working and principled people I have ever met. However when the boats come in, and they can arrive at any time day or night, the environment suddenly takes on an unregulated air.

When the boats are nearing shore, the refugees are helped to come off the boat safely. The atmosphere is highly charged with emotion. While some people will give their child to volunteers to hold while they disembark, on other occasions I observed children being taken from the arms of the parent by a well-intended person without explicit permission. Children are then often passed to another volunteer who is aiding in the effort. On one occasion I saw a volunteer asking the child who their parent was. Considering the problems posed by the language barrier in these cases, it is hard to say how confident the volunteer could be in identifying the child’s parent or care giver. It was at that moment I understood the heightened risk of traffickers to children borne out of well-intended actions.

I saw volunteers change the clothes of young children whilst their parent and elder siblings stood by. It is easy to be caught up in this situation when someone is shouting at you to hold a child whilst they undress him/her or ask you to help dress the child, but this situation raises important questions about child protection. Who is the volunteer? What checks and balances have been put in place to ensure that the children are appropriately safeguarded? 

Some older children would start stripping out of their wet clothes and change into dry clothes and all of this was captured in photographs. I understand the impact a powerful photograph can have in helping to spread the message but I do not understand why some photographs were being taken seemingly absent of consent, particularly when the subject matter was so sensitive. I watched in horror as two photographers clicked away at a boy of about 15-16 whilst he stripped off his wet clothes. I heard one ask the child how old he was in English. The child didn't understand. The photographer told him he would be famous whilst he continued to take photographs of his semi-naked body. As this was in the dead of the night, the flash of the camera illuminating the boy created an additional feel of unease.   

I wondered where these photographs would end up? In whose hands? For whose viewing?

Did the camera trump the right to privacy and had consent become redundant in emergency response situations? What assessment of risk of harm to the child is undertaken before a decision is taken to publish the photograph? If none, why not?

I also saw an NGO worker standing with a young child about five or six with his arm around her and the NGO flag draped behind them posing for photographs. Whose informed consent was sought? What was the purpose of that photograph? Was it for the NGO’s publicity purposes? Was it for their funding purposes? Was it exploiting the child?

There is always someone taking photographs. It is unrelenting. So much so that I understand police officers were called out on at least one occasion because photographers were obstructing the work of the medics attending to the refugees. 

Whilst the situation is unique, and possibly one that majority of us will not have faced before, it seems as though the usual codes of conduct and child protection protocols that should be abided by are simply not always adhered to. In failing to do so the risk to children of being exploited, trafficked or separated from family is aggravated.

All those involved, including NGOs, volunteers and media organisations, must abide by child safeguarding policies and relevant child protection law.

This is something all those who go to Lesvos, or similar locations because of the refugee crisis, must be aware of - and ultimately seek to ensure they do no harm in their conduct and report concerns where necessary.

Kalvir Kaur is a solicitor and best practice contributor at ATLEU. In 2008 she was awarded the Legal Aid Lawyer Award for Asylum and Immigration and in 2014 was presented with ECPAT UK's Children's Champion Award. Guest blogs reflect the views of their authors and are not representative of ECPAT UK.