17 DECEMBER 2021
Asylum seeker, age 17: “My rights!”
“When I arrived in Athens, I didn’t know anyone. I was all alone. In Omonia Square, I met some of my compatriots and explained to them that I had no place to go and no place to stay and that I needed help. They said that I should visit Velos Youth. They told me it’s a place that helps unaccompanied minors and young refugees.”
M.D.A.J., who arrived in our country in early 2020 at the age of 16, was one of the lucky ones, as he found refuge in the offices of a small, active organisation working to support young refugees who are asylum seekers. Velos Youth has its offices on the 7th floor of a block of flats on George Street, a stone’s throw from the Archaeological Museum of Athens. The 120 m2 space is an informal youth centre where unaccompanied young refugees can be safe during the day and also cover their basic daily needs, benefiting from free meals, facilities for taking a bath and opportunities for creative employment. Velos Youth also provides legal assistance at the first and second degree to children and asylum seekers.
Mustafa Mohammad, the Director of the Velos Youth, is a Syrian refugee who arrived in our country a few years ago and has first-hand knowledge of what it means to start a new life from scratch, away from home, friends and family. Since 2017, when Velos Youth began its activity, it has helped thousands of young people get on their feet, trying to cover their basic needs with help from other organisations. “Velos Youth began as an initiative of volunteers who found themselves in the field and collaborated with other organisations, trying to find ways around the weaknesses and bureaucratic obstacles of official policy. The organisation has focused all its activities on the sensitive age group of 16–21-year-olds, for whom not enough organisations and structures are available in Greece,” adds Mustafa, describing in just a few words the organisation’s profile.
In February 2021, Velos Youth, in partnership with Equal Rights Beyond Borders, launched a new project, “My Rights!”, implemented under the Active citizens fund programme for Greece, whose funding is jointly managed by Bodossaki Foundation and SolidarityNow as Fund Operator This is a project that helps unaccompanied minors to apply for asylum – in other words, to exercise an inalienable right of theirs. Being granted asylum in Greece is a demanding and time-consuming process. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even more difficult, with appointments for applicant minors scheduled with over five months of waiting time, according to the data of the project partner Equal Rights Beyond Borders.
M.D.A.J., from Bangladesh, is one of the programme’s 110 beneficiary minors. The 17-year-old is applying for asylum and has also applied for family reunification according to the Dublin Regulation, with his relatives in France. Whether he will be considered a refugee or not will be decided by the Asylum Service of the Ministry of Immigration, through a procedure that could certainly be simpler and faster. “It is very difficult to understand what you need to do in order to apply for asylum and be reunited with the members of your family. Procedures in the Asylum Service are slow and complicated. The whole process and the time required affect you… Most of the time, the stress levels I have are very high,” says M.D.A.J., his eyes expressing all his distress and weariness, as well as the uncertainty that he feels about his future.
The 17-year-old asylum seeker expresses his joy for being included in the programme “My Rights!” and speaks about the bureaucratic difficulties he has encountered in trying to apply for asylum in Greece. “The offices of the Asylum Service are always crowded and its website is not easy to use. Also, because of the pandemic, from March 2020 access to the services became even more difficult, with communication being limited to sending emails only, which are answered after a long period of time. The lawyer of the programme “My Rights!”, Iliana Bobou, helped me a lot to understand what I needed to do and what is the best way to proceed with the procedures for my reunification with members of my family in France, explaining in detail the legal steps I need to take. Throughout the process, an intercultural mediator was by our side with us and her help was valuable, because I speak neither Greek or English”.
Velos Youth Director Mustafa Mohammad explains to us why the applications to participate in the programme “My Rights!” have already exceeded by far the capacity of the organisation and the number of positions offered: “Legal assistance is absolutely necessary for obtaining asylum in Greece. For someone who does not know the language and the procedures, following the proper legal steps is very difficult.” At the same time, the organisation is trying to provide holistic assistance to unaccompanied young refugees by offering liaison services with other agencies, for responding to requests regarding basic needs and healthcare services.
For example, the process of finding accommodation for 17-year-old M.D.A.J. in a youth hostel has taken several months. According to Equal Rights Beyond Borders, about 900 unaccompanied minor asylum seekers are waiting their turn to obtain safe and decent housing, while ongoing developments on asylum issues are constantly changing the legal situation for unaccompanied refugees.
Despite the difficulties, Mustafa Muhammad seems determined to continue the work of Velos Youth, providing assistance to a sensitive age group: “Our daily routine is to confront bureaucracy, xenophobia and the lack of a stable political integration. We left our homes and families to survive war, torture and death. Being here is not a matter of choice, because actually we had none. We are here to restart our lives, with new friends, working together to improve things for all of us…”
The story “Asylum seeker, age 17: My rights!” was published in tvxs.gr