Gholam Reza Hassanpour ~ Testimony ~ United Nations Human Rights Council ~ Geneva, Switzerland ~ June 9, 2017
Good afternoon excellencies and distinguished guests.
My name is Gholam Reza Hassanpour, and I am a former unaccompanied refugee child. Today I’d like to share with you my experiences—which are the experiences of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children around the world.
MY STORY I was born in Afghanistan in 1990 and fled to Iran together with my family in my early childhood. Growing up in Iran as an Afghan refugee was extremely difficult. We did not have enough money for health care, or to enrol in school. Even with a valid “residency permit” I felt under constant threat of deportation. I decided to leave my family behind in Iran and flee towards Europe. That was a very hard decision to make, going away all by myself and leaving all my family behind. It was an extremely dangerous journey and too much money for the whole family to take. At that time, I was only 16 years old.
But faced with no other options, I started my new journey to seek safety and protection along with five friends. It was an extremely difficult journey, and more than once I nearly lost my life. It began at the Iran-Turkey border, where we paid a smuggler to lead us into Turkey. We walked for ten nights and hid inside caves and holes in the mountains during the daytime to avoid arrest. On the last night, border guards approached our caravan and we were ordered to run, left deserted.
I was running around terrified, having no idea where I was going. Stopping at one point, and looking around, I realized that I was all alone. I called out for my friends but got no answer. I eventually found only three of my friends, but it was dark and we couldn’t see, so we had to trace our way back to the smugglers by feeling their footprints on the ground. We shouted out the names of our two missing friends, but the smugglers held us at gunpoint telling us to shut up, lest we risk being detected.
Fifty of us were then crammed into the back of a small truck that would take us into Turkey. But we were detected and arrested by the Turkish army who detained us in a makeshift camp, outdoors, subjected to rain and freezing temperatures. During those days, food was scarce. One especially cold night, we begged the soldiers to let us inside because we were freezing, but they only pointed their guns at us. We were so cold, tired and hopeless that we spread our arms and yelled at them to shoot us and end our misery.
The Turkish border guards took us back to the border with Iran and simply left us there. We knew there were groups of traffickers in the border region that would capture refugees and hold them hostage. We managed to evade them for a whole day, starving and thirsty, but were eventually forced to surrender to them out of desperation. As the traffickers drove us away in a small truck, we felt trapped—already in the hands of trafficking; with Iranian border guards on one side; and the Turkish border guards on the other.
At a house owned by one of the traffickers, we were told: “I bought you, and I need to be paid in order to set you free”. We told them that we had no money, but one of the traffickers grabbed me, saying in that case he would begin by torturing the youngest of us to death. Eventually we were able to pay for our release and arrived to Istanbul. The Turkish coast guard was patrolling the waters to stop people from leaving so—exhausted and starved—we embarked on an overcrowded lifeboat in the middle of the night. None of us could swim. I had never even seen the ocean before.
We rowed for five hours until we reached the shores of a new country. We climbed up towards a road, and started walking. We drank water out of discarded bottles we found on the street, and lived on fruit that we cut from trees. We waved at vehicles passing by, but no one would stop to help us. We were told we were on the island of Lesvos.
We went to the authorities to turn ourselves in—thinking that finally, in Europe, we would be safe. But the Greek coast guards detained us in a small room, asking us “do you have money, do you have mobile phones?”
When we answered “no”, they threw us against a wall and kicked us in the genitals, repeating the same questions over and over again. After some time, they let us go, ordering us to “go to police station” and turn ourselves in, as if we were common criminals. The policemen then took us to a detention centre where children and adults were held together, in miserable conditions. There was only one toilet and one bathroom for fifty people. We were allowed only thirty minutes a day outside in the yard, and no contact with anyone on the outside. Not even the authorities themselves came to visit us. I stayed in this camp for two weeks.
Eventually, I was allowed to come to Athens where I shared a room with ten other Afghanis, and got a job as a tailor. I worked twelve hours a day. But after living like this for a year, I realized that I had not come all this way and had not risked death many times over just for this. I wanted first and foremost to live to get an education, to help my family, to do the things that every young person dreams of for their life.
I made contact with a Greek NGO, who helped me to learn the Greek language, to register in school, and slowly I started finding my way. I waited for seven years for my asylum application to be examined, but finally, after lots of patience I was recognized as a refugee. Later on and with great personal effort, I managed to acquire Greek citizenship just last month. For the last six years I have been an interpreter for the Greek Council for Refugees, helping to provide legal and social support to other unaccompanied child refugees and asylum seekers.
RECOMMENDATIONS I want to stress that throughout the course of our journeys, the lives of unaccompanied children are in great danger. Smugglers, traffickers, border guards, police, or even fellow travelers take advantage of us, and everywhere I’ve been, I’ve witnessed children become the targets of violence, exploitation, rape and abuse. There is still much work to be done if we are to make real progress for the protection of unaccompanied children, so I want to end my remarks with three concrete recommendations that I hope the Council will include in its next resolution on unaccompanied migrant children:
It is extremely important that child protection officers are present at every step in the migration journey to ensure that children’s best interests are safeguarded. Child protection officers—not police or border guards—should be making decisions on what is best for unaccompanied children.
There is an urgent need for children to have access to fundamental services such as interpretation, psychological support, education, health care and asylum procedures. And there must be firewalls or other safeguards between children’s access to these services and the migration enforcement functions of police and border guards. Unaccompanied children will not seek help if they know they will be arrested, detained, or threatened with deportation.
At all times, children must be provided with adequate shelter and proper reception services. This means, among other things, immediately ending the detention of children simply for the so called “crime” of migration or in the name of “protective detention”. Children deserve appropriate care, protection and support, not closed camps, “hot spots”, and other forms of immigration detention. Immigration-related detention is never in the best interests of the child.
The ultimate solution would be, of course, to stop the wars in our countries so that children don’t have to flee from our homes. That is the goal towards which we should all be striving. But in absence of peace, we must ensure that children especially unaccompanied children are protected.
CONCLUSION Thank you so much for attentively listening to me and I hope that my words echo the voices of all unaccompanied minors. I wish for a future where no child will ever be left alone, for any reason whatsoever.
This blog post is part of the Five Year Anniversary Series commemorating the Global Campaign to End Child Immigration Detention. For more information and to get involved, please visit endchilddetention.org