A Harsh New Reality: Transactional Sex Among Refugee Minors As a Means of Survival in Greece

By Vasileia Digidiki

Creative Commons photo of a square in Pedion tou Areos, does not imply that people shown are involved in transactional sex.

Nine months after the historic agreement between the European Union and Turkey,[1] approximately 60,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece, waiting and hoping for another chance at resettlement in a safe country, away from the violence, war, and persecution they faced at home. Among these are an estimated 2,300 unaccompanied minors.[2] Continued daily arrivals further increase the number of vulnerable people stranded in Greece, as European countries impose additional bureaucratic, political, and societal obstacles to delay the resettlement hopes of this vulnerable population. With the threat of the EU Dublin Regulation deporting refugees stranded in other parts of Europe back to Greece in the spring of 2017, the situation will only become worse.[3]

The majority of those stranded have been stuck in Greece for an average of more than eight months with no systematic access to information about their asylum process. They live in precarious areas which expose them and their families to severe risks, leading to increased anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about the future—and also solidifying their desire to seek alternative ways to reach their intended destinations. Ready, able, and eager for profit, the smuggling industry preys on these most vulnerable people, offering them hope and a solution in exchange for exorbitant amounts of money. Many distress migrants have already exhausted their financial resources during earlier phases of their flight from home. With no viable work options in Greece due to the ongoing economic crisis,[4] a significant minority  are forced to engage in transactional sex, criminal activities, and begging to survive and secure funding for further travel. The most vulnerable refugee population of all, unaccompanied minors, are particularly at risk in this new reality.[5]

In Athens, the capital of Greece, unaccompanied male minors blend in among the quiet rhythms of life in Victoria Square or Pedion tou Areos, waiting for potential clients to approach.[6] Hiding in plain sight, clients approach them with relative ease.  All it takes is one bench and a cigarette for the initial connection between the minor and the client to happen and for the rest of the exploitative interaction to unfold. Occasionally, an intermediary can be identified walking around the Square, making sure that clients connect with the displaced children. For 5 or 10 Euros,[7] these adolescents make themselves available and are at the mercy of their clients.  Some are taken a few meters away to perform sexual services behind trees or bushes; some are taken to a private location with a bed and the possibility of a shower, clean clothes, sometimes even a meal. With the police station only a few meters away, and with hundreds of unaware Athenians an arm’s length away, the cruel reality of what these minors are forced to endure is shocking, evident to any concerned passerby.

In the words of one teenager, “I told myself, ‘look at yourself, you came to Europe, what was your aim?’ I am not doing this because I like it. If I wanted to do something I like, I would date a girl. [But] because I don’t have the money I don’t have a choice.”[8] This tragedy is exacerbated by the fact that many of these minors will never be able to obtain the funds required by smugglers to continue their journey and will eventually become trapped in the sex industry for what could be a considerable period of time.

As networks promoting transactional sex for migrant children spread to other cities, the numbers of affected minors increase. With many European child protection schemes overstretched and poorly funded, and with no functional legal mechanisms in place to help these children escape a limbo of uncertainty, many turn to smugglers to help them realize their dreams of building a better life and helping those they left behind. In the absence of robust protective mechanisms, smugglers are likely to continue to play a critical role as this human crisis evolves.

Europe is at a crossroads. If no appropriate and engaged child protection interventions are established, there is a very real risk that a burgeoning migrant child sex trade will grow unchecked in the heart of some of the world’s historic and cultural capitals, as indifferent citizens stand by. At the very least, Europe needs to increase funding for local child protection and welfare systems across the region and task them with mainstreaming children on the move into existing domestic protection and welfare systems. Only through robust integration of child migrants into domestic systems, can these children begin to establish a modicum of security and protection as they wait to achieve a more permanent resolution in their fractured lives. An essential element in this mainstreaming strategy is the urgent need for European state authorities to collaborate in facilitating and increasing cross-country coordination between regional child protection and welfare systems. The goal is not to prevent the most vulnerable of children from moving to safety and to better life options, but to ensure that they can do so in safety and with the protections promised for decades by European human rights principles.

Vasileia Digidiki is a psychologist and a visiting scholar at FXB. This post is based on her research in Greece for a forthcoming report from the FXB Center, slated to be released in January 2017, which will explore the sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children in Greece.

Photo of a square in Pedion tou Areos, By Grzegorz Wysocki Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6701236


[1] Jacqueline Bhabha and Vaseila Digidiki, “The Mean Bargain: The EU/Turkey Refugee and Migrant Deal,” FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University website, April 18, 2016.

[2] Note that this number represents unaccompanied children who have registered with the authorities. EKKA (National Center for Social Solidarity), “Situation Update:  Unaccompanied children in Greece as of 17 November, 2016.” Available on the UN High Commissioner of Refugees website: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/country.php?id=83.

[3] Harriet Agerholm, “EU says member states can start deporting refugees and migrants back to Greece from March,” Independent, December 8, 2016. For more information about the Dublin Regulation, see the European Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs webpage explanation.

[4] Asylum seekers that have started the asylum process receive work permission in Greece; however, the extremely high rates of unemployment in Greece make it even harder for them to find a job.

[5] Fillipo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also acknowledged this new reality when he stated during a visit to Greece, “Unaccompanied minors are extremely exposed to exploitation of many kinds and in particular sexual exploitation. There is a lot of survival sex that is happening, there is sexual harassment and sexual abuse. I think that this is something we cannot tolerate, in particular in the European Union.” As quoted in Helena Smith, “Conditions for Greece’s migrant children shocking, says Human Rights Watch,” The Guardian, September 8, 2016.

[6] Pedion tou Areos, is one of the largest public green spaces in Athens covering an area of 27.7 hectares.

[7] According to volunteers working in the area.

[8] Quoted in Arwa Damon, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Clayton Nagel, “The teenage refugees selling sex on Athens streets,” The CNN freedom project, November 30, 2016.