Refugee children stranded in European transit countries suffer psychologically from uncertainty

4th May 2017

DUBLIN / NEW YORK / GENEVA, 4 May 2017 – Nearly 75,000 refugees and migrants, including an estimated 24,600 children, currently stranded in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Western Balkans are at risk of psycho-social distress caused by living in a protracted state of limbo, UNICEF warned today. Despite having a legitimate right to join families in destination countries in Western Europe, like Germany or Sweden, most stranded asylum seekers do not know whether or when they will be permitted to move forward.

The situation is particularly acute for single mothers and children stuck in Greece or the Balkans waiting for reunification with family members in other EU countries. In many cases, adult males are the first family members to make the trip to Europe, with the rest of the family following later. But with the 2016 border closures and implementation of the EU-Turkey statement, other family members are being held up in transit countries from where they must apply for family reunification with their loved ones – a process that typically takes between 10 months and two years.

“We are seeing single mothers and children stranded in Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria who have not seen their husbands and fathers for months or even years,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe. “The family reunification process is slow, and its outcome uncertain, and it is this uncertainty which can cause significant emotional distress and anxiety for children and families, setting them back for years to come.”

UNICEF and its partners in Greece are monitoring mental health and general depression among single mothers and children waiting for family reunification and providing psycho-social support. “Many single mothers are feeling stuck and seem to have lost motivation,” said Sofia Tzelepi a lawyer working with UNICEF partner Solidarity Now. “Their emotional state affects their children.”

Most of the family reunification requests originate from children and separated family members stranded in Greece, but because of the caseload and involvement of at least two EU member states, the process can be painstakingly slow. In 2016, nearly 5,000 family reunification requests, out of which 700 from unaccompanied and separated children, were made from Greece, with only 1,107 successful applicants having reached their destination country by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the number of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, Hungary and the Western Balkans continues to grow – increasing by around 60 per cent over the past year from 47,000 in March 2016 to nearly 80,000 at the end of April.

“Keeping families together is the best way to ensure that children are protected, which is why the family reunification process for refugee and migrant children is so important,” said Khan. “With the number of those stranded continuing to rise, it is incumbent on member states to alleviate procedural bottlenecks so that families can get back together as quickly as possible.”

UNICEF continues to provide psycho-social support to refugee and migrant children and families in Greece and the Western Balkans, including:


Notes to Editors:

UNICEF’s Global policy asks for children on the move:

  1. Protect child refugees and migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, from exploitation and violence
  2. End the detention of children seeking refugee status or migrating
  3. Keep families together as the best way to protect children and give children legal status
  4. Keep all refugee and migrant children learning and give them access to health and other quality services
  5. Press for action on the underlying causes of large scale movements of refugees and migrants
  6. Promote measures to combat xenophobia, discrimination and marginalisation in countries of transit and destination

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UNICEF promotes the rights and well-being of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. UNICEF has been operating for 70 years.

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For more information, please contact:

Aedín Donnelly, Communications and Media Manager for UNICEF Ireland |

Tel: +353 1 809 0281 | Mob: +353 85 1395272

Christopher Tidey, UNICEF New York, +1 917 340 3017,

Sarah Crowe, UNICEF Geneva, + 41 79 543 80 29


Photo: Azhar Khalil, 18, from Kobani, Syrian Arab Republic, looks out of her family’s shelter at Skaramangas Refugee Camp in the port area of northern Athens, Greece, Thursday 9 March 2017. © UNICEF/UN057918/Gilbertson VII Photo
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