Mohammed is approached by a middle-aged man wearing greasy beige pants, a blue shirt and a blue baseball cap. Although the man speaks Greek, the 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan knows exactly what he wants. "No," Mohammad repeatedly says in English, his voice cracking and his eyes filling with tears. But the man keeps pushing. "Come with me. I will give you food, pay you."
The man only stops when he realizes he is being watched. He then grudgingly walks away and sits down on a nearby bench. From there, he starts scouring the field again, searching for another boy.
It was broad daylight on a sunny Tuesday morning on Victoria Square in the heart of Athens. The square has been a meeting place and a makeshift home for thousands of migrants since the refugee crisis hit Greece two years ago - and now it is increasingly becoming a prostitution hub for underage refugees.
Mohammad hasn't gone that far yet, but he says it is only a matter of time until he goes home with a man. He has just 30 euros left in his pocket, and he is quickly losing hope. "When this money runs out, I fear I will have no other choice but do what the others are doing. Have sex with these older men. What should I do? I have no place to stay, nothing to eat. Should I just die in the park?" he says, finally bursting into tears.
Mohammed says he lost his parents in an attack in Afghanistan. He has been in Athens for a month, he says, after fleeing his home alone and reaching the Greek island of Lesbos last February, where he registered as a minor. He then claimed to be an adult to escape the violence in the island's notorious Moria camp. Since then, despite looking very much like a teenager, with pimples, a small stature and thin voice, he has been turned away from shelters for minors. When night comes, Mohammad rolls himself up in a blanket on a corner of the square.
His only possession is a yellow envelope that he guards closely. Inside, he keeps his refugee registration papers and a single-page CV. According to Mohammad's papers, he applied for asylum in Lesbos in November 2016. The date set for his interview is January 4, 2018.
It is mostly boys from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria - who either came alone or were separated from their families along their perilous journey to Europe - who are now waiting for their refugee claims to be processed in Greece. In the meantime, the authorities are supposed to look after them, but there are only 53 shelters with 1,272 spots. Of the approximately 2,000 registered minors, about 800 are housed in large camps, are in police custody or are homeless.
'Life is Hard'
Ahmad, another teenager from Afghanistan, has already taken the step that Mohammad is desperately trying to avoid. He was 15 when he left Kandahar two years ago, the oldest of seven children. His father sold a plot of land to pay the 2,000 euros smugglers demanded to take him to Turkey. Ahmad's instructions were to go to the United Kingdom or Germany and find a job to send money back to the family. Instead he is prostituting himself in Athens.
"My job in Athens for the past year and a half is to have sex for money," says the thin boy, who speaks like an adult. "Life is hard and sometimes life makes people do hard things." When he ran out of money in Athens, Ahmad says he faced three choices: sell drugs, join a smuggling ring or prostitution. He chose the latter.
Ahmad looks like a typical teenager. He wears washed-out jeans, a white T-shirt, a denim jacket and sneakers. Like most young people his age, he is always busy with his smartphone. But not for fun: There are countless messages between him and the dozen or so adult Greek men he calls "my clients."
When one of his clients calls him, Ahmad puts him on speaker. "Come to Eleonas metro station at 5 p.m.," he says. It's already 4:30 p.m. and Ahmad sets off immediately, followed by another teenager Ahmad refers to as "my apprentice." The apprentice never speaks, his task is to observe how Ahmad works so he too can enter the sex trade. Ahmad reaches the rendezvous point 15 minutes late, but the client is still there, waiting. Ahmad approaches his car and steps inside. A few minutes later he emerges.
Ahmad talks about his new life without emotion. He lists the prices matter-of-factly: 50 euros for oral sex, more for normal sex, depending on the duration. Ahmad's goal is to save 5,000 euros, that's how much a fake passport and a plane ticket to Germany cost. He says he has only saved up 1,500 euros so far: He has to spend part of his income on food, clothing and his phone. "And I save 200 euros for my family in Afghanistan every month."
If you spend a couple of days on Victoria Square and in the nearby parks, you see numerous young people like Ahmad. They ply their trade openly, under the gaze of police officers, passersby and café customers.
The men sit down next to the teenagers on benches and start talking to them. "Are you hungry?" an older man asks one of the boys. The migrant nods and the man gives him a bag of chips. They chat, they touch and a few minutes later they leave the park together, the man's arm resting on the young migrant's shoulder.
Failure of Authorities
Everyone - the authorities, the NGO workers, the police - know what is going on. But nobody seems willing or able to do anything about it.
And this despite the fact that the adult clients are breaking the law, despite the fact that various institutions have devoted themselves to protecting young refugees. But prostitution is booming because the system is failing. Because Greece doesn't have the resources to take care of underage refugees. Because the processing of asylum applications is chaotic and authorities from one agency don't know what authorities from other agencies are doing. And because the boys need to file criminal complaints before their clients can be prosecuted.
Since 2016, Christos Hombas, an employee of the National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), an agency belonging to the Social Affairs Ministry, has received more than 6,500 referrals of minors in need of assistance, many of them relating to abuse, sexual exploitation and other kinds of assault against underage refugees. Hombas, a young, articulate psychologist, is soft spoken, but becomes exasperated when talking about the system's failures. He says there is a new crisis to deal with every day, such as picking up underage migrants from detention centers. They are kept there by the police when they are arrested, usually as they try to flee their shelters and the country. By the last count, there were 56 underage migrants in police custody - partly because nobody knows what to do with them.
Hombas describes confused notions of authority between the European Union and Athens, which has meant that the 1 billion euros in aid from Brussels only reaches the refugees after significant delay. Repeatedly, shelters have to be temporarily closed or reduced in size. Making things worse is the fact that refugee claims are only being processed slowly, meaning that some youths spend years in shelters.
Even a well-seasoned social worker like Marleen Korthals Altes is surprised by how chaotic the Greek system is. Korthals Altes is from the Netherlands and works as a senior child protection advisor with the NGO Save the Children, which runs one of the country's 30 long-term shelters: "I have worked in Congo, Sierra Leone, Kenya, the Central African Republic and Mali. But Greece is the most complex place I have ever experienced," she says, sitting in a cafeteria in Victoria Square.
She says the legislation is complex, processes change all the time, there are ad hoc decisions or no decisions being made, a lack of coordination, and a variety of different practices in different places for the handling of the same kinds of cases. "We are talking about adolescents who have to wait endlessly for their asylum process to be completed, who feel they are wasting their time here, who don't understand why it takes a year to know if family reunification can happen," she says. "They have no work, they don't go to school, they receive no money. This situation has a huge impact on their psychosocial state."
Even when the youths find a shelter, there is little to do there - and nothing to keep them from drifting into prostitution.
Urgent Need for Reform
Seventeen-year-old Arash, from the Badghis Province in Afghanistan, has been in Athens for over a year and lives in a shelter run by an NGO. He initially rejected the men's advances in the park. "I was afraid, I thought: I can't do that. But after a few months I had no more money. So I said yes, it is wrong but I need money." Since then he has been earning his money with sex, around 100 euros per month. He says if he could find other work, he would stop immediately. But he's not allowed to work, and who wants to hire a 17-year-old? "When we have sex with an old man, we feel bad. This is the last resort. When you are a refugee and there is no one to support you, you must do these things."
He is ashamed, and above all else, doesn't want his family to find out. "I don't want to add to their problems by telling them what is going on." As for the shelter? When he tells the staff he has a problem, he says, they just say: "The door is open."
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2017 (May 13, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
Arash's best friend from the shelter is Mahmud, a thin, clean-cut 15-year old boy with a daredevil attitude and inquisitive, smart eyes. Mahmud says he would never prostitute himself, but he toys with men who want that from him. Mahmud proudly points to his brand-new sneakers. "There is a man who calls me every day. He buys me clothes, dinner, and makes me promise I will go to his home. I take the things, but never go to him," he says, laughing.
Harvard professor Jacqueline Bhabha co-authored a scorching report about the situation of migrant children in Greece. She accuses the EU of being "guilty of a massive dereliction of responsibility" when it comes to underage refugees. "Giving children shelter and food is not enough. They need a future, education, work," she says. Bhabha and the report's co-author Vasileia Digidiki urge the Greek government to end the practice of detention, create additional specialized shelters for victims of abuse and exploitation, appoint well-trained guardians to protect children, establish an independent mechanism to oversee NGOs and, as an "urgent priority," integrate all migrant children into the formal Greek educational system.
But for Mohammad, Arash and Ahmad, all of this might happen too late.
Ahmad, the teenager with the vast client list, says he has long-since abandoned any hope of making a decent life in Greece. "I tell myself, do this just once in your life. Do this and then you will be finished. You will have the money, and then leave. This book will be closed."
He dreams of studying law or journalism, ideally in Germany. "And with my diploma in hand, I can one day return home and tell my family: I made it."