Mohammad, a refugee from Afghanistan, standing in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos. He has no contact to his parents.

Mohammad, a refugee from Afghanistan, standing in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos. He has no contact to his parents.

Foto: Nikos Pilos / Der Spiegel

Underage Refugees The Desperate Children of Moria

One boy has to sell his brother to the smugglers, another leaves his sister behind. DER SPIEGEL has spent months documenting the fates of four unaccompanied minors from the Moria camp on Lesbos. Not all of them make it to Germany.

There's no real beginning to this story. It could start in Iran, where a boy lived who left his brother work of a debt smuggler so he could get to Europe. Or in a room of the European Council building in Brussels, where, away from the meetings, like-minded people came together and made plans that ultimately were not approved.

It could also start in Moria, where children told aid workers they were offering sex to adults for a place in a tent. Or in Athens, where a prime minister made a promise to his voters to keep refugees out of the country.

It could even start with Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister, who, after a church service in Berlin, met someone who said he should really be doing something to help the children.

DER SPIEGEL 12/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2021 (March 20, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The story of the nearly 700 unaccompanied minors taken from Greek refugee camps since March 2020 has its beginnings in many places. The fact that these children were even allowed to enter the country is the result of months of political wrangling involving hundreds of participants. In the end, 13 countries in Europe specifically accepted children "most in need of protection.” Most of the unaccompanied minors had been living in Moria, the notorious camp located on the eastern side of the island of Lesbos. They were then sent to live in countries like Finland, Portugal, Ireland and Belgium. More than 200 of them are now in Germany.

The story of the children of Moria, four of whom we followed as part of the reporting for this article, is also about the fears European politicians have when it comes to one of the bloc's greatest unsolved problems: How to handle and distribute incoming refugees. Our reporting took us to Moria and Athens in Greece, to Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, and to the European Council, the powerful Brussels body that represents the leaders of the 27 European Union member states. This is also the story of how and why Europe chose these children and what it meant for the children chosen to wait while governments in Lisbon, Helsinki and Paris made decisions about their fates.

And it’s about what happens to those who are left behind.

Summer 2019

They were born in the Herat Valley in western Afghanistan, five children. Their father worked for the military. Shortly after he died, their home was attacked by arsonists, they believe it was the Taliban. Their youngest sister died in the flames. The family fled to Varamin, near Tehran in Iran, where they hawked chewing gum on the street. One sister got run over by car.

The eldest sister, Rahela, 23, set out with her husband, children and brother Nasir, 12. Their mother stayed behind in Iran with their youngest brother. They reached Turkey before then arriving in Lesbos in August 2019.

That’s how Rahela and Nasir tell it.

Journalists who visit the Moria camp, which will later go up in flames, come from the other side. Lesbos is a holiday island with hotel pools and cocktail happy hours. Coming from the capital, an asphalt road leads inland to Moria’s main entrance, a large metal gate with a sign hanging from it: "Co-funded by the European Union. Budget: 6,167,750 euros."

The site, a former military barracks for the 296th Battalion of the Greek National Guard that was closed in 2013, was converted into a reception center for refugees.

In 2015, the expanded Moria facility was declared a "hotspot,” a camp where human rights were to be respected and where a maximum of 2,800 refugees were to stay for a maximum of 30 days. A brief stopover on the way further north, the Greek government announced.

A hike up the hill next to it affords the best view of the camp. From up here, you can see the sea and the Turkish coast about 20 kilometers away, where the boats with the refugees are launched. You see tarp after tarp, corrugated iron after corrugated iron. They're connected by clotheslines, crossed by a river that is filled with diapers, plastic bottles and bags. That all disappears in the smoke of the campfires.

Outside the camp’s fences, tents and shacks are growing along the side of the mountain like weeds. The refugees call the slope "the jungle.” Rahela, her husband and their children find a place in a tent there. Nasir, her brother, sleeps in a barrack 10 minutes away, on a wooden pallet. He is one of more than 500 children in the grove.

Children in Moria playing with water bottles. Mohammad is standing to the right.

Children in Moria playing with water bottles. Mohammad is standing to the right.

Foto: Nikos Pilos / DER SPIEGEL

Autumn 2019

The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, reports that there are 12,600 people in Moria in October 2019 – the camp is completely overcrowded. And refugees are still coming into the country despite the EU’s deal with Turkey. Moria is no longer just a stopover on the way north. It usually takes a long time before refugees can apply for asylum, it often takes months before they get a hearing date and it sometimes takes years before a decision is made.

The camp has long since become a conundrum, a place that looks different from every angle.

Moria is supposed to be synonymous with the horrors people wanting to come to the Continent will face if they make it to Europe. Headlines about the overcrowding, violence and hopelessness appear in media outlets around the world, including the countries the refugees come from like Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. "The Island of the Damned,” "Unfathomable Conditions” and "Moria Is a Disgrace” are but a sampling of the headlines.

A staff member of a German government ministry will later say in an off-the-record conversation that the news and images are politically desired, that they're meant to send the message: Don’t set off for Europe – don’t place yourself in danger, it’s not worth it.

At the same time, the news from the camp that reaches Europe can never get so bad that Europeans might think they are betraying their principles.

On Oct. 30, Boris Pistorius, the interior minister of the German state of Lower Saxony, boards a plane for Athens before continuing on to Lesbos. He is just one of a long list of visitors to the camp since its opening, some prominent, others less so. The pope was here, as were the EU commissioner for home affairs, the French interior minister and actress Angelina Jolie.

Aid worker Elena Moustaka: Children have reported being raped.

Aid worker Elena Moustaka: Children have reported being raped.

Foto: Nikos Pilos / DER SPIEGEL

This is not Pistorius' first visit to Moria, having been here in 2016. At the time, the jungle didn’t exist yet. Now, he climbs up the slope, where he sees tents made of garbage bags with children running around, in a "pitiful state.” While on the hill, Pistorius tells a journalist with the German public broadcaster NDR who is traveling with him that the children need to be saved.

There are various ways that refugees can be accepted in Germany. Either they manage to make their way through and Germany becomes the first country where they register, at which time they can apply for asylum. Or they are allowed to enter as immediate relatives through family reunification procedures. Otherwise, they are given a place on a resettlement program that must be ordered by the Federal Interior Ministry. There are also state admission programs, but these too have to be approved by the Federal Interior Ministry.

Pistorius begins promoting his idea. In a conference call with the interior ministers of the other states led by the center-left Social Democrats, he suggests that the children ought to be brought to Germany. Together with his counterparts in the states of Thuringia and Berlin, he writes a letter to Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and requests that Berlin immediately launch a program to bring unaccompanied minors from the camps to Germany. Initially, the first letter and others are not successful.

Nasir and Rahela continue to live in the olive grove.

Refugee women learning English in the camp's school

Refugee women learning English in the camp's school

Foto: Nikos Pilos / DER SPIEGEL

Winter 2019/20

It's December and Elena Moustaka climbs up the hill of the jungle. The Cypriot national came to Lesbos in 2015, when there were still more trees than tents in the grove. She's now a refugee aid worker and has founded her own aid organization. "Better Days” provides care for refugees like unaccompanied minors who require more attention than others.

Moustaka even has the word "Moria” tattooed on her neck. She's been keeping close track of the conditions for the children in the camp this winter.

She has found children living without shoes. Some have said that they sleep with knives close by should they need it, others that they have been raped. She has discovered a group of 10 teenagers between 13 and 17 years old living in a shack in the jungle. At night, they keep watch at a fence they have built. Children tell her that other, stronger refugees would otherwise steal their food. Some say they were offering adults sex in exchange for a spot in a tent.

Mohammad, 16, arrived alone in Moria and looked for a place to sleep outdoors in the jungle. He’s from Afghanistan and last lived in Iran. His father gave him a bicycle for his 14th birthday, and for his 15th birthday, he gave him money so he could set off for Europe. This winter, after three months in the jungle, Mohammad moves to the official part of the camp, which is fenced off and divided into "sections.” There are four that are dedicated to underage refugees who are here without their mother or father. And they’re now living in containers instead of tents.

Mohammad says he no longer has any contact with his parents, that he can’t reach them. The stories the children tell, of course, frequently cannot be verified - even their ages and origins are sometimes obscured. Indeed, the lack of concrete, verifiable details sometimes help the children on their journey to Europe.

But there are also gaps in the narratives offered by politicians.

It’s only possible to understand the events leading up to the acceptance of the unaccompanied minors by looking back to the first weekend of September 2015 , when German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the decision to let in thousands of refugees who had been stranded in Hungary. The dispute over Merkel’s actions led to a rift within her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and in its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Interior Minister Seehofer of the CSU was especially critical of the decision. Some members of parliament with the two parties still speak today of that decision as a failure of the government. In off-the-record interviews in their offices in parliament, they say it is important not to make any more exceptions. They fear that Germany could once again send out the message that it welcomes refugees. They are also afraid of the voting public.

They make it sound almost as if German refugee policy is a giant that has finally fallen asleep again and shouldn't be awakened. No one wants to say or demand the wrong thing.

In Brussels, too, EU member states have been unable to agree on a common position. Several countries don’t want to take anyone in at all. The only thing they all seem to agree on is that the EU’s external borders need to be protected.

But the giant is stirring a bit this winter, as quiet demands are slowly becoming louder.

About a week before Christmas, around 60 members of the Bundestag and ministers with Merkel’s government, including the interior minister, meet in the St. Thomas von Aquin Church in Berlin for a service for members of parliament. After the mass, Prelate Karl Jüsten approaches Horst Seehofer. Jüsten, who acts as a kind of chief lobbyist for the Catholic Church in Berlin, says the minister should help the children. Jüsten also insists that it would provide Seehofer a political bonus as well.

Around the same time in Moria, Rahela’s brother Nasir falls ill in his barracks in the jungle. His bones and neck ache. He goes to the UNHCR tent, where he has already been told that the official part of the camp is full. "Hello, I’m just a kid," he says. "I’m sick. Why can’t I go in?"

Meanwhile, shortly before Christmas in Berlin, Green Party co-head Robert Habeck is once again drawing attention to children like Nasir. In an interview, he calls for thousands of refugees to be evacuated from overcrowded camps immediately, and one of the things he says is widely quoted: "Get the kids out first.” Seehofer responds via the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, saying that this is an "unhelpful proposal” with very "obvious timing” and that it's "dishonest politics.”

Nasir is admitted to the Safe Zone. On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus visits the children. He wears red trousers, a red coat and a gray beard. He has no presents. Mohammad says he’s never seen anything like it. "It was amazing,” he says.

Rahela with her husband and children: Her brother Nasir has made it to Germany.

Rahela with her husband and children: Her brother Nasir has made it to Germany.

Foto: Nikos Pilos / Der Spiegel

About a month later, on Jan. 29, Seehofer and Prelate Jüsten run into each other randomly at the Bundestag. By this point, much has been reported about the children in Moria, and Seehofer says to Jüsten that it would probably be possible to do something for the children, but Jüsten would have to help him convince the CDU/CSU members of parliament.

Doctors without Borders reports on the children’s situation in the Bundestag’s Internal Affairs Committee, and lobbyists from churches and aid organizations start making appointments in parliament.

In Moria, Nasir dreams of a life as a professional boxer.

On March 3, CDU member of parliament Thomas Rachel is sitting in his apartment. It’s late in the evening and Rachel is reading through print-outs. He sees a renewed motion from the Greens on the admission of people in need of protection from the camps, which will be voted on the next day. He begins writing a statement by hand, which he faxes to his office in the Bundestag. Members of the Bundestag usually vote in line with their party’s parliamentary group. By issuing a statement, though, politicians can go beyond a straight "yes" or "no" to more clearly express their position.

The next morning, Rachel starts looking for people to sign it with him. He walks through the corridors of the Bundestag, he addresses colleagues at the committee meeting and, two minutes before the Greens’ motion, the last of 49 members of the parliamentary group place their signatures on a letter stating that they would not agree to the motion, but saying it is urgent to help unaccompanied minor refugees where they are being hosted and that it should be made possible to bring them to Europe.

At the beginning of March, Jean Asselborn steps out of his official car in Brussels and enters the European Council building. The Luxembourg politician is the EU’s longest-serving foreign minister and he has already visited Moria twice. The issue isn’t on the agenda on this day, but Asselborn nevertheless has something in mind. Camera crews are waiting just beyond the entrance when Asselborn stops to address them: "We’ve been talking since Christmas about how to get these young people, who are alone, out of this hole. Now we are heading toward Easter. We can't go on like this and do nothing.”

Seehofer approaches Asselborn that day and praises his initiative. Behind the scenes, he also campaigns for a European approach.

A plan begins taking shape on the sidelines of the meetings, an approach that is often turned to in politics when a majority for the desired solution is out of reach. That approach is known as a "coalition of the willing” - a detour bypassing the main arterial.

A short time later, the European commissioner for home affairs will announce that some EU member states, including Germany, want to take in a total of 1,600 unaccompanied minors and other refugees from Greece in dire need.

On March 8, the coalition committee in Germany, which includes members of the Bundestag from the parties in the government coalition, converge for a meeting at Merkel’s Chancellery. The negotiations over Moria continue into the early hours of the morning. Alexander Dobrindt, the chair of the CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, is also there.

More than 90 percent of the unaccompanied minors in Greece are over 14 years old, and only 7 percent of all the children and adolescents are girls. Dobrindt should be familiar with these numbers. He pays close attention to every formulation that night, as someone in attendance would later report. The emphasis on "girls" was apparently incredibly important to him.

The coalition states in its decision that it wants to support Greece in the admission of refugees. "These are children who either require urgent treatment for a serious illness or are unaccompanied and under the age of 14, most of them girls.”

In Moria, Mohammad, 16, believes Germany is the best country in the world and starts learning German.

In Europe, a growing number of countries are going into lockdown because of the coronavirus, and no country in the coalition of the willing shows any willingness to make a first move in the following weeks. "Jean, you do what you can do,” the EU home affairs commissioner tells Luxembourg Foreign Minister Asselborn. On April 7, Asselborn announces that Luxembourg will be the first EU country to take in 12 children from Greek refugee camps.

Germany has no interest in coming in first in this race, but it also doesn’t want to be the last. It begins the process of accepting children into the country.

On April 10, the phone rings on the desk of Ilektra Vrioni, a staff member at the aid organization Praksis in Athens. It's the UNHCR. Vrioni is told that there will be a large transport of unaccompanied minors, and they need to quickly find children who could be eligible.

This marks the beginning of what some of the people involved will later call "the casting.”

Camp Moria: Children standing in line waiting for drinks.

Camp Moria: Children standing in line waiting for drinks.

Foto: Nikos Pilos / DER SPIEGEL

Spring 2020

On April 12, a boy in the camp is sitting across from a man from the UNHCR, who is asking him some questions.

Where are you from?

How old are you?

When did you arrive in Moria?

Soleiman, an 11-year-old from Iran, is wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt. He left for Europe with his parents, five sisters and three brothers. The family stayed behind in Turkey as Soleiman set off 11 times by rubber dinghy before finally reaching Lesbos on the 12th attempt. Claas Morgenstern, the UNHCR representative, once pulled refugees from boats as a helper on the beach. He now serves as a "senior child protection assistant.”

At this point in time, there are around 1,100 unaccompanied minors living on Lesbos and helpers have set out to find the children for the German program. They search in the housing accommodations in the Safe Zone, under trees, tarps and by the road in the jungle. Things need to move fast since Luxembourg has already started. "There was political momentum behind it,” says Carsten Hölscher of the German Embassy in Athens.

Every child has to be interviewed, each child has to be checked to see if he or she is too old to meet the criteria for Germany or if he or she arrived after March 1, 2020, because these children are not qualified for the program.

The interviews, like the one Morgenstern conducts with Soleiman, take at least three hours. The children often cry, and sometimes their caregivers do, too. One experienced caregiver throws up. One child tells of having to masturbate in front of the smugglers.

They are able to identify just over 50 minors within two days. An aid worker reads out the names of the children who made it in the Safe Zone and in the jungle.

Soleiman's name is called.

Nasir’s name is called.

He is considered an unaccompanied minor because Rahela is his sister, not his mother. He runs to her. "They called my name for Germany," he says. "They will pick me up at 4 p.m. in two days.” Nasir has the choice of leaving without Rahela or staying with her in Moria.

Mohammad’s name isn’t called. He’s too old.

On April 14, 2020, a bus pulls up to the gate of the camp to pick up the children Germany wants to take in. They say their goodbyes. Nasir later says he didn’t want to cry in front of Rahela. His sister also says she didn’t want to cry in front of Nasir.

The International Organization for Migration takes them to Athens, to the Hotel Alma, where psychologists and social workers are waiting for them and where they are to be tested for the coronavirus and given examinations. Six children are denied their "fit to fly” certificates after being diagnosed with COVID-19 or scabies. They are forced to stay behind, but will travel at a later point.

Nasir has bought himself a punching bag and boxing gloves.

Nasir has bought himself a punching bag and boxing gloves.

Foto: Milos Djuric / Der Spiegel

In the Air

On the morning of April 18, 49 unaccompanied minors are brought to the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens. Four of them are girls. Thirty-six of the minors are from Afghanistan, two are from Eritrea, another two are from Iraq and nine come from Syria.

Greek television is broadcasting live. In July 2019, the new government led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis entered office partly on the strength of a promise that Greece would demand more assistance from the European Union in dealing with refugees.

The German ambassador is waiting on the tarmac and Prime Minister Mitsotakis is also there, holding bags that he hands to the children. They are filled with notebooks and puzzles from the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture in Athens. Souvenirs from Greece.

Asselborn says that without the images of the children in the camp, nothing would have moved forward. "When children are involved, it gets under your skin a bit deeper."

There's another reason why children became the focus of this operation, why it was politically acceptable: Refugee policy, say migration experts, has a lot to do with widespread fears of young men, fears that people might show up who are violent or could become so. Or that people might take advantage of the social welfare system. Children, by contrast, represent innocence. Few would say that children shouldn't be helped.

It sounds almost like an animal shelter, where the puppies are always the first to find new homes.

But the policy also contains a dilemma, says migration researcher Gerald Knaus. Yes, he allows, a few children were saved, but doing so dodges the question as to what should be done with the rest, to avoid further violating their human dignity in violation of EU law.

How is it possible to justify a situation in which conditions for some are so terrible, but not for others?

Later, in an off-the-record interview, a conservative politician from Germany will voice criticism of the images of the minors in the airplane. Some of the boys, he notes, already have peach fuzz on their upper lips. A CDU parliamentarian will go on to demand that German officials be allowed to choose who is allowed to come. He also notes that one of the children is wearing a T-shirt reading "Istanbul 1453," a reference to the year in which the Byzantine Empire collapsed and Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans.

Pistorius has offered to receive the children in Lower Saxony. They land in Hannover before lunchtime.

April 2020

Seehofer releases a statement to the press reading: "I am pleased that we could welcome the first unaccompanied minors today. By doing so, we are sending a clear message of European solidarity."

Nasir says that as he stepped out of the airplane, he thought to himself: "Finally. You have really made it a long way."

The children are brought to Bad Essen, near Osnabrück, to a home directly on the edge of the forest. Around 50 workers from the association of social service providers take care of them there in shifts.

A girl in the new camp at Kara Tepe: Many children in the camp started sleep walking after the fire in Moria.

A girl in the new camp at Kara Tepe: Many children in the camp started sleep walking after the fire in Moria.

Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL

The minors take showers using anti-lice shampoo. Five of them have scabies, which the authorities in Athens failed to diagnose, and most have old injuries and scars. Some of them sleep two to a bed, since they feel safer that way. At night, the lights stay on in a number of the rooms, and many of them want to sleep in their daytime clothes, because they aren't familiar with pajamas. They are disgusted by mineral water and believe that water from the tap is harmful.

They are only familiar with hard soap and the toilets are explained to them with pictograms. Two children try to hurt themselves. A boy thinks he has seen a ghost and stands at the edge of the forest to speak with him. Some of the children smoke the cigarette butts that have been discarded in the ashtray at the building entrance. The caregivers pour water over them.

Nasir praises the food, Soleiman sleeps 12 hours every night. They play volleyball and football.

Some of them start a WhatsApp group called "Batscheha-je Moria," Dari for "the boys of Moria."

After two weeks, the children are split up. Some have family in Germany, while others are assigned a guardian and are placed in homes across Germany.

Eight head for Berlin, four to Baden-Württemberg, one to Bavaria, six to Hesse, eight to Hamburg, three to Schleswig-Holstein, one to Saarland, two to North Rhine-Westphalia, two to Saxony Anhalt and 12 stay in Lower Saxony. Fifty children in a country of 83 million residents.

Teenagers playing soccer at the new camp

Teenagers playing soccer at the new camp

Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL

Summer 2020

In late August, Rahela is standing on the hillside above the camp where reception is better and calls Nasir. She asks: "What are you up to? Everything okay?"

Nasir answers: "I'm sitting here missing my sister."

In the morning, a few boys are sitting on plastic chairs beneath the awning of a small café across from the camp. The heat is already oppressive, and the chirping of cicadas can be heard from the dry underbrush. For weeks, they have been unable to go out because of the coronavirus pandemic, only allowed to walk down the street 500 meters in either direction.

One of the boys is Mohammad, who was too old for the German criteria. The others are Said, Mustafa, Zaimillah and Mahdi – all of them just short of their 18th birthdays. They are, in other words, young men – the category that nobody has thus far agreed to accept.

By July, almost all of the unaccompanied minors have been registered, including the five young men at the café. All of them were interviewed for the EU program, and every few days or weeks, a worker from an aid organization shows up to read out a list of names.

On May 16, Switzerland is accepting 23 unaccompanied minors.

Around 100 minors from their section have already been taken to Europe, the boys guess. They say they have a departure ritual: On the evening before someone leaves, they form two lines at the door of their container. The boy who is leaving walks through as the others hit him hard on the back.

On June 17, eight minors are flying to Ireland.

They have developed theories, for example that Europe only wants the youngest ones, though they now know that many countries are also taking minors over the age of 14. Every country has different criteria. The Netherlands, for example, has only agreed to take in minors who are in particular need of help so as to avoid any political trouble at home.

On July 7, Portugal will accept 25 unaccompanied minors.

The children in the camp hear from those who have made it. They receive messages from Belgium or Finland, saying how wonderful it is there. They don't know if it's really true. They have counted up their contacts from around Europe – and have arrived at a number of around 600 who have made it out of Moria.

Some of those who haven't yet been chosen are growing desperate. A 16-year-old boy writes to an aid worker over Facebook: "Tonight is my last night." He then tries to commit suicide using pain pills.

Mohammad has stopped studying German.

On July 8, Finland will accept 24 children.

A few days ago, two more lists of names were read out in Moria. One of the boys from the café was included. He says a boy ran up to him: "Mohammad, they said your name! They were looking for you!"

On July 24, Germany begins accepting sick children with their families – 83 passengers on the first flight.

Mohammad ran to the office, and now he is sitting inside, surrounded by the buzzing of the cicadas, and says: "They are taking me to Mytilene. They said tomorrow."

In Mytilene, the capital of the island of Lesbos, there is a house where children are sent once they have reached the age of adulthood and have to leave the Safe Zone.

"I'm becoming an adult," says Mohamad – as though it was an end rather than a beginning.

The rest of the unaccompanied minors are saved by the fire.

September 2020

Not much has been officially documented about the events that took place on the night of September 8-9. There is just the testimony from eyewitnesses and the reporting of a few Greek journalists.

That evening, some of the refugees were apparently placed in quarantine. According to witnesses, camp residents responded by pelting aid organization workers with rocks. Refugees from a different zone apparently destroyed a quarantine area and others join them. Fires began breaking out. The instigators would then ransack the reception office and destroy facilities belonging to the UNHCR.

Mahdi, one of the boys who sat at the café waiting for news of their salvation, is from Afghanistan. His parents, he says, have died. Because he had no money for the smugglers in Iran, he says, his younger brother remained behind to work off the debt.

On the night of the fire, he was woken up in the Safe Zone by yelling. He ran out and found himself surrounded by hundreds of others who were screaming and crying and trying to make their way to the city. Mahdi later slept on the street. The next morning, he returned to the camp and saw that everything had burned – including his most valuable possession: his diary.

The next night, three flights containing 406 unaccompanied minors would fly from Moria to the Greek mainland, including Mahdi. The rest of the refugees would soon move into a new camp.

Children in the camp at Kara Tepe: Psychologists have reported that some children are pulling their hair out.

Children in the camp at Kara Tepe: Psychologists have reported that some children are pulling their hair out.

Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL

Winter 2020/2021

The German Interior Ministry releases a statement: "Following from the coalition agreement reached on March 8, 2020, 1,088 people from the Greek islands have thus far arrived in Germany, including 53 unaccompanied minors and 246 children needing treatment along with 789 members of their core families."

In addition, the statement notes, "in accordance with the German government's acceptance commitment from Sept. 11, 2020, all of the 150 unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands have now arrived."

In summer, the Interior Ministry had sent two female staff members to Moria to take a closer look at the situation there. German Interior Minister Seehofer says he told the chancellor as much in a meeting, to which she responded: "Do you even have two female staff members in your ministry?" The Interior Ministry has the reputation in Berlin for being dominated by men.

According to the EU, Germany has accepted more than 200 unaccompanied minors as part of the coalition of the willing, more than any other participating country.

Mohammad is standing in front of the Alma Hotel in the center of Athens, not far from Syntagma Square. He has been brought here after spending three months in Mytilene, and his wait continues. He has a view into the courtyard from his room on the sixth floor. He was told that he would be heading to Orléans in the center of France, and his flight had been scheduled to take off two weeks ago. But then, someone in the hotel fell ill with COVID-19 and everything was cancelled.

Mahdi, the boy whose diary burned up in the fire, was able to leave Thessaloniki, where he ended up after the fire at Moria. He, too, is still waiting, and he will also likely end up in France, he says in a WhatsApp message. Until then, he is living in a camp where Greek children usually spend their summers. He doesn't know how his brother is doing, though Mahdi assumes he is still with the smugglers.

Soleiman, the boy who wore the Micky Mouse T-shirt to his interview in Moria, is waiting in Germany. He is living in a home near Hamburg, a project run by the association Internationaler Bund. He speaks regularly with his family, his parents and eight siblings, who are still in Turkey. They sent him ahead in the hopes of joining him later. The children that serve as a salve on Europe's conscience represent something else entirely to their families: a beacon of hope that they, too, might be able to continue their journeys.

Soleiman has been waiting since April 2020 for the appointment necessary to determine his residency status in Germany. He and the other children from Moria who arrived with him aren't automatically allowed to remain in Germany. They have to submit an asylum application upon arrival, with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees making the final decision on their protection status.

Soleiman, in a forest near Hamburg. He embarked on an inflatable raft 12 times.

Soleiman, in a forest near Hamburg. He embarked on an inflatable raft 12 times.

Foto: Niklas Grapatin / Der Spiegel

He is sitting in flip-flops and socks with his guardian at a table in the home and discussing his upcoming interview with the German authorities.

"The discussion will focus on who you are and what happened to you in Afghanistan to force you to flee," the guardian says. "And can I then ask if my family is coming?" he responds.

Nasir, Rahela's brother, lives in Hannover. One day in winter, he is wandering through the empty streets of the city center. It isn't easy to speak with him about his past. His hands shoved deep into his pockets, he speaks hesitantly.

He has photos of his family saved on his mobile phone. He pulls it out and shows pictures of Rahela, her children and his brother-in-law, all of whom are still on the island of Lesbos. When he hasn't heard from Rahela for a long time, he contacts a friend of his on the island via WhatsApp and asks him to look for her.

His asylum application has been processed and he is allowed to stay, though only because it was determined that he could not be deported. That means that the chances are minimal that his mother and brother in Iran, or his sister on Lesbos, will be allowed to join him.

When contacted, the Interior Ministry says that decisions have only been made on the status of 15 of the 53 unaccompanied minors that Germany accepted between April and June 2020. That leaves 38 minors who either haven't yet been given an appointment or who are waiting for a decision to be made on their application. The ministry declines to say what decision was made in the first 15 cases.

When asked for an interim verdict on the acceptance of children from Moria, Interior Minister Seehofer says: "We brought order to migration policy. That is important, because without order, popular acceptance erodes. We take in those who require protection. Those who don't receive the right to residence must leave the country."

Nasir, who is sitting on his bed during a second video conversation, says everything is fine in Germany. Just that he's very lonely.

He has bought a punching bag and boxing gloves from the allowance provided to him by the state. He has also been to the doctor and is now wearing a retainer.

Moria, meanwhile, has been relegated to history. The new, temporary camp is at the seaside near Kara Tepe. That is where Rahela, Nasir's sister, is living with her children, who are six and four years old. Her son fell and cracked his skull. Her daughter burned herself on a hot water bottle. There is no heating in the camp.

Journalists aren't allowed into the new camp and aid organization staff have been told not to post any photos or videos from inside.

Elena Moustaka, the woman with the Moria tattoo, won't be staying on Lesbos much longer. Better Days has decided not to work in the new camp and is now helping refugee children in Athens. In many respects, she says, the new camp is worse than the old one.

White tents with the blue UNHCR label are lined up close together. In the morning after rain, residents wring out their blankets and hang them out to dry. In January, it snows and the laundry turns white, says an aid worker.

Psychologists in the camp have reported that some children are pulling out their hair or cutting their arms with razor blades, knives or scissors. Some scream or throw tantrums, while others say nothing at all. An eight-year-old tried to hang himself. A pregnant woman lit herself on fire. Since the fire in Moria, many children have begun walking in their sleep, with some making their way down to the seaside. Some parents tie their children to the bed at night.

In early March, around 7,000 people are living in the new camp. More than 2,120 of them are children, with 697 four years old or younger.

Fewer and fewer stories about the underage camp residents are appearing in the press.

One of the problems with current refugee policy, says migration expert Knaus, is that it is rooted in moments of empathy determined by media coverage rather than being governed by a clear concept. Empathy, he says, is good, but it fades – and empathy-driven policy quickly reaches its limits.

The story of the children from Moria – after the acceptance of a contingent that did nothing to change migration policy, after a year during which children were used as political levers – ends with very little having changed.

On Feb. 3, a boy from Somalia reaches the island of Lesbos on a raft. He is 16 years old and says he spent seven hours at sea. And that he wants to carry on to Germany.