Blog post by Alice Gomes and Vasiliki Festa, part of the Amsterdam European Law Clinic Team 2022/2023


As proclaimed by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, children require, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, special safeguards and care. Logically, if this holds true in an environment where a healthy and harmonious development is possible, it is even more so in the context of the prison-like Closed Controlled Access Centres (“CCACs”) that have been built on many Greek Islands throughout the past 3 years to accommodate asylum seekers while their asylum applications are being processed. In such an irregular situation, the denial of quality education is likely to exacerbate children’s vulnerability even further.

These CCACs are known for their extreme security measures, restrictions on residents’ movement and isolated locations, all contributing to the creation of an environment that is far from child-friendly. An additional layer of difficulty is observed in the Vastria CCAC (“Vastria”), which is located within a flammable pine forest. As a result, the increased isolation level, the fire risk and the poor road conditions render the provision of education to minor asylum seekers even more challenging.

This blog post will examine how the right to education of minor asylum seekers who shall be placed in Vastria will be protected. It will begin with an analysis of the International, European, and Greek legal framework associated with the right to education and then explore the likelihood of conformity of the future camp’s educational scheme with the established standards.

Since the camp has not yet begun its operation, nor is there specific information on how education will be approached therein, the current estimation will be based on the already available information, while also drawing on experiences from other functioning Greek CCACs.

The right to education

Before conducting an assessment on the levels of protection of the right to education in this specific context, it is first necessary to lay down the legal framework where it exists. The right to education is recognised vastly under International, European and National law. It is, for example, laid down in Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”) as applicable to everyone, as well as compulsory and free of charge in regards to primary education. Following the ICESCR, signatory states have an obligation to realise the right to education in a non-discriminatory way. Also the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises, in Article 28, the right of the child to education, which should be achieved progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity.

At the European law level, Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) provides that “No person shall be denied the right to education” – a negative obligation imposed on signatory states like Greece to be interpreted in a non-discriminatory manner, as per Article 14. Within the European Union (“EU”), Article 14(1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union provides “everyone” with the right to education.

The non-discrimination clauses present in the legislative instruments mentioned above, along with the all-encompassing language they contain (see for example: “Everyone” or “no person shall be denied”) already constitute a somewhat strong basis for the right to education to apply to minor asylum seekers in reception centres but, at the EU level, this guarantee is taken a step further. Article 14 of the Reception Conditions Directive (“RCD”) provides that Member States shall grant minor asylum seekers access to the education system under similar conditions as their own nationals, either outside or inside the accommodation centres, and no later than three months from the date on which the application for international protection was lodged. The content of this Directive has been transposed into Greek Law with no relevant alterations and is now regulated through Article 55 Law 4939/2022, making the same rules also applicable in Greece.

Having established the legal contours of the right to education in theory, it is necessary to assess its applicability, in practice, to the minor asylum seekers during their time at the camp in Vastria. Such an assessment will build on an analysis of two pivotal factors – access to education and quality of the provided education – in line with the general view that the right to education entails not only the right to access education but also the right to receive an education of good quality.

Will children in Vastria have adequate access to education?

Pursuant to the legal framework, minor asylum seekers are entitled to exercise their right to education under circumstances similar to those that apply for Greek nationals. Therefore, all children in Vastria need to attend public, free, formal education, provided by the state.

According to Refugee Support Aegean (“RSA”), in 2023, the number of children residing in the Kara Tepe/Mavrovouni CCAC (which is located in Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos) who attended public schools was significantly larger than that of the previous years. However, if these children were to be moved to Vastria, two novel factors would need to be considered when assessing the adequacy of their access to education, according to the standards laid out above: i) the camp’s isolated location (30km away from the closest public schools in Mytilene); and ii) its prison-like conditions (see, for more information, the Detention article of this series).

In order to successfully assess the effect of these two factors on whether the provision of education in Vastria will abide by the legal framework, we need to seek further guidance as to the standards for the minors’ adequate access to education in this context.

First, the European Asylum Support Office Guidance on reception conditions for unaccompanied children (“EASO Guidance”) provides indicators to measure the compliance of EU Member States with Article 14 RCD.  Namely, the EASO Guidance provides that education must be available either inside or outside the reception facility, but at a reasonable distance. Indicating what could qualify as compliance, it notes that, when education is provided outside, transportation for the children is arranged or its costs are covered (by the daily expenses allowance). When offered inside the facility, it should be accompanied by “adequate infrastructure, curriculum and trained staff for education activities”.

Second, the European Committee of Social Rights (“ECSR”) – a body established under the European Social Charter to oversee compliance thereof – issued a decision in 2021, finding that the lack of access to education for accompanied and unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek islands violates Article 17(2) of the Charter, which it interprets to require equal access to education. Τhe latter calls for the integration of minor asylum seekers into mainstream educational facilities and schemes, as well as for the creation of a  general environment in which they can enjoy education, which requires i) ease of access (proximity and transport); and ii) a secure environment.

Based on the aforementioned, it is possible for education in Vastria to be provided either inside the camp or at a reasonable distance from it. The provision of education outside the camp (“outside education”) will be the focus of our examination under this section, which will address each of Vastria’s novel factors separately, while the former scenario of “in–house” education will be examined under the “quality” assessment below.

i) The camp’s isolation:

Starting from the location of the camp, at the outset, it is highly doubtful that the 30km distance from the island’s capital could be characterised as reasonable or proximate under any circumstances, especially since the discussion concerns underage minors, characterised by several layers of vulnerability (asylum seekers, most likely unfamiliar with local language, culture and surroundings). This distance certainly does not tick the “proximity box” and requires the arrangement of transportation. Naturally, families cannot be expected to cover the costs, but, even if these were to be covered by the state, appropriate conditions would have to be established to guarantee the safety of the children’s movement to and from Mytilene. This would, perhaps, require the state to arrange buses – as long as the safety of the road is also guaranteed – while also employing/deploying escorts qualified to communicate with and ensure the children’s’ safety. However, even if all the above were successfully addressed, the question remains whether such a scheme could qualify as “ease of access” for minors residing in an isolated camp, built within a forest.

What is more, according to the Greek Migration Code (Article 18), minor asylum seekers are entitled to unrestricted access to their school’s activities. In the prospect of Vastria minors attending public schools in Mytilene, due to the isolated location of the camp, children will most likely be excluded from such activities. Even more, children will be deprived of any chance to socialise with their Greek classmates. Hence, the isolation of the camp will lead to the isolation of the children, obstructing their healthy integration into the local society, the development of their social skills, and their sense of belonging in their school community. Naturally, the overall “uneasy access” will significantly impact the quality of the received education, as will be discussed below.

This highly problematic possibility has recently been highlighted in a common letter by 32 Refugee Education Coordinators, addressed to the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum, as well as to the Ministry of Education. The appointed educators are expressing their concerns regarding the ‘open prison camps’, as they call them, stressing that it will be impossible for children living in these isolated locations to meet their classmates after class or participate in school excursions. They also interestingly note that this isolation will impede the necessary communication between parents and teachers. Their claims are not mere speculations, but rather based on their professional experience from the Leros, Kos and Samos prison-like CCACs until now.

ii) The camp’s prison-like character:

It should also be underlined that, for the equal access to education of these children, in terms similar to their Greek classmates, one must take into consideration not only the isolation factor, but also the elaborate security, prison-like conditions of Vastria (see for more information the “quality” assessment below). It is difficult to argue that a child can enjoy ‘ease of access’ to school when faced with extreme security checks to get to and back from their learning activities. This situation will, in all likelihood, have non-negligible effects on the psychological state of the minors, who will instantly feel segregated from their classmates, not only due to their particularly long daily journeys to school, but, also, because of the expressive and stigmatising function of undergoing extreme security measures (x-rays, bag checks etc.) before and after each school day.

In light of the foregoing, it is evident that the unique combination of adverse conditions in Vastria (isolation and prison-like environment) would significantly hinder the minor asylum seekers’ access to education, therefore posing crucial and possibly inescapable obstacles to the fulfilment of their right, as safeguarded by International, European and Greek law.

Will children in Vastria be provided with quality education?

As established above in relation to access, the level of isolation that characterises Vastria makes the provision of formal education in public schools outside the camp an unreasonable option for the minor asylum seekers who shall live therein. In purely legal terms, this is no problem as it is provided by law that such education may also be provided inside the accommodation centres. However, when we assess this option from a quality point of view, especially considering that education must be provided “under similar conditions” as that provided to national students, questions arise.

First, practice in other CCACs shows that, when the provision of education takes place internally, it consistently takes the form of informal education provided by NGOs. Now, while the action of NGOs is undoubtedly valuable for the lives of minor asylum seekers, their education cannot depend merely on such informal education. It is certainly better than nothing but hardly enough to achieve the necessary level of quality needed to equate it with the education Greek students receive in the public system and, as such, hardly enough to fulfil their right to education.

The national public education standard is set by L.4939/2022 and would, when applied here, imply that all children living in Vastria would need to attend public, free, formal education, provided by the state for the minimum compulsory 11 years (pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education). Further, following the national standard and as explained above in relation to access, children should be granted unrestricted access to the activities of the school or educational community, including social gatherings after school or school excursions, seen as an essential part of their education. It is difficult to see which contours these activities would take in situations where children attend school inside CCACs, as would be the case in Vastria.

This being said, while it is true that children placed in Vastria have no other option but to access education inside the camp, it is not enough that such education takes the form of informal education provided by NGOs.

Second, even if quality education is formally provided inside, which, as stated before, is already highly unlikely, the isolation level and prison-like circumstances that characterise Vastria present an impediment to both quality learning per se and quality learning under similar conditions as those offered to Greek students. The 24/7 CCTV, the barbed wire and high fences, the constant presence of security guards, as well as the multiple entry/exit restrictions that top off the already isolated location of the centre, all contribute to an environment where quality learning is not only abnormal but also hardly possible for children, as highlighted in the previously mentioned letter by the Refugee Education Coordinators.

This educational concern goes, obviously, hand in hand with the detrimental and long-lasting effects of these circumstances on a child’s development and physical and mental health, which might aggravate previous trauma and must also be taken into consideration when discussing their capacity to obtain quality education in similar conditions as nationals. As stated by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in a recommendation, for education to be classified as “quality education”, it must take place in a secure and non-violent learning environment, a belief shared by the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

All the particularities of children living in these environments must be considered when assessing the probability of fulfilment of their right to education given its crucial importance to their development. Unless their specific difficulties with integration into a particular educational system are taken into account, they will not be able to enjoy education under the same conditions, in terms of quality, as their Greek colleagues. An important step towards creating conditions that enable quality education can undoubtedly be found in the so-called preparatory classes, meant to facilitate minor asylum seekers’ smooth familiarisation with the public education system that they are meant to integrate. However, these integration measures, which, practice shows, have been in place in other Greek CCACs, are not enough to combat the prison-like circumstances and certainly do not make up for the lack of appropriate education. In fact, when unaccompanied by the education they are actually supposed to prepare the minor asylum seekers for, these measures appear somewhat pointless.

With this in mind, if the provision of formal education to the minor asylum seekers in Vastria under similar conditions, in terms of quality, as their Greek colleagues is both unlikely and practically impossible and, if there is no chance of attending school outside the camp due to its isolated location, then these children are deprived of their right to education.

Conclusion

It is evident that the common denominator in all CCACs in this context is their insufficiency vis-à-vis the children’s unhindered access to education. This blog post argues that this is taken one step further in Vastria as, in addition to the abovementioned prison-like conditions that already normally characterise CCACs’ educational scenarios, the isolation factor aggravates pre-existing obstacles, making the adequate obtention of education an even more distant dream for minor asylum seekers.

In conclusion, there is a high probability that the education provided to the minor asylum seekers who are to be placed in Vastria, or in CCACs with the same level of security and isolation as the latter, will not be in line with the required legal standards, thus resulting in a violation of their right to education under Greek, European and International law.

This is the final post in a three-part series on the Vastria CACC. Read the first post on isolation here, and the second on environmental conditions here.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.