15 October 2021

The effects of restrictive lockdown measures on child sexual abuse and trafficking in Greece

When professionals in preventing and dealing with child abuse in Greece speak of data and reports, they complete their assessments with the phrase “just the tip of the iceberg” to show that the numbers reflect only what is apparent and not reality. The reason for this is, in cases of child abuse, that the data at our disposal today are from the findings of the Balkan Epidemiological Study on Child Abuse and Neglect (BECAN), published in January 2013, while the data provided to national organizations, such as the National Organization for the Protection of Human Trafficking Victims, refer to both adults and minors and result from the voluntary collection and submission of data by various bodies and authorities. In fact, there is no official national system for documenting child abuse data, legislated by the relevant Ministries of Health & Social Solidarity, Justice and Citizen Protection, which would train and subsequently oblige professionals involved in child protection to submit reports.

Bearing this mind, therefore, a reportage on the repercussions of the restrictive lockdown measures on child sexual abuse and trafficking would only reveal the “tip of the iceberg”, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, either magnifying and/or downplaying the true numbers.

The first epidemiological study on child abuse and neglect (CAN) in Greece clearly reveals the deficiencies in monitoring these cases.

Back in October 2009, the Mental Health and Social Welfare Department at the Institute for Child Health participated in the 40-month long BECAN (Balkan Epidemiological Study on Child Abuse and Neglect) project, aiming at studying the effects of CAN in the documented cases in nine Balkan countries, including Greece. Among the researchers’ conclusions were the inconsistencies in the Greek system for the epidemiological monitoring cases of abuse and neglect, the gaps in the database and the lack of a national center for reporting cases. Whatever data are collected comprise the fragmented attempt of various authorities and services, employing their own initiative, methodology and documentation tools to address the situation. However, they are ultimately unsuccessful in providing adequate—much less accurate—information regarding the size of the problem of any form of abuse in Greece nor can they, of course, present a substantiated scientific plan and practical measures for battling this phenomenon. BECAN’s most considerable contribution to preventing and dealing with CAN were its recommendations for mandatory reporting of abuse cases—with clear procedures and penalties in the event of failure to comply—via the establishment of the National Reporting Center and the keeping of a Unified Archive of Cases of Violence against Minors, which, to date, has not been implemented.

The reports in the National Referral Mechanism for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking (NRM) reveal the tip of the iceberg.

According to the 2020 NRM report, the restrictive lockdown measures taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, which lasted for the most part of the year, affected the operation of the official bodies included in the Mechanism, with changes both to services rendered as well as to the way these services were rendered. The report data were drawn either from reports on victims of human trafficking—both adults and minors—which were identified and/or received protective services from Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2020, or from the monitoring of cases of victims who were referred to the NRM in 2019 and continued to receive services during the year in question, that is, 2020.

In 2019, the first year of the NRM’s operation, 154 cases of potential victims of human trafficking were documented.

In 2020, 70 cases dating from 2019 remained open, only 9 of which involved minors, who were the potential victims of human trafficking. It should be noted that in the referral system, the victims of human trafficking are reported regardless of whether or not the trafficking took place within Greek borders and regardless of the point in time the trafficking took place. Of the 9 children reported as victims of human trafficking, 7 were girls and 2 were boys, while the vast majority of victims—both adults and minors—were from Africa.

The victims who are minors, as well as the adults, of course, receive help on many levels, the most frequent of which are social and psychological support and shelter. Specifically, the 9 child victims reported in 2019, received services of shelter, legal counsel and representation, social and psychological support, education (schooling and Greek lessons), medical and pharmaceutical care and material help.

The new cases of potential victims of human trafficking in 2020

The number of 2020 NRM reports from public authorities (the police, hospitals, shelters, etc.) as well as from NGOs and international organizations amounted to 167, of which 74 regarded children (39 boys and 35 girls). Of these children, 33 were from Bulgaria, 23 from Greece, 9 from Romania, 6 from Albania, 1 from Guinea, 1 from Cameroon, and 1 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Two (2) were the children reported as potential victims of sexual exploitation, while the vast majority were children exploited for begging.

The 65 child victims of human trafficking from the EU (Greece, Bulgaria and Romania) were exploited for begging, while 64 of the total 74 children were hosted by third parties: 5 by hosting shelters managed by NGOs, and 1 in a reception and identification center (a leased residence for hosting unaccompanied minors, a refugee host center) and 1 case is unclear. In most cases of child victims of human trafficking, the recruiting took place in their country of origin in both 2019 and 2020. For the year 2020 in specific, 22 of the abovementioned child victims of human trafficking were recruited in Greece. The children were usually recruited by people of the same nationality as the children, most of whom (91 out of 114) fall into the category of “those acting as parents or other relatives” and who took advantage of the children’s vulnerability, exerted abusive force on them and deceived them, while in almost all cases, the exploitation took place in Greece. Two (2) girls were reported as victims of sexual exploitation and another 2 girls as victims of criminal activities. The data also shows that 8 of the child victims who escaped and were saved, managed to do this with the help of third parties, with reports to the authorities and the latters’ intervention, while 3 escaped on their own and 1 was released by their exploiter. However, the 44 child victims exploited for begging, though identified, have not received protection services due to their absolute dependence on their exploiters.

Data for 2020 provided by the Smile of the Child Organization

As long as the National Hotline for Reporting Child Abuse remains pending and while the data is collected in a fragmented manner by many different bodies (public authorities, private bodies, and NGOs) with extremely differentiated methods and documentation tools, we cannot but provide isolated fragmented data and draw our conclusions based on them.

One of the institutions that published data for 2020—the Smile of the Child (To hamogelo tou pediou)—based its findings on 1123 child abuse reports involving 2009 children (786 were aged 0-6, 657 aged 7-12, 340 aged 13-18, and 226 of unknown age). Of these reports 803 cases were taken to court while 31 involved cases in which there was the suspicion of sexual abuse (8 boys and 23 girls) and the vast majority (1026) were cases of neglect or abandonment. According to the data documented by the organization, 1799 children were abused by members of their immediate family and 203 by “another person”. In the “immediate family”, abusers were identified as both parents, only the mother, only the father, members of the rest of the family environment, and third parties.

The ascertainments of the independent body The Greek Ombudsman concerning children who are institutionalized and then socially re-integrated

The relatively recent study published by the independent body The Greek Ombudsman (O synigoros tou politi) in August 2020 aimed at presenting its ascertainments and data regarding children permanently residing in institutions (closed structures), revisiting the issue after five years (the previous study had been published in 2015). With this study they aim to encourage interventions that would at some point lead to abandoning the model of institutionalized child care and support children’s gradual de-institutionalization by assigning their care to families and the community.  The study’s most significant point is the lack of a unified procedure according to which children end up in institutions, the absence of specifications in terms of institutional care and the lack of child protection (prevention of institutionalization with the support of families and the community).

Every Public Prosecutor’s office has a different approach to, and way of handling reported cases.

Many institutionalized children have found themselves in institutions because the Public Prosecutor has ordered their removal from their familiar surroundings or home. But how are these decisions made? How is the children’s situation in the family environment assessed? Who assesses it? Is there an adequate number of social workers assigned to this task?  Are the Public Prosecutors’ approaches standardized and, if yes, are these approaches based on protocols and regulations shared by all Public Prosecutors? The answers provided in The Greek Ombudsman’s 2020 study are rather disheartening. The procedure for removing children from their homes “is not characterized by standard protocol and regulations for all Public Prosecutors”, it says, while “local government organization social services, almost in their entirety, are grossly understaffed and do not possess a clear and adequate institutional framework of responsibilities regarding child protection and the support of families with complex socio-psychological problems.” In addition, the study showed that “of the total 260 social workers and 45 psychologists employed by the 14 municipalities that answered The Greek Ombudsman’s questionnaire, 42 social workers are occupied with investigating abuse/neglect cases, given that the staff is burdened with numerous and various responsibilities and is distributed in the municipalities’ other services.” (https://www.synigoros.gr/resources/eidikh-ekthesh-eyalwta-paidia.pdf).

Inconsistency in practices and tools in dealing with reports

According to the responses of the 14municipalities that participated in The Greek Ombudsman Report, some municipalities investigated CAN reports without a Public Prosecutor warrant, while some others investigated only after having gained such a warrant and there were others that investigated after having received a warrant from some other service or body. Some municipalities did not use specialized tools or follow any protocols, while others followed the Diagnostic Assessment of Abuse or Neglect Protocol of the Institute of Child Health (ICH). Following this protocol, however, is at the discretion of the professionals handling the case.

The incongruities in handling the reports and the serious lack of interim shelters that can immediately host potentially abused children until it can be decided where they will stay is, ironically, yet another form of abuse for these children. This is the position of the professional associates at Eliza – The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who often point out the need for a standard protocol for handling CAN cases. They also propose standardizing reporting procedures, strengthening the position of social workers—both in numbers and training—creating short-term foster care structures, and de-institutionalizing children by providing them with foster care.


The inadequate, disparate and/or non-existent (as far as foster care is concerned) handling of cases where child abuse of any kind is suspected—including sexual abuse, which in the majority of cases takes place within the home—is, in effect, abusive towards the child. In fact, it does not seem there has been any change in this situation—an if there has, it has been rather for the worse—during the lockdowns imposed during the pandemic since employees at authorities and services, even state-run ones, had been confined to their homes.

In lieu of an epilogue, two paragraphs quoting from the August 2020 Greek Ombudsman Report

“This authority maintains the position that institutions are not merely potentially abusive, but in the majority of cases they are abusive by their very nature because institutional care is typified by the lack of consistent presence of people that children can relate to emotionally, that is, people that are emotionally available to children, and by the absence of a steady routine. In brief, institutions harm all children.”

“The duration of a child’s stay in an institution in Greece is considerably longer than the European average and, in most cases, lasts until they come of age. On the other hand, rarely is the relationship with the natural family supported or is the possibility of the child returning to it explored. Nor is extra-institutional alternative child care through foster homes or permanent adoption implemented.”

Vanna Marketaki

Strategy Manager

Eliza – The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

Translated by Thalia Bisticas


Institute of Child Health, Department of Mental Health and Social Welfare, Balkan Epidemiological Study on Child Abuse and Neglect (BECAN)

Ministry of the Exterior, Office of the National Rapporteur against Human Trafficking, Report of the National Referral Mechanism for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking (NRM) for August 2020.

The Smile of the Child, Panhellenic statistics for 2020.

The Greek Ombudsman, Special Report, “From the Institution to the Community: alternative care for vulnerable children and family support.” August 2020, Ioanna Kouvaritaki, Samantha Stratidaki, Maria Tsagari.

Copyright Vanna Marketaki

Published: Justice Initiative