Girls removed from migrant camp after sexual abuse claims

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Unaccompanied children deemed at risk at a Cyprus migrant reception centre have been removed while the UNHCR will give evidence to police on sexual harassment claims.

Police are investigating allegations that young girls were sexually harassed at the Pournara camp outside Nicosia.

“The identity of the children have been disclosed to the police, thus enabling UNHCR to discuss the particular allegations,” said a statement Wednesday by the UN refugee agency in Cyprus.

“UNHCR is pleased to note that the Social Welfare Services assessed the situation of the children the day after UNHCR’s visit and has taken action regarding the allegations.

In particular, two of the children have already been moved out from the camp to more appropriate facilities.”

Interior Minister Nicos Nouris asked police to launch a criminal investigation into allegations by a UNHCR official that girls staying at the centre were sexually harassed by other residents.

The children’s rights commissioner Despo Michaelidou-Livaniou told The Associated Press that a number of girls were allegedly groped as they waited in line for a meal at Pournara.

She criticised the Interior Ministry for not housing the minors elsewhere while authorities worked to confirm the girls’ ages, a process she said takes too long.

In a statement on Tuesday, the UNHCR said the ministry didn’t follow through with a plan to create a “safe zone” for children during work to expand and upgrade the centre.

Boys and girls shared facilities like showers with adults while separated only by a curtain when the camp was shut due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

“UNHCR has communicated the heightened protection risk this causes to the children in writing to the Ministries of Interior and Social Insurance, calling for adequate segregation of the unaccompanied minors.”

Nouris said no sexual abuse allegations have emerged at the centre before and minors staying there don’t line up with adults for food.

The centre now hosts 47 unaccompanied or separated children under 18.

But Nouris said the age verification process needs to be thorough, as many migrants posing as minors are actually adults, but lack of documentation makes it a complex procedure.

The UNHCR reiterated the “importance of conducting timely age determination procedures and vulnerability assessment to ensure the best interest of unaccompanied children seeking protection from war or persecution”.