Unaccompanied refugee children suffer silently in Europe

Despite risks, unaccompanied minors continue to flood into Europe in hope of one day being able to pave for themselves a stable future in which they can realise their potential and help those they have left behind

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

An Afghan girl is comforted after arriving on Lesbos in late September

Updated Feb 24, 2016

More and more refugee children are washing up on the shores of Europe as the continent finds itself gripped in the worst refugee crisis it has faced since World War Two. Only the lucky ones make it across the choppy waters of the Mediterranean alive. Many have not been so lucky. While some are among the 3,300 plus refugees who have drowned while taking the risky voyage so far this year, others have been found dead on beaches close to tourist hotspots along Europe’s southern coast. With no relatives or papers, these children are buried before anyone can ever identify them.

According to UNICEF, approximately 106,000 children applied for asylum in Europe in the first half of 2015, up nearly 74 percent from the same period the previous year. An increasing number of them, including those aged under 10, are turning up without a single guardian in sight. In 2014, at least 23,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Europe, and while estimates vary, aid agencies say as much as 7 percent of the 700,000 refugees who have applied for asylum in Europe this year are unaccompanied minors. That amounts to around 49,000, almost four times higher than the nearly 13,000 unaccompanied minors who sought asylum in Europe in 2013, as Eurostat figures demonstrate. The vast majority of them are boys aged between 13-17. Currently, at least 30,000 unaccompanied minors are living in Germany alone.

A Syrian refugee boy still wearing a swimming ring stands on the beach upon his arrival with other refugees by a dinghy at the southeastern Greek island of Kos, Greece, early Thursday on Aug. 20, 2015 [AP]

The unaccompanied minors come from various countries - mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. A significant number of them also come from other countries such as Gambia, Nigeria, Egypt, Bangladesh, Mali, Senegal, Pakistan and Palestine, to name a few. Their ways and reasons for coming to Europe vary. Some departed from their homelands with their families in a bid to escape war and poverty, but were separated from them or orphaned along the way. Others were chosen by family members back home to embark on the journey to Europe in the hope that they would be able to settle and eventually support or bring over their remaining relatives.

However, not all of them receive a warm welcome when they enter Europe. Instead, they are exposed to a range of dangers, like forced labour, abuse and deportation. Many of them lose touch with their families and go years without ever being able to contact them. Although a number of European countries are working to provide for their basic needs, Europe has found itself largely underprepared for such a huge refugee influx. Even Germany, which has been one of the more generous EU countries towards refugees, has recently announced it will reinstate the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that refugees can only seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive, after the number of refugees coming to Germany far exceeded an earlier prediction of 800,000. Many centres for unaccompanied minors are likewise overstretched in terms of financing, manpower, resources and space. Officials in the UK have estimated that each minor costs around $45,000 a year to sustain.

Children huddle under emergency blankets after arriving in Lesbos in October [AFP]

Germany had previously suspended the agreement as southern European countries serving as entry points for refugees crossing into the continent, such as Italy and Greece, were being overwhelmed by the influx. The lack of coordination between European countries, including both EU and non-EU members, has seen the propping up of fences along borders, particularly in the Balkans, where thousands of refugees hoping to trek to more economically well-off states have been left stranded. As for those who do make it to their destination, they are constantly at risk of having their asylum request rejected. Unaccompanied minors are no exception to this. According to Finland’s national broadcaster YLE, at least six unaccompanied minors were deported from the country in the first half of this year, as well as three others in 2014.

Sweden, meanwhile, has been the most accommodating country for unaccompanied minors, taking in 87 percent of asylum applicants to the country from this group. This equates to 29 percent of all unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the EU. Over 7,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Sweden last year according to Migrationsverket statistics. In 2015, this figure continued to rise, with at least 9,000 minors having arrived before August. By the year’s end, as much as 12,000 unaccompanied minors are expected to arrive in Sweden, with around 700 turning up every week - a huge jump from the 388 minors who came in 2004. A Reuters report published in September stated that Sweden had spent $1.1 billion on taking care of the minors this year. Once it is determined that an applicant is under the age of 18, the Swedish authorities grants “a stipend of $275 a month, enrolment in Swedish classes, counselling, tutoring, and housing, either via a guardian or in a residential centre,” The Christian Science Monitor stated in a September report.

Children run inside the Open Hospitality Center for refugees in Athens on August 19, 2015 [AFP]

But not every unaccompanied minor entering Europe is as fortunate. In Greece, minors were held in detention centres until they were shut down by the government earlier this year. Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that in 2014, out of 6,100 refugee children that reached Greece, around 1,100 were registered as unaccompanied or traveling without family members. The government planned to rehouse the minors in private refugee centres due to a lack of state funds, but the process has been slow. Up to 99 minors were reported by Greek newspaper Ekathimerini to be waiting to be transferred to refugee centres in July.

Often, the centres set up to take care of the minors are so overstretched that they have no control over them. In one particular centre in the German city of Munich, minors go missing on a daily basis, Eva Ramsauer, a psychologist working at the centre told the International Business Times. “We just don’t have the capacity to look after them all,” she said, adding that the minors may be put up for adoption, even though many of the minors are still in regular contact with their families back home. “In Germany, the legal perspective is once the minor is sent away, the parents give up their rights. So I think in Germany, as soon as they arrive here, they are able to be adopted.” Furthermore, Ramsauer stated that many of the children suffer psychological problems stemming from their experiences of war, and are not receiving the necessary counselling they deserve in the understaffed centre. At another centre located in Hungary, overcrowding is so bad that many minors are forced to sleep on mattresses in the hallways, the International Business Times report stated. The mainly Arabic-speaking minors in the centre have no access to translators and have to ration out food portions.

Passengers among them refugees exit the German ferry terminal in Goteborg, Sweden, September 11, 2015 [Reuters]

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Save the Children was cited by The Independent newspaper in a report published in September saying that “Unaccompanied children are at the greatest risk from people traffickers … Some are being forced into manual labour, domestic work, drug smuggling and prostitution.” Sandra Wagner-Putz, a youth worker in German city Passau, told the New York Times in October that one particular refugee girl from Somalia, 16-year-old Fatima, had suffered sexual violence in Bulgaria and Serbia that was so sadistic that she could not include details in her report. “We did not have the words,” she said. According to another report also released by the BBC in September on the plight of unaccompanied minors in Italy, girls as young as 13 being brought over to Europe from Africa are often sexually abused by human traffickers before departing from Libya, and are later forced into prostitution upon arrival in Europe to pay back debts of up to €50-60,000 to the traffickers. In some cases, the report claimed that girls were being forced to have sex for a bag of food.

As a result of the BBC investigation, as well as a subsequent investigation carried out Italian parliamentarians, a private centre for the minors in Giarre, Sicily, was shut down after evidence emerged of neglect and poor health and safety standards. The probe also revealed evidence of state-run centres in Italy having links to the mafia. Many of the centres were found to be lacking in staff experienced and qualified enough to identify victims of sexual abuse. Few also employed staff able to communicate with the minors in their own language. Many minors, some as young as 11, opt to leave the centres and fend for themselves on the streets of Rome, the report stated. One 14-year-old boy, identified only as Khaled, was cited in the report saying that he had resorted to selling drugs to get by in order to avoid prostitution. "I did it to avoid doing what other boys I know here are doing - having sex with Italian men. I've seen it with my own eyes. Boys - Egyptian, Tunisian and Moroccan - ask men for €50, even for €30," Khaled said.

A woman falls into the water with her child at a Lesbos beach after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey in October [AFP]

A Tunisian-Italian volunteer at one of the centres told the BBC that many minors like Khaled use crime and occasional prostitution to pay back their debts to the traffickers. "How else do they pay back debts to people smugglers? How else do they eat?,” the volunteer asked. “Some have nowhere to sleep. People round here know these boys are desperate and they prey on them here at the station. It's a market." Another boy cited in the report, Hamid, expressed his disappointment about life in Europe, saying he had expected better conditions. "We came here thinking we would go to school, have somewhere safe to sleep, find a job - but it's not like that. Some of us work for a pittance in the markets, some sell drugs, others sell themselves," he said. "Once they've done it two or three times, they don't care anymore. If I'd known this I never would have come here."

Even after going through the asylum process, refugee minors face a great number of difficulties in settling down in their new countries. Mehdi Ghazinour, a professor of social work at Sweden’s Umeå University, told Al Jazeera that the youths experience challenges in finding work and making friends. Data provided by Sweden’s official think tank, the SCB, shows that unemployment among 15-24 year olds who were born outside of Sweden was 70 percent higher than youths in the same age group who were born in the country. “Swedish institutions are good, but people need to be more welcoming on the social level as well,” Ghazinour said. Yet still, despite the risks of drowning, exploitation, falling into criminal gangs, and never seeing their families again, unaccompanied minors continue to flood into Europe in the hope of one day being able to pave for themselves a stable future in which they can realise their potential and help those they have left behind. Their chances may be slim, but in the face of war and poverty that has caused so much suffering in their home lands, the promise of life in Europe, albeit a difficult one, proves to be more luring than the promise of almost certain death back home.

Author: Ertan Karpazli

TRTWorld and agencies