Unaccompanied minors at most risk as refugees amass at EU borders
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As the EU struggles to reach a deal with Turkey on halting the flow of migrants and more member states shut their borders, minors – many of them unaccompanied – are among the most vulnerable of the thousands of people amassing at Europe’s frontiers.
Tens of thousands of minors have made the treacherous journey out of their war-torn homelands on their own, without the protection of an adult. These children largely slip through the cracks of a system that humanitarian workers describe as sorely inadequate.
The scale of the problem is difficult to determine because many refugee children never register with the authorities. But the number of those who do wind up in the system is staggering: In January alone, nearly 3,500 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Europe, according to data compiled by the European Commission. And this number is increasing, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of all refugees.
Aikaterini Kitidi, a UNHCR spokeswoman on the Greek island of Lesbos told FRANCE 24 that the number of children seeking asylum in Greece – the entry point for most migrants tying to enter the EU – grew in each quarter of 2015. Children now account for more than a third of the migrants arriving in Europe.
The vast majority of children travelling on their own are boys of around 14 or 15 years old, according to Sofia Kouvelaki, programme officer for the Bodossaki Foundation’s Unaccompanied Refugee Children fund. Many of them were sent off by parents who made the calculation that even the potentially life-threatening journey to Europe provides their children with a better chance at a good life than remaining in countries where bombs and bullets are part of their daily existence.
Other children wind up alone after having been separated from their families along the way. Save the Children’s humanitarian communications officer, Daniel Stewart, said he met a 15-year-old boy in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border who was travelling with his 1-year-old sister. Their mother had fallen ill in Turkey and had insisted the children leave her behind and go on without her.
The perils for kids on their own are numerous. The route in and of itself is immensely hazardous; a European Commission report said that since the beginning of 2016, nearly two children have died every day en route to Europe. But children are also especially susceptible to unscrupulous smugglers, organised criminal groups and sex-trafficking rings. Kids can become the victims of violence, sexual and otherwise, and are forced by smugglers to work to pay off the cost of their journeys.
In principle, there is a system in place to help unaccompanied minors. In Greece, once a child is processed, they enter the custody of the Greek state and are resettled at various centres throughout the mainland, where they are given housing, education, and medical and social services. The reality, however, is far different – with an ever-rising tide of refugees, there simply aren’t enough places for all of them.
As a result, conditions can be bleak. Some children, already traumatised from the violence they are fleeing, are held in conditions much like detention camps, surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. And even the more hospitable residential facilities are overcrowded and under-resourced. People are spending months in places that were intended to house them for just a few days while their paperwork was being processed. The camp in Idomeni, for example, has a capacity of 1,500; currently between 12,000 and 13,000 people are living there, Stewart said, about 3,500 of whom are children.
But the problems aren’t confined to Greece. The European Commission report revealed that in some countries older children have been forced to wait until they have reached 18 to be processed, while in others they are housed with adults and not given access to education. A confusing legal process that is constantly changing, language barriers and mounting bureaucratic delays pose additional obstacles.
Feeling the pressure to reach relatives elsewhere in Europe or simply out of desperation, many children just look to exit the refugee system. Last month, the European police agency Europol said that more than 10,000 children who had applied for asylum in Europe over the previous two years had disappeared.
"Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members," Europol's chief of staff, Brian Donald, told the Observer newspaper in January. "We just don't know where they are, what they're doing or whom they are with."
An EU agreement proposed this week would stop anyone from making the crossing from Turkey to Greece without proper documentation. It also includes a controversial “one-for-one” swap that calls for one Syrian in a Turkish refugee camp to be settled in an EU member state for each one that is returned to Turkey from Greece.
But many humanitarian workers expect that, rather than stopping the flow of asylum seekers, the deal will make matters worse for migrants. “You can’t stop them by closing the borders,” said Panos Pardalis, communications officer at The Smile of the Child humanitarian organisation. “They will find other routes that are more dangerous.”
And those dangers will undoubtedly be magnified for children, Stewart said. “It will increase their insecurity about their status … They will feel like they have no route to where they want to be.”
Aid organisations are doing what they can to fill in the gaps. The UNHCR along with UNICEF are setting up a string of centres where children and families can access information and services. Aid groups and foundations such as Save the Children and the Bodossaki Foundation are raising funds to provide more child-friendly housing facilities, where children can get advice about their legal options in addition to counselling and medical services.
For now, though, the system is failing. “At the moment the protection system that exists is not adequate to protect all the children,” Kouvelaki said.
With the backlog caused by closed borders, things are rapidly getting worse, particularly for minors. “At the moment they are blocked and there isn’t enough support for them,” Kouvelaki said. “This is an overwhelming problem.”