UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

Refugee children on the shores of Europe

By Amira Alameddine

In September, UNICEF confirmed that at least 4.5 million children have been uprooted by conflict and instability in five countries alone (Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria), and that more than half a million people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe since the beginning of 2015, with children making up one-fifth of this migrating population.

Whether they are fleeing by land or by sea, these children carry with them the physical and psychological burdens of war and displacement.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, two Syrian children who arrived with other family members illustrate the hope and desperation that has brought them on this long and uncertain journey.

The dangerous boat ride to Greece through the eyes of a Syrian refugee girl

 

LESBOS, Greece, October 2015 – Far from home, in a compound for Syrian asylum seekers in Lesbos, Malak passes the time by playing with a white cat. For the last month, this has been her home, after she and her mother made the precarious boat journey from Turkey.

An idyllic island normally home to about 85,000 people, Lesbos’s population has recently swelled as the refugee crisis unfolding for years in the Middle East has reached its shores.

“I was afraid for my mother”

The 7-year-old initially says her journey to Lesbos was easy, but after a while, memories of the inflatable boat surface, and she begins to speak about what she and her mother endured. Her voice gets lower, her movement becomes rigid and her eyes look straight down, avoiding eye contact. The boat took around 50 people, she says, although it was only meant to hold 20. It was cold and scary.

“The water filled the boat up till my knees. I was sitting on a man’s lap, and afraid for my mother, knowing the back pain she suffers from," she says while pointing to her knees silently. She nods her head as if in agreement with the images in her head "I was afraid the boat might collapse in the middle and we would sink into the sea and die. I was afraid for my mother, and my mother was afraid for me."

Reunification

Malak’s eldest brother has already sought asylum in Germany, so their mother decided to travel to Greece and appeal for family reunification.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-2506/Romenzi
Malak, 7, in the Kara Tepe reception center on the island of Lesbos in the north-eastern Aegean Sea.

Once Malak and her mother reached the Greek island, the plan was for the father and remaining two sisters to join them. However, it took the others around seven attempts before reaching the shores of Lesbos, at which point they were attacked by a boat of armed robbers who stole everything the refugees had. The family was eventually reunited with the help of the Greek government.

Burden of displacement

When Malak talks about her journey into Europe, she refers to a trip that starts with Syria, goes through Turkey and ends in Germany, all by plane. Lesbos is not part of her narrative, nor is the sea trip in the inflatable boat.

Her decision to forget these incidents is what marks her adaptation to her new reality.

When asked where they slept the night they arrives, Malak just laughs. She says she has forgotten. Most probably, like the majority of the refugees here, she slept on the streets, covered only with blankets provided by the police. She does remember that they stopped four or five taxis to ask for a lift, but none took them; she is too young to know that all forms of public transportation in Greece/Lesbos are legally prohibited from carrying refugees.

When she speaks about her aspirations for her future life in Germany, or memories of her past life in Syria, she mostly refers to friends and school. These are the two elements that she associated with normalcy in her life – they are also the two things missing from her daily routine on the island.

Keeping a close eye

Mustapha, 13, is from the Syrian city of Aleppo and is on his way to Germany. Departing from Turkey, he arrived in Lesbos with his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law and his niece, after a harrowing boat trip.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-2501/Romenzi
Mustapha, 13, arrived in Lesbos with his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law and his niece, after a harrowing boat trip. Above, he stands outside a tent in Idomeni, Greece, near the border of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Following their arrival, they slept in the informal camp of Kara Tepe, the registration centre for Syrian refugees on the island. Here, people sleep in tents set up by UNHCR, in recreational tents if they can afford one, on mattresses or often on nothing at all.

Like many others, Mustapha and his family fell into the last category, saving their money for the long journey ahead instead.

At night, the camp has no electricity, and during the day, with so many families crowded into a small space or living in the open air, there is no privacy.

Mustapha and his family spend most of their time sitting together so that each member of the family can keep a close eye on the others and protect the group. Mustapha quickly follows his niece if she starts to walk away a bit, and he in turn is watched over by his brother if he wanders around to chat to other boys his age.

First sea trip

When asked about his journey by sea, Mustapha promptly confirms this is his first boat trip. “The boat was full of people and the smugglers were cramming people in. I was afraid the boat would split into two. We will fall into the water. We will drown, suffocate and die. But luckily we didn’t.”

During the journey, his leg was caught underneath a huge weight, although he wasn't sure if it was the weight of people or of bags. The pain was unbearable, he says, and he soon started crying and couldn’t stop himself.

“A short while before landing on the shore [at Lesbos], I was able to start moving my leg again, and bit by bit I was able to move it fully,” he says. After their boat finally arrived, they walked from noon until the following morning to reach Kara Tepe.

Daily struggles

On the island, most refugees buy bread and water and other basic foodstuff from the in-camp canteen. Food distributions are limited. The formal sites have more structured and regular food distribution. But in the informal camps, it tends to be more random, with the young and healthy pushing to the front of the lines at the distribution points, often forcing others to leave with nothing. Some people here say they have not eaten for days.

"We were always afraid. There was always war where we lived," Mustapha says.

When asked about his life in Syria in the period before he left, Mustapha recounts his constant fear that his brothers would be recruited by one of the many armed factions or the Syrian army. Without them, the family would have been unable to support themselves, especially with the rising price of bread and basic food items.

The situation on the island reminds him of these feelings, the constant fear of starvation, and as he talks, he repeats the same questions: “If we do not have money, what shall we do? How can we survive? The poor do not get anything."

One of Mustapha's brothers eventually fled to Germany out of fear to avoid being made to fight. “When he left, I cried. I cried and was deeply saddened,” Mustapha says, his voice deeper and choked with emotion. “I wanted to go with him but my parents did not accept. They said I was too young.”

The prospect of reuniting with his brother is one of the only things that allows Mustapha to stay hopeful during this long journey.


UNICEF has been working closely with EU member states to advocate for continued search and rescue operations on sea and land, the provision of adequate resources for crucial services, the implementation of asylum procedures that put the best interests of the child first, and the use of detention centers for children only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. All of this aims to make sure that the children who are part of this mass movement of people into Europe are well protected wherever they may be seeking asylum.

 


 

 

UNICEF Photography: In search of hope

 

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