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UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

Caught in Europe’s refugee crisis, children caring for themselves and each other

By Christopher Tidey and Ashley Gilbertson

Nearly hidden among the thousands of people arriving every day in Europe in search of safety and a better life, children travelling without their parents or other adults form a special group – unaccompanied minors – made up of individuals each with a unique story and the need for support. Here are a few of them. 

PRESEVO, Serbia, 13 October 2015 – It is difficult to make out the boy’s name as he tries to speak through sobs. He is overwhelmed by the thousands of people milling around him in the street, and by the police officers and UNICEF staff trying to speak with him in a language he does not understand. His family is nowhere in sight, and he is afraid.

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© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-2587/Gilbertson VII
Ali Abdul-Halim, 17, watches as his brother Ahmad Abdul-Halim, 15, talks on a mobile phone, on the shore near the village of Skala Eressos, on the island of Lesbos, in the North Aegean region of Greece. They are unaccompanied minors who just made the journey to Europe from their home in Baalbek District, Lebanon.

“Hassan,” he finally manages, pointing to himself. His name is Hassan. He holds up both hands to signify his age. Hassan is 10 years old.

An Arabic translator joins the group to help, and more information quickly follows. Hassan is from Syria and has been separated from his father amidst the massive crowd of people waiting to enter the reception centre in Presevo, Serbia, after having crossed from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Through quick work by the police and humanitarian workers, Hassan’s father is found on the other side of the gates leading into the centre. The pair are reunited, and while distress and fear are still visible on his face, Hassan is now safe with his father.

Similar scenes are playing out every day as thousands of refugee and migrant children cross European borders seeking an escape from violent conflict, persecution and deprivation in their home countries. Most of the children caught up in the crisis gripping Europe are travelling with their parents. Many, however, are children who, for one reason or another, are making some or part of the journey without the direct protection and support of a parent or adult guardian.

These children may not be ‘alone’ in the strictest sense – groups of teenage boys could be travelling together, for example, or a 10-year-old boy like Hassan could become separated from his father at a chaotic border crossing, only to be reunited soon after – but they are vulnerable nonetheless, and at increased risk of having their rights violated.

In situations like the one faced by Hassan, the reason a child may be separated or unaccompanied is easy to identify, and the remedy straightforward. Young children are at greatest risk of being separated from their parents while moving among the huge crowds of people – often numbering in the thousands – that form at border crossings and reception centres, where the flow of people is constrained, creating congestion and chaos.

But other cases are far more complex.

Brothers on the move

On 28 September, Ali Abdul-Halim, 17, and his brother Ahmad, 15, arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos on a boat with other refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. All the children on board were with their parents – all except for Ali and Ahmad. The brothers, technically unaccompanied minors, had travelled together from their home in Baalbak, Lebanon to Turkey and then to Greece, while their parents remained behind.

The boys’ family sent them on their journey to Europe because the presence of armed groups had made their community unsafe. The family was also embroiled in a blood feud in which the lives of Ali and Ahmad were directly threatened.  “There is no safety. There are no jobs. There is death every day,” Ali says.

At one point during their sea crossing, the boat took on water, and people feared it would sink. During these tense moments, Ali’s thoughts turned to his family. “I thought of my mom first,” Ali says. “It was very, very, very scary and hard, because we thought we could die at any moment, because we never knew how to swim. It was not a proper ship, it was only a rubber boat that floats back and forth with so much weight that it could capsize at any point.”

After washing up on the rocky coast of Lesbos, Ali telephoned his parents to give them a brief, but powerful message: “Hello, I am calling to reassure you. I made it to Greece.”

Ali and Ahmad plan to continue their journey through Greece and other countries in southeast Europe, hoping eventually to reach Germany. “I love Germany,” says Ali. “I have felt like the future is there. I have friends there. They all told me that the jobs are there, and I will be able to live with dignity.”

Ali has now assumed responsibility for his younger brother on this journey and beyond – his role within the family now one of an adult, working and caring for his younger sibling, despite the fact that at 17, Ali is still technically a child himself. In fact, he has been working full-time as a hairdresser since dropping out of school in the ninth grade. 

“My dream is to be a man, a good man, with money, who is able to help the rest of the world, starting with my family,” Ali says.

In most situations of humanitarian crisis, children who are identified as separated or unaccompanied are routinely given specialized care and attention by aid organizations to help ensure their safety. But in the context of the current refugee and migrant crisis, children like Ali and Ahmad often have no intention of being stopped along their journey because of their status as minors, which makes it difficult for humanitarian groups to provide protection and support. The boys will do everything in their power to reach their final destination independently, taking care of themselves and each other along the way.

Not all of the children crossing Europe’s borders without an adult can rely on the support of a sibling.

Hoping to reunite

Udai, 13, from Syria, is in Serbia without his family. After fleeing violence in rural Damascus, Udai, his parents and his younger brother and sister travelled to Turkey two years ago. His parents soon discovered that they did not have enough money to pay the smugglers’ fee to get all five members of the family on the boat to Greece. After a year, his parents made the difficult decision to leave Udai with friends in Turkey, while the rest of the family went ahead.

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© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-2538/Gilbertson VII
A boy who has just arrived himself watches from the shore as migrants approach land on a large rubber raft, near the town of Mithymna, on the island of Lesbos, 28 September 2015.

After several months, Udai’s family reached Germany and sent him money so that he could start the journey alone to join them. Travelling with other Syrian refugees, Udai made it as far as Belgrade in mid-August before social workers realized he was on his own. He was brought to a reception centre in the Serbian town of Banja Koviljaca, where he will remain until his asylum claim is processed in Germany and he can be reunited with his family. “When they found that I am alone, they took me here,” he says. 

In person, Udai shows no obvious signs of the months spent fending for himself as a 13-year-old refugee. He is calm, confident and pragmatic about his situation. He says that he misses his family, but understands he is safer at the reception centre under the care of social workers than he would be on the road.

The reception centre where Udai is staying has a dormitory in which he shares a room with an older boy from Sri Lanka. He is well cared for. “In the morning I have breakfast, then I go to school,” Udai says. “I am learning Serbian and attend classes to be with boys and girls. What I actively follow are the sports and art classes. I like basketball.”

Udai is in regular contact by phone with his parents, especially his mother, who worries constantly and wants desperately for him to join the family. Serbian and German authorities are also in touch with the family about Udai’s case and are working to get him back with his family.

A continuing challenge

There is no uniform approach for supporting all the unaccompanied and separated children on the move in Europe. Each case is different, and each of these children has particular needs and vulnerabilities. Ten-year-old Hassan, found alone amidst a pile of luggage in Presevo, needed to be kept safe immediately until his father could be found. Seventeen-year-old Ali and his 15-year-old brother would have chaffed at the idea of being held back in their efforts to reach Germany because they are not technically adults, while 13-year-old Udai was at great risk travelling by himself.

The movement of separated and unaccompanied children is essentially a crisis within a crisis. While obvious solutions may be in short supply, these children will continue to come to Europe in search of safety and a better life. And finding ways to help them is a challenge we must keep working on.


 

 

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