Migrant Children : returning to a new life
For Sani, Sahia and the other unaccompanied children, a return to a new life is a second chance at a happy childhood.
Just before sunset, the traffic at the entrance to the city of Agadez is disrupted by the arrival of trucks, filled to their brim with a hundred people. Their destination: the reception site for returnees from Algeria.
Upon arrival, the passangers hurriedly jump off the trucks, as if the doors of a prison have been opened. The first to emerge are a few men, followed by a much larger group of women and children.
It takes several minutes for everyone to get off. One thousand Nigerians have just returned to their country. Tired, thirsty, hungry and some sick, they say they lived through ‘hell’ along the way. At the reception site, located at the edge of the city, they are able to get clean water, use latrines and get first aid.
Very soon, long queues form around the enumerators from the International Organization of Migration (IOM). Their task is crucial: to draw up a detailed profile of each migrant, including name, age, region of origin and whether the person is alone or with a family.
While their mother is waiting in line, Mami and Aicha, aged 8 and 12 respectively, play with pebbles as they laugh. “My mother told me that when we arrive in our village in Matameye (Zinder) she will enrol us in school. So begging is finished!” Mami says, who can’t wait to experience school. The next day, most of them will be able to board buses for their respective villages, with provisions of non-food items and a small amount of money.
Amidst the cries of children and mothers looking for their brood, seven-year-old Sani is disoriented. He has arrived alone in Niger for the first time. He and four other children were arrested while begging and put in the first truck to Agadez after three days of detention.
Born in Algeria, he knows nothing about Niger except the Hausa language that he picked up from his family. “My parents are in Tamarasset [Algeria], but my mother gave me to a lady to become a beggar. When I first started, I sat and begged passers-by and then learned to beg at traffic lights,” says Sani.
“The lady with whom we stayed asked us, the youngest kids, to bring 300,000 Algerian francs every day. And when we did not go begging or the takings were not good, she beat us with electrical wire.”
You can easily see the scars of the whip on Sani’s small body. “We used to spend the night in garbage cans to escape the whip,” says Sahia, the oldest in the group. At the age of 15, she has already stayed with two women who recruit children into begging. “We were 60 at the lady's house and we went to beg at the major crossroads very early in the morning, every day.”
Despite having tricks up their sleeves to avoid police raids, they did not manage to escape that day. “We were begging when the police appeared. They immediately put us in vehicles that took us to the police station before they put us in trucks going to Niger.”
Identified as unaccompanied children, IOM handed them over to the Regional Directorate of Protection in Agadez. With UNICEF support, these children will receive food, the opportunity to call their families, health and psychosocial care, as well as accommodation. The Directorate will conduct individual interviews with the children to locate members of their families based in Niger.
“Given the situation of these children, we are doing everything we can to identify the families of these children and take them home within a maximum of three days,” says Kadre, Child Protection Officer at the UNICEF office in Agadez.
The next morning, the children are all clean and playing when we find them at the Directorate of Protection, testament that they are slowly reclaiming their childhood from the life of begging.
An official from the Directorate cheerfully questions each child. The children’s faces light up with hope when they find out that they will be going to a host family soon. Sani is already seeing a positive future. “Here I will be able to study and become someone who can take care of myself with dignity,” he says.
While the transfer will only take a few minutes for Sani because his family is based in Agadez, for Sahia, she will have to travel an additional 100 kilometers to reach a village in the Tahoua region where her grandfather is ready to take her in. “I'm happy to be back. I will be able to forget what we lived through there because we really suffered,” she says.
In 2017, with UNICEF support, 76 unaccompanied children were reunited with their families. For Sani, Sahia and the other unaccompanied children, a return to a new life is a second chance at a happy childhood.