|Syrian refugee children, May 19, 2014
Photo Credit: mehmet bilgin/Flickr CC
In memory of Jo Cox, 1974-2016, campaigner for immigrants and refugees, MP from Batley and Spen (Yorkshire).
UNICEF–the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund–has released two reports on the tragic situation of refugee children who are fleeing areas of conflict and poverty for the West. These reports–Danger Every Step of the Way (June 5) and The Refugee Crisis in Europe (June 16)–are written with great understatement. They tell a few individual stories, accumulate statistical data of the problem and make pleas based on the international legal obligations on states. The prose is dry even as the subject matter is urgent and terrible. The reader is taken to the precipice of rage. Is there anything that could be done? UNICEF has suggestions, but the world’s leaders have poured wax in each other’s ears.
Between January 1 and May 31 of this year, the International Organisation of Migration and others counted seven thousand five hundred and sixty-seven children amongst the desperate refugees who crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Italy. Of them, startlingly, ninety-two per cent came without an adult. Almost all these children–in other words–went alone on the dangerous journey from Western and Eastern Africa, through the Sahara Desert, into war-torn Libya and then across the perilous sea. Peace (age 17) from Nigeria recalls the horrors of the journey, “So many people died in the desert. We saw dead bodies, skeletons.” Strikingly, Peace–who is now at Rainbow House in Sicily–said, “I wish my friend had told me how difficult it is. I would have continued suffering in Nigeria.”
Asylum in Europe is elusive. Children sit in refugee centers or prisons for months on end as their paperwork stutters through the system. Laws in many European states only allow children to be unified with their parents, not their extended families. This means that children cannot be turned over to aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings. UNICEF finds that ninety-six thousand children cannot be accounted for in the system. In Slovenia, eighty per cent of the unaccompanied children are missing, while ten unaccompanied children go missing each day in Sweden. One in nine unaccompanied refugee children is unaccounted for or missing – although this figure is a low estimate. The children have vanished into Europe, with fear that “some may have fallen prey to criminal gangs.”
When I spoke to Sarah Crowe at UNICEF, she used the term “commodities” several times in our conversation – “children have become effectively a form of commodity,” she said for example. A large number of Nigerian women and girls have been coming across the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration has estimated that eighty per cent of them are victims of trafficking. What data Italian social workers have been able to accumulate shows that both boys and girls have been sexually assaulted on their journey–some girls even arrive pregnant. Trafficking is “by its nature invisible,” Crowe told me. This is what makes it difficult for international agencies and social workers to either produce reliable data or find effective means to help the children.
Few of the refugee children pay their smugglers the entire fare in the home country. A pay-as-you-go system operates. The children pay one smuggler to get them to Agadez in Niger, and another to get them to Libya, a third to get them to Italy, a fourth to their next stop. More often than not there are many more stages to the process. When the children get to their next destination, they often have to earn money to hire one more smuggler for the route to come. This is where they are most vulnerable–forced into all kinds of occupations out of utter despair. Aimamo (age 16) and his twin brother left Gambia to travel through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya. He worked on a farm in Libya to pay off his smuggler. “If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade,” said Aimamo. These boys worked on a farm. Others are raped. Yet others vanish into shadowy networks and never emerge for the next transit.
If the children get to Calais–the camp known the Jungle–matters do not improve. The latest UNICEF report–based on interviews with sixty children–points to widespread abuse, “with cases of debt slavery and forced criminal activity” as well as “sexual exploitation and rape of boys, and rape and forced prostitution of girls.” Rape has become currency. Traffickers charge £4,000 and £5,500 to cross the English Channel – a cost that the unaccompanied children cannot bear. They must take terrible risks to get to Britain. It is an unimaginable situation.
On 27 May, UNICEF signed an agreement with the Italian government to monitor the reception of refugees–particularly unaccompanied minors–into Italy. Pleas that countries in Europe hasten to allow unaccompanied children to either be united with their extended families or be taken in by volunteer families are as yet unheard. International law forbids the imprisonment of children for their migration status. This is a common practice in many countries, including–of course–the United States.
There are now two hundred and fifty “immigrant detention centers”–a euphemism for prison–in the United States. These centers house unknown numbers of children. About a hundred thousand unaccompanied children were arrested at the US-Mexico border last year–many of them are held in these centers. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are in favor of the deportation of these children–against international law, whose principle of non-refoulement suggests that refugees cannot be sent back to their countries if they may face serious human rights violations.
Last week, seven children–all refugees–wrote a joint letter to the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom. “We are the children you see on the dangerous boats to Europe,” they wrote, “torn from our families by war. We’re the children you see living through hell in ‘The Jungle’ in Calais. We will never forget those horrific months.” These children arrived in the UK and are now with their families. They want the other children across Europe to have the same outcome. “Some people have a negative view of refugees,” they write, “but we just want a second chance of living a happy life with our families and away from war.” A letter like this to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton might be a good idea. It would let them know that the unaccompanied children who cross the Rio Grande are children – eager for a better life, not a threat to the United States of America.
UNICEF’s Sarah Crowe listed the reforms of the system that would be needed in the short-term. But she was also quite clear that “unless the drivers of migration are addressed, then this is going to be an unending saga.” What are these drivers of migration? War and poverty: with one in ten children living in countries torn by war, and with four hundred million children living in extreme poverty. By May 2016, over sixteen thousand five hundred people had already left Agadez for Libya. The flow from war and poverty continues. It is unabated by the dangers that await the refugees–whether children or not.
Any policy that does not look deep into the roots of the crisis will fail. The scale of the crisis will overwhelm all good intentions. Not enough social workers can be hired, not enough asylum centers opened up. Frustration with the scale will lead to xenophobia. It will turn a humanitarian crisis into a security one–and make the police and army the first line of defense instead of charity groups and social workers. Morality is fragile. Only a deeper look at the problem and a serious international effort to address questions of poverty and war can provide the path out of the current madness.