Facing Danger Each Step They Take, Children Flee Violence and Hardship

July 2, 2016

UNICEF reports on child refugees’ harrowing journeys to Europe.

Real Risks Every Step of the Way

“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,” explains Aimamo, 16, a Gambian teen refugee.  

Boats, in a "graveyard" in Pozzallo, Sicily, used by Libyan smugglers to ferry refugees across the sea to Italy.

Two boats — now impounded by the Italian government and stored in a “graveyard” in Pozzallo, Sicily — used by Libyan smugglers to ferry refugees across the sea to Italy. ©UNICEF/UN020015/Gilbertson VII Photo

Aimamo and his twin brother were compelled to work on a Libyan farm for two months to pay for their perilous Mediterranean crossing to Italy.

“We should never forget that children on the move are, first and foremost, children.”

Their experience might sound like an episode from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events or Harry Potter.  But unaccompanied children on the run face many real dangers. War, despair and poverty in their home countries force them on these desperate journeys.

“We should never forget that children on the move are, first and foremost, children, who bear no responsibility for their plight, and have every right to a better life,” says Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe.

Unfortunately, child refugees — particularly unaccompanied ones — often rely on smugglers of human “cargo,” usually under a “pay-as-you-go” deal. This leaves them open to exploitation, trafficking and abuse.

More Child Refugees Every Day

UNICEF reports that 7,009 unaccompanied children made the crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first five months of 2016, twice as many as last year. 

Outside an Italian temporary shelter housing approximately 110 children in Pozzallo, Sicily, a boy looks at an instruction sheet for asylum applications. ©UNICEF/UN020013/Gilbertson VII Photo

A total of 2,809 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean between January 1 and June 5, 2016, compared to 3,770 during 2015.  Many were children.

And the crisis may soon get worse.  Another 235,000 migrants — tens of thousands of them unaccompanied children — are currently in Libya, frantic to cross the sea to Europe. 

What Happens When They Arrive

The unprecedented scale of the refugee crisis has strained welfare systems in host countries. 

Jannat, 7, a refugee from the destroyed Syrian city of Homs, draws with other child refugees at an emergency shelter in Berlin, Germany.

Jannat R., 7, a refugee from the destroyed Syrian city of Homs, draws with other child refugees at an emergency shelter in Berlin. She and her family arrived in Germany after making a weeklong journey from Turkey by land and sea. ©UNICEF/UN05628/Gilbertson VII Photo

“Even when children reach their destinations, they still need protection.”

For example, a study by UNICEF and the German government found that even children who arrived in Germany with their families can suffer violence, abuse and exploitation. 

Imagine how much more vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees are.

Moreover, as children wait for their asylum applications to be processed — which can take months — they don’t always have access to real schooling, adequate psychosocial support or the chance to play. 

“Even when children on the move have reached the relative safety of their destinations, they still need protection, education, health care and counseling. We must be by their side,” says Poirier.

Child Refugee Facts

How UNICEF Is Helping

UNICEF is working in all the countries that refugees and migrants are leaving, providing children with lifesaving services such as water, sanitation and health care, as well as education and child protection.

Two unaccompanied refugee teens trace their journey from Gambia to Italy on a map at a reception center in Pozzallo, Sicily. Asylum seekers here are supposed to be transferred to temporary shelter after 72 hours, but the boys must often wait one to two months. ©UNICEF/UN020011/Gilbertson VII Photo

In Europe, we advocate for child refugees and promote social inclusion.

We also provide child-friendly spaces, psychosocial support, the training of service providers and the delivery of emergency supplies, such as temporary shelters, clothes, food and cribs.

With the Right Support, There’s Hope

“I thought we were going to die at sea on the journey,” says Sajad A., 15. But now, he adds, “every day, things are good compared to that.” 

Iraqi refugee Sajad, 15, and his family (from the city of Basra) have applied for asylum as refugees where they’re staying at the KurierHaus in Vienna, Austria.

Having fled civil war in Basra with their family, Sajad (who is using a wheelchair) and his sister, Houda Al-Malek (partially visible), wait for their asylum applications to be processed at Kurier Haus, a refugee center in Vienna. ©UNICEF/UN08734/Gilbertson

Sajad and his family fled Iraq, and made it to Austria in November 2015 after a long, difficult trek across the Mediterranean and through the Balkans.

Waiting for their asylum applications to be processed — in temporary shelter with the right kind of support and programming — they can now hope for the same things we want for our children — the opportunity to survive and thrive in a safe and happy home.

Want to know more about refugee children’s dangerous journeys to Europe?

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