What’s happening for child refugees in Europe?
When many European borders closed suddenly last year, it left thousands of refugee children stuck. Children are fleeing war and disaster in greater numbers than ever before since World War 2 yet more children than ever have been stranded at transit centres in Greece and other south-eastern European countries, trying to reach family in Europe or countries where they intend to seek asylum, but unable to move.
Whilst the UK Government pledged to reunite children from Calais with their family in the UK, very little has been achieved for those elsewhere in Europe. To date, only around five children are thought to have been transferred to the UK from Greece and none from Italy.
Why are children still facing these dangerous journeys?
Tens of thousands of children are making the journey alone, and many who were travelling with families may have become separated during the journey, or simply could not leave with them. With Governments not providing safe and legal routes for families fleeing war and conflict, children have been left with no options other than to rely on smugglers who will often take advantage of their desperate situation.
We're now refugees. People don't like us. No one is loyal, everyone lies.
I was a kid before. I am older now. I know more.
Rawan, 12, who had to flee from Aleppo
When children arrive in Italy and Greece, authorities are attempting to identify those who may have been trafficked. However, it is often difficult to identify victims. Children are frequently too scared to give any information. Many children are undertaking their journeys on the basis of “pay as you go” – meaning that they have to earn money along their route. This can result in children being exploited and used for child labour, often including sexual exploitation.
How can I make sure refugee children are protected?
It is up to us to make sure that Governments change things for child refugees. Join us in calling on the UK Government to reunite refugee children with family in the UK, providing safe and legal routes so that they do not have to make these treacherous and dangerous journeys.
Yet there’s more to be done, and we’re working to put pressure on the UK Government through briefings and meetings, to make sure that they are prioritising this. They could choose to provide more options for legal resettlement and relocation, work visas and educational scholarships. They must also make family reunion rules work for children and their families.
If the UK were to widen immigration rules, it would also prevent children from drowning at sea and being forced into the hands of traffickers and smugglers. Right now, it’s absurd that children can only join their family members after having first made the dangerous journey across to Europe.
Download out latest briefing to get an update on our work keeping child refugees safe.
What’s Unicef doing to help refugee children on these journeys?
Together with partner organisations we have established child and family support hubs – known as Blue Dot centres because of their distinctive blue dot marking – across Europe to provide help and support to children and families.
Because the situation is changing, the support that we offer is readily adaptable to fit the needs of children and families. The Blue Dot centres provide a range of services, including family reunification, child-friendly spaces, first aid, psychosocial and emotional care, legal counselling, safe spaces for women and children to sleep and outreach social workers.
Our response in Greece has particular emphasis on services for unaccompanied children – 400 of whom will be provided with temporary accommodation while they wait for asylum, family reunification or relocation in Greece or elsewhere in Europe. Another 6,000 vulnerable children and women living in open sites and urban settings will benefit from psychosocial support, case management and referral to specialised child protection services.
These services are for children like 16-year-old Aamir. He left Afghanistan three years ago, where his parents were killed by the Taliban. He has applied to come to the UK as a particularly vulnerable child. Slight and subdued, he walks with a painful-looking limp, the effects of a degenerative bone disease. According to Greek doctors, this disease can only be addressed by specialist paediatric surgery in the UK.
“When we were in Iran, my grandmother died and I had to bury her” said Aaimr. “Then I had to work for a year, sewing in a workshop underground, to raise money for the rest of the journey. I miss my grandmother a lot. I learned to cook Persian dishes like her on YouTube”.
Aamir receives shelter and is on a specific plan, including psychotherapy, to help him overcome the trauma of his journey from home. Aamir tells us “what I want is to go somewhere to heal my leg, to have a quiet life, and to study.”