Danger every step of the way
Our new report, Danger Every Step of the Way, has found that more than nine out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe this year through Italy are unaccompanied. Often these children have little choice but to make the journey alone, having been forced to flee their homes to escape conflict, despair and poverty. They make these journeys in the hope of finding safety in Europe. But why are these children forced to leave? And what are the dangers that they face?
The threats facing unaccompanied refugee children
1. Turning to smugglers in order to escape
Children rely on smugglers to make journeys, which can take them several thousand kilometres over mountains, across deserts, and through violence-torn regions.
Omar* fled Somalia at the age of 16 when an armed group threatened to kill him because he refused to join their ranks. When he eventually reached Libya, the smugglers demanded more money, detained him and beat him, until his family sent him the funds.
2. Attacked on their way to Europe
There is strong evidence that the current crisis has been exploited by criminal human trafficking networks to target the most vulnerable, in particular women and children.
Of increasing numbers of Nigerian women and girls leaving Libya for Italy, some estimates suggest 80 per cent are victims of trafficking. Italian social workers have said that both girls and boys are sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution while in Libya, and that some of the girls were pregnant when they arrived in Italy, having been raped.
3. Forced to work so they can carry on their journey
Unaccompanied children generally rely on human smugglers, often under a system of ‘pay as you go’, which opens them to exploitation.
“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,” Aimamo, 16, said of the farm in Libya where he and his twin brother worked for two months to pay the smugglers. “Once I was just resting for five minutes, and a man beat me with a cane. After working, they lock you inside.”
Despite these threats, children are prepared to risk everything because of war and conflict, physical and sexual abuse, the threat of recruitment into armed groups, poverty and the absence of educational opportunities in their home country. In Nigeria, boys are forced to attack their own families to demonstrate their loyalty to Boko Haram. In Syria, more than 2.1 million children inside the country, and 700,000 in neighbouring countries, are out-of-school.