The story of Europe’s 210,000 unaccompanied minors seeking asylum

"The most frightening thing is that we know that the figure of 210,000 only corresponds to the data collected by states on unaccompanied minors who have applied for asylum," explained Jennifer Zuppiroli, migration advocacy advisor at the NGO Save The Children.

After a journey often marked by violence and abuse, more than 210,000 unaccompanied minors who have applied for asylum in Europe over the past five years are living in crowded refugee camps. EURACTIV’s partner EUROEFE reports.

“The inhumane conditions in which unaccompanied minors live were once again brought to light by the recent fire in the Greek camp of Moria, where 70% of the inhabitants were minors”, said Jennifer Zuppiroli, migration advocacy advisor at the NGO Save The Children.

Human trafficking networks, sexual abuse, forced labour and even organ trafficking are the reality that these children face every day. These young people are also deprived of schooling or health care, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tip of the iceberg

“The most frightening thing is that we know that the figure of 210,000 only corresponds to the data collected by states on unaccompanied minors who have applied for asylum. All those who are not identified as potential applicants or minors are not counted”, explained Zuppiroli.

This figure “is probably only the tip of the iceberg”, agrees German psychologist Jan Kizilhan, who has more than 20 years of experience in treating traumatised victims in war zones.

Very few children are granted refugee status, and most escape out of fear of being deported or to try to find their families, a recent Save The Children report has found.

Over the past five years at least 700 children have lost their lives at sea in the face of unconcerned authorities, according to the NGO.

“This is a human tragedy that calls into question all the moral and ethical values of the ‘modern’ world,” says Jan Kizilhan, who took care of many of these children.

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Fear and abuse

Zuppiroli, who considers it essential for Europe to “act in concert”, considers it a problem that “they are ‘stuck’ in the country of entry,” noting that “many have to go and see their families, but obtaining a safe transfer is very complicated.”

Faced with the impossibility of being reunited with their families, “many people leave the centres in order to be able to act independently. It is they who then disappear”, said Zuppiroli.

This is where human trafficking networks take advantage of the opportunity to exploit them so they work in ‘informal’ jobs, turn to criminality such as theft or are victims of sexual exploitation.

“We know from our therapeutic work that girls and boys are very often victims of sexual abuse, including rape, during their escape which lasts several months,” said Kizilhan.

“I have seen girls between 10 and 16 years of age who have been repeatedly raped during their flight and in the refugee camps. And now, in Germany, they cry, they scream, they are afraid every day and they can’t cope with these experiences,” he added.

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Violence, a policy of deterrence

This is a far cry from the promises made to improve EU migration policy.

“It is increasingly difficult for children to reach Europe because of the brutal policies of outsourcing border controls, which leave this responsibility to third countries: Turkey for Greece and Libya for Italy. In Spain, this process has been going on for 20 years with the Moroccan authorities,” said Zuppiroli.

It is at the borders that unaccompanied minors suffer the most violence and “European governments are aware of this” because “NGOs report these atrocities on an almost daily basis”, she added.

“This can be seen as a perfidious policy of deterrence: the children being victim to sexual and even death is deliberately accepted in order to reduce the number of people coming to Europe,” said the expert, adding that “it is a crime against humanity that is being committed while we are all looking the other way.”

Zuppiroli highlighted that even when children access the procedure, “refugee recognition rates are minimal and vary greatly from country to country.”

Refugee camps are like ‘prisons’

“Every day since August 2019, an average of 10,000 children, of whom 60% are below the age of 12, are still trapped on the Greek islands,” wrote Save the Children Europe Director Anita Bay Bundegaard in the report.

Life in the camps causes children who are already traumatised “many mental illnesses, such as depression, stress, anxiety and fear, which have serious physical repercussions,” said Kizilhan.

“They suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, the inability to cope with their feelings, headaches, as well as back and stomach aches. Many also suffer from bed-wetting and are ashamed of it,” he added

But the worst thing is that they “lose confidence in people and in humanity” and “without help and psychosocial care, they will have to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives”.

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Zuppiroli agrees that the camps have a “brutal impact” on children’s mental health: “self-mutilation, depression, suicide attempts, phenomena that we should not see in childhood, especially because they are manageable situations for Europe and its states. These are not excessive figures.”

Threats for helping refugees

On top of suffering from abuse on their journey and in the camps, these minors, once relocated in a safe place, also face increasing social rejection.

“Personally, I receive threats, via e-mails and phone calls, that I am committed to ensuring that refugees, for example from Moria, and especially children, are immediately taken to Germany, France or Spain. I had never experienced this before,” said Dr Kizilhan.

For Jennifer Zuppiroli, it is necessary to move towards “more inclusive and welcoming societies”, because “it is not about solidarity, but about responsibility”. She also called for people to reflect on “the political and economic interests that perpetuate conflict”.

“It is up to us to avoid wars that last seven or eight years, with whole generations that have known nothing but horror,” she said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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