Fleeing Home Alone: the growing crisis of unaccompanied children
In January alone, more than 20,000 children arrived unaccompanied on the Greek island of Lesvos having fled from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. They are just a fraction of the thousands of children around the world who are becoming separated from their families while fleeing from conflict and disaster.
Many of these children are lost or left behind in the chaos of battle and flight. Others set out alone to escape from militia violence and military recruitment. Some have been orphaned or left to fend for themselves in harsh and hostile environments.
UNHCR is supporting refugee children who find themselves alone in a strange place.
Huda Al-Shabogh is a Senior Protection Officer with UNHCR. She recently spent three months on emergency mission in Greece, helping unaccompanied refugee children arriving by boat.
“I worked at the Moura Reception Centre on Lesvos,” Houda explains. “When these children arrive, our colleagues down on the shore process them quickly and put them onto buses to Moura. We would receive notification that there were six, seven, eight unaccompanied children arriving on this bus. My job was to meet the children at the first gate as they arrived. We sometimes found they had other family — parents, uncles, cousins — in the centre or on other buses and we could reunite them straight away.”
“It is often very hard to get the children to speak at first. They are very scared. With the boys, particularly, you can see the stress on them. They can seem very mature at first but then, after a little while, when you break through to them, they start to cry like children. It is very sad.”
Houda soon earned herself the nickname ‘the mum of Moura’. Now back in Jordan, she still hears from many of the children who contact her through WhatsApp to tell her how they are.
“These kids are escaping from war,” she says. “It is UNHCR’s role to protect them and make them feel safe. We need to find them suitable accommodation. We need to put them in direct and continuous contact with their families. Europe can be a dangerous place — it can expose a child to many bad things. A frightened child on his own is very vulnerable. ”
Children alone: three stories
Leen, 8 years old, Syrian
Eight-year-old Leen fled Syria with her brother, after their father was killed in the fighting in Homs. Their mother urged Mohammed, 17, to take his little sister and go, fearing Leen would be raped or killed if she stayed.
The children made their way by boat to the Greek island of Lesvos where they were put in the care of Senior UNHCR Protection Officer, Huda Al-Shabasogh.
“At first, Leen was terrified,” Huda recalls, “but our social workers managed to reassure her. Her brother too was very protective of her, never leaving her on her own. She was soon a lively little girl again. All the social workers loved her. She would come and ask me for hugs. She was missing her mother’s hugs.”
After contacting their mother, Huda’s team located the children’s aunt in Sweden. Two weeks later the aunt travelled to Athens to take them home with her.
Hassen, 13 years old, Somalian.
As drought worsened in Somalia, 13-year-old Hassen’s family knew they had to leave. But he couldn’t bear to go without his grandmother, who was too sick to travel.
When she died, Hassen was left to make the perilous journey to Ethiopia by himself, travelling for three days by donkey cart and on foot. The next hurdle was finding his family.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I knew that my family was here but there was no way for me to find them. I felt so distraught.”
It did not take long for UNHCR registration staff to locate Hassen’s family in another refugee camp. They had been asking after him every day. Two days later they were joyously reunited.
“I’m so happy to be back with my family. This is where I belong. I hope that now I’m in Ethiopia, I can go to school. I’ve never been to school before.”
Nyawech, 12 years old, Sudanese.
Nyawech was 12-years-old when she and her little sister Nyalouk, woke to the sound of gun shots in the night. South Sudan’s civil war had arrived at their village.
“I only remember putting on my dress, grabbing my sister by the hand and running out of the house in the darkness. When daylight came, I realised that my father, my mother and my two elder sisters were not with me and I cried a lot.”
After several weeks of walking, Nyawech and Nyalouk arrived at a UNHCR camp in Ethiopia’s Gambella region. They were malnourished and severely dehydrated, having survived on grass and dirty pond water.
In the camp, the two sisters have been adopted by a family from their village, but Nyawech still dreams of home.
“I would like to go back home. I would like to see my family and play hopscotch and jump rope with my friends.”
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UNHCR staff like Huda assist unaccompanied refugee children in many ways:
- our trained protection officers identify and speak to unaccompanied children as they arrive at a border or refugee facility
- we share information between refugee sites to find and reunite children with families members as quickly as possible
- we provide children with safe accomodation and ensure they recieve special care and psychological support
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