Falling through the cracks: refugee children traveling alone, at risk in the Balkans
In a small, cramped classroom on a derelict street in Belgrade, a sixteen-year-old Afghan boy named Hamid is describing his journey from Pakistan to Serbia. He has paid smugglers $12,000 to get him as far as Germany and he is hoping that he can move on from there to Belgium where he would reconnect with his mother, who he hasn’t seen in six years. His journey as far as Belgrade has been arduous. Smugglers in Iran put him in a coffin-shaped box and made him lie flat inside for eight hours as they traversed the country before pulling him out, putting something over his head, putting him in the trunk of a car and dropping him at the Turkish border. He spent 18 hours walking in the mountains. Smugglers beat him to try to make him go faster. He was held in a house on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, before being piled into a trailer with 50 others and driven close to the Serbian border where they were all stuffed into a car — 20 people in one car — and dropped on the outskirts of Belgrade. From there, a €100 taxi fare brought him to the city center. He is traveling alone. He started this journey with his seventeen-year-old sister but they got separated along the route. He worries about her now and thinks she is back in Afghanistan.
It is impossible to know exactly how many children are traveling through the Balkans by themselves in search of safety and sanctuary in Europe. Conservative estimates put current numbers at 1,300, but this number may be higher. “Out of Sight, Exploited and Alone,” a joint report released today by the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and 10 partner organizations in the Balkans finds that there are significant gaps in the way in which countries along the Balkan route are looking out for these children. There is limited coordination between countries and there are few services available that address their needs. These children are, in far too many ways, falling through the cracks.
A complex situation
Although the Serbian government has established three shelters to accommodate unaccompanied children who are 14 years old and younger, many children who are eligible for these shelters choose not to go there. Instead, they decide to sleep rough in abandoned warehouses and buildings across Belgrade and close to Serbia’s northern borders. The reasons for this are complex. They trust no-one and are afraid that if they go to one of the official centers they will either be sent back to Afghanistan, which is the country from which most have fled, or they will be pushed back to Bulgaria or Macedonia. They also want to stay close to the smugglers who they see as their one ticket to the European Union.
The children all tell a similar story. They are primarily from Afghanistan and fled because of the Taliban. The majority of them have been sent by their parents, and the abuse they have endured on their journey here is horrific to hear. Beatings at the hands of both smugglers and border guards, dogs being set on them as they try to cross. Detention. Sometimes they are asked their ages and sometimes they are not. Either way, they say, it doesn’t make a difference. They rarely get special treatment. They always walk in the night.
Limited legal options
As the joint NGO report describes, the only legal options available for these children are family reunification or asylum. As the majority of children in the Balkans have been sent by their families, family reunification does not apply; and they have no interest in staying in the Balkans so they often choose not to seek asylum. This means that their only alternative is smugglers, and smugglers are all too eager to exploit them for their own personal gain. The report outlines cases of children under the age of 14 being used by smugglers to recruit new clientele for their lucrative cross-border fare. If you are under 14 you are immune to prosecution.
Since the outset of this crisis, smugglers have always been the ones who have gained the most. The report calls for Balkan states to crackdown on smuggler networks who transport children, along with harsh sentences for those involved in this nefarious trade.
These kids have ambitions
Zamiri is sixteen years old and is from a small village in Afghanistan where everyone knows everyone’s business. When the Taliban discovered that he could read and write in Pashtu they wanted him to work for them. His father refused and so the Taliban threatened to kill him. “My father wanted me to come here,” he says. “He sold a field so I could come here.” Zamiri wants to find a way to England so that he can study at Oxford. “I want to become president of Afghanistan in the future,” he says with a small smile. Other children said they wanted to be engineers. Hamid wants to work in computer science. One said that his mother wants him to become a lawyer.
There is no question that ensuring unaccompanied children get the care they need is challenging. These are children who don’t trust anyone after all, and they certainly don’t want to be stopped. Their goal is clear: they must get to what they all call their “destination country,” be that France, Belgium, England, Sweden or Ireland. Many of them try to fly under the radar in order to achieve this goal and those who do avail of official services often only do so for the short-term. When they hear from their smuggler they are off again, putting their lives at risk in order to achieve their dreams, always walking in the night.
To read the IRC/Save the Children report, “Out of Sight: Exploited and Alone,” click here.
Press release here.