Providing safe spaces to migrant children

DJIBOUTI, 18 July 2017 — We went to meet Ali*, 13 years old, who is attending the dedicated centre for street and vulnerable children set up by UNICEF’s partner Caritas in Djibouti. Three years ago, Ali and his friends decided to leave their hometown in Ethiopia determined to search for a new perspective and better life.

“There were no future prospects for young people or children there. My parents got separated a few years ago, so my brother and I lived with our grandfather. There was nothing to eat and we have never been to school. We decided to leave the village and go straight to Djibouti. We were told that life there is much better. We had travelled miles, on a truck, on foot and finally arrived at our destination.”

Dreams fading away

“When we arrived, we were just fascinated by what we saw: markets, cars circulating everywhere and the coming-and-going of the people of Djibouti. But our dreams quickly faded away. We did not know where to go, how to feed ourselves and the heat in Djibouti is incredibly exhausting. We sleep on the sidewalks or we go to the beach to spend the night there. Believe me, life on the streets is not easy. It is marked by violence and exploitation, between children themselves but also from adults,” Ali revealed.

Like Ali, many children from neighbouring countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, follow the same pathway every year. “I’ve connected with other children who have migrated to try to find jobs. Now, I occasionally worked in cheap restaurants and sometimes I pick up plastic bottles to resell them. These are my only sources of income to survive, but that’s not enough. That’s why I come here regularly.”

Providing safe spaces for migrant children

With support from UNICEF, Caritas runs a day-time drop-in centre in Djibouti for the most vulnerable children. The centre provides a package of social services to children, including basic health and hygiene services, food, clothing and other essential items.

Children, 175 boys and 25 girls, are as young as 7 years old and up to 15 years old. “Every day we receive about 80 to 90 children in difficult situations. Most of them are migrants from Ethiopia (70%) and the rest are from Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen and internally displaced children from Djibouti,” says Francesco Martialis, Director of Caritas in Djibouti. “Most of the girls who attend the centre have been victims of unimaginable violence, such as rape, incest, exploitation and prostitution,” continues Francesco Martialis.

The centre offers psychosocial support services to help the children overcome the trauma and hardships they have lived through. UNICEF-trained social workers ensure that children in the centre are monitored on a case-by-case basis and provided with the support they need to cope with the impact of this violence. The centre also provides vocational trainings for young people to give them skills and increase their chances to get a job. In collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), UNICEF also works with Caritas to identify the families of unaccompanied or separated children for voluntary repatriation to Ethiopia for family reunification. Thanks to Djiboutian and foreign volunteers, the centre also runs a number of educational programs — including literacy workshops, language courses and recreational activities.

Delphine, a young volunteer, shares her experience. “We started our literacy workshop in the 1990s and we can see that the children are very keen to learn to read and write. Most of them are determined to escape the vicious circle of poverty and want to overcome it through education. Having basic reading and writing skills is already an important step forward and a prerequisite to be able to function in society. We are trying, as far as we can, to integrate the most motivated children into public schools or into the Djiboutian informal educational centres called LEC (Lire — Ecrire — Compter/Reading — Writing — Counting)”.

A growing number of migrant children

According to IOM’s latest estimates, Djibouti is now home to 36,000 migrants, including 19,000 Yemeni nationals (53%), 15,000 (41%) migrants in transit and 1,900 (6%) repatriated Djiboutians. Unaccompanied children represented about 35% of the migrant population in 2016.

“We are critically challenged by the increasing number of children in need who want to attend the centre. We are calling for solidarity and support to help us meet the immediate needs of these children,” concluded Francesco Martialis.

For Ali, the centre today represents the only option for survival. But he hopes one day to escape extreme poverty and no longer be dependent on the assistance of others. “My only wish is to be able to live independently, to be able to meet my own needs, and — why not — the needs of my family”.

* Not his real name