The Game

Curbing legal migration and closing borders leads asylum seekers to take great risks to enter the European Union

Each day, an untold number of unaccompanied child asylum seekers are risking everything to establish new lives by crossing illegally into the European Union. It is a dangerous endeavor carrying with it the gravest of risks, including detention, exploitation, abuse, injury — even death. It is deadly serious. Yet to those who try, it is known as The Game.

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Adolescent boys at an informal settlement known as the Barracks, an abandoned series of warehouses where approximately 1,200 men and boys are sleeping rough in central Belgrade, Serbia.

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Despite abysmal conditions and limited access to safe water and sanitation, smugglers operate relatively freely in the Barracks, making asylum seekers reluctant to move to an official shelter. Youths warm themselves as a man dries an item of clothing by a small fire in the Barracks.

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Erfan, 14, (right) from Afghanistan, uses his mobile phones in a UNICEF-supported centre for refugees and migrants in Belgrade, which provides Wi-Fi access and other services, including medical referrals. Many of the men and boys frequenting the centre shelter at the nearby Barracks.

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Ibrahim (right), 9, and Abuzar, 11, both from Afghanistan, eat food distributed for lunch outside a dilapidated warehouse at the Barracks. Refugee and migrant children are extremely vulnerable to violence and abuse, and to being preyed upon by smugglers and even enslaved by traffickers.

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A young man walks away from a dilapidated building bearing the message “I just want to be home.” Many residents of the Barracks try to sneak into Hungary or Croatia. Most will fail several times, typically caught by border police and pushed back, before they successfully make it through.

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“It was so painful. They dislocated my knee,” says Zobair, 16, an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan squatting in the Barracks, who was injured by Hungarian border police.

Harsh border enforcement policies leave children in limbo and exacerbate their risk of exploitation.

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Algerian asylum-seekers (from left) Hamza, 17, Mohammad, 18, and Jalwan, 16, sit on a wagon before attempting to cross into central Europe at a train yard near Thessaloniki, Greece. Barriers to legal migration do not stop people from moving, they only push them underground.

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Crossing the border illegally is fraught with danger, as refugee and migrant children try to squeeze into tiny spaces between the containers and the train flat beds, or above the axles of the screeching wheels. Here, Jalwan, 16, (centre) helps Ahmad, 21, into a tight space as Hamza, 17, (left) looks on.

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Border closures and aggressive pushback measures can leave children stranded in countries where they do not want to stay, are not welcome, or have few prospects. Mohammad, 17, an unaccompanied minor from the Syrian Arab Republic, is staying at the UNICEF-supported S.O.S. shelter in Athens.

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“I was sad,” says Jalil, 15, an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan, “but then I thought, here in Greece it’s not that bad.”

Jalil lives at the S.O.S. shelter and attends a local school. UNICEF calls on governments to give refugee and migrant children access to health and education.

Learn more about the refugee and migrant crisis.

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