Children traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America stand on the beach and near the border fence between Mexico and the US, prior to preparations for an asylum request in the US in Tijuana, Mexico [Edgard Garrido/Reuters]
by Faras Ghani
Unaccompanied child migrants face dangerous journeys during transit, including abuse and detention, rights organisations have warned, highlighting significant failings in safeguarding unaccompanied minors.
A recent report by UNHCR revealed that nearly 140,000 people arrived in Greece, Italy and Spain in search of safety in 2018. Almost 11,000 of the new arrivals were unaccompanied children.
Additionally, according to the Red Cross, more than 300,000 unaccompanied child migrants are currently at high risk of sexual and gender-based violence during transit.
The perilous journey undertaken by these young migrants without an accompanying adult makes them vulnerable to being assaulted, sexually abused, raped, trafficked into sexual exploitation or forced into “survival sex”, according to an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) report Alone and Unsafe, which shows that the number of unaccompanied child migrants has grown five-fold in five years.
Europe accounted for more than half of unaccompanied minor arrivals in 2017, with more than 158,000 reaching the continent in the first three quarters of the year.
Currently, almost 30 percent of all asylum seekers across that continent are children, half of whom are from just three countries: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The stark reality is that it is now standard practice that children moving through the Mediterranean are abused, trafficked, beaten and discriminated against,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director and Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe.
A joint UNICEF-IOM report also revealed that children from sub-Saharan Africa are targeted more than any other group, highlighting discrimination and racism along transit routes.
The reason for their departure ranges from abuse at home and peer pressure to violence, says IFRC President Francesco Rocca, who called on UN member countries to address the root causes.
“In Cox’s Bazar, for example, we saw many children with their neighbours because their parents were killed,” Rocca told Al Jazeera.
“In Niger, we see young girls from Nigeria who sold themselves for sex for as low as $3. In Central America, there’s violence that drives them out. It creates a very, very difficult environment for them to live in.”
More support needed
More than 40 percent of all child asylum seekers are girls. A poll by UNICEF late last year revealed that almost half of nearly 4,000 refugees and migrants aged 14 to 24 were forced to leave their countries, 44 percent of them left alone.
Some 38 percent said they did not receive any help from anyone, including family, friends or relatives, while almost half the respondents reported that they had been unable to see a doctor when needed.
“While politicians are squabbling over migration, 4,000 uprooted children and young people are telling us they need more support,” said Laurence Chandy, Director of Data, Research and Policy for UNICEF.
“Uprooted children can teach us a great deal about their needs and vulnerabilities if we are willing to hear them. Migration is inevitable, but the danger and discrimination experienced by refugee and migrant children doesn’t have to be.”
The risks, including sexual and gender-based violence, do not abate once these child migrants arrive in a country of destination, according to the IFRC.
A study, based on interviews with unaccompanied children from Horn of Africa countries who migrated to the United Kingdom, revealed that 72 percent of the respondents experienced more than one incident of sexual violence upon arrival – most of these incidents happened in the first 12 months after their arrival in the UK.
This shows that their safety is not guaranteed, even after reaching the desired destination country, added Rocca.
“If there isn’t enough protection in the country of destination, there is a very high risk of being exploited and exposed to the violence. These vulnerable people can also be forced to the labour market.”