“The reality is these children are not only Europe’s future, North Africa’s future, the Middle East’s future, we’re in a global world. It’s also our future.”
– Dr. Mischa Thompson, Senior Policy Advisor, Helsinki Commission
Although refugee and migrant arrivals to Europe have been declining since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, thousands continue to arrive each year from countries throughout the Middle East and Africa, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Of those, the number of youth whom arrive unaccompanied is increasing. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of refugee and migrants are minors, and 5 percent unaccompanied.
The situations that cause children to arrive in Europe alone are very complex, but experts agree that more must be done to see that they are protected, supported, and integrated.
During the briefing, which highlighted the current situation of refugee and migrant youth in Europe, Sofia Kouvelaki, Executive Director of the Home Project in Athens, Greece, shared the story of two Syrian boys forced to leave their family and home in Syria.
“Two Syrian brothers, Adnan and Ayaz, age 10 and 11 years old […] reported witnessing firsthand bombings, killings, decapitations, and all forms of violence,” she recounted. “In 2015, the father managed to send enough money to finance their move to Europe via smuggling networks. Adnan and Ayaz had to walk all the way to the Turkish coast through very dangerous routes. They report being physically and sexually abused by the trafficker along the way, as well as being held at a house for a month where we suspect they were repeatedly raped.”
“They tried to reach to Greece three times,” she continued. “The first two failed and the kids were arrested and returned and detained in a Turkish refugee camp, where they experienced even more violence. The third time, they managed to reach the Greek island of Chios [and] were detained for more than three months in a closed reception facility, co-existing with adults in horrible living conditions.”
“The youngest of the two brothers attempted to hang himself using his own t-shirt. His attempt failed because the t-shirt was torn. The child was hospitalized with his brother for five hours at the local hospital and then returned to the detention center due to a lack of appropriate accommodation on the island. We were notified by a volunteer regarding this case. And in collaboration with the public prosecutor for minors and the local authorities, we went to Chios and escorted the kids to one of our shelters. The kids are now safe, and they’re receiving a holistic network of services [at a Home Project shelter],” she concluded.
The story exemplifies the vulnerability of refugee and migrant youth traveling to Europe and the need for an increased focus on what expert Kathleen Newland, Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute, cited as some of the biggest problems: trafficking, detention, a lack of appropriate reception centers and shelters for children – circumstances that allow children to easily go missing. “16-, 17-year-old boys form the bulk of this population,” she said. “Unfortunately they are not seen as the most sympathetic group. People don’t necessarily think of almost adult males as being the most vulnerable. But in fact, in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, they are the most vulnerable to forcible recruitment, to being killed in the context of these conflicts.”
The Home Project offers a promising model for providing the basic needs of refugee and migrant youth- food, shelter, medical support, psychological support, psychiatric supervision, and tools for integration (language training, education, and employment). It includes the Youth to Youth Program in collaboration with the American Community Schools of Athens with the goal being through education to connect the youth with employers. According to Kouvelaki, “the ultimate goal is integration.”
Newland cited a number of measures that countries are supposed to be implementing in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other policies to protect and integrate refugee and migrant youth. However, a lack of capacity in some cases combined with a xenophobic political climate in the EU, including anti-migrant policies in Hungary and Poland, has resulted in less than expected progress since the height of refugees coming to Europe in 2015. This is particularly concerning given Europe’s traditional leadership role on human rights, and assertions that well-integrated refugees and migrants might be the key to Europe’s economic future in the face of declining population growth in many countries.