lost in migration
In January 2016, Europol brought to the world’s attention that in the previous year over 10,000 migrant children went missing in Europe. How do children who arrive in Europe drop off the EU radar, never to be found again, and where have they gone?
By Miriam Deprez.
Gulwali Passarlay grew up in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan during the Taliban era. Passarlay’s father was a doctor and mother was a midwife. He had a name for each of the three hundred of his grandparent’s sheep and goats and spent most of his childhood dreaming of a life as a shepherd. When Passarlay was seven, he was made to go to school. During this time, the US began their invasion of Afghanistan, and his home became a war zone. His experience was nothing but death, destruction, and conflict. And when Passarlay turned 10, the boy whose name translates to ‘Flower, Friend of God, Spring,’ was asked to join the Taliban with his brother.
Passarlay’s mother understood that violence was not the answer, and to allow her sons to fight would mean sentencing them to a life of unimaginable horror. So she paid $8000 for each son, and left them in the hands of smugglers to get them to Europe. That was 10 years ago, and although Passarlay and his brother made it to the UK, they have not seen their mother since.
It took Passarlay 14 months to journey to the UK. He was separated from his brother almost immediately and travelled through ten countries alone – jumping on the back of lorries and moving trains, overcrowded boats, chicken coops and dirty cages – he slept on the streets, was starved, imprisoned, shot at and beaten. But Passarlay is one of the lucky ones.
The Lost Children
In January this year Europol brought to the world’s attention that in 2015 over 10,000 migrant children went missing in Europe. Children just like Passarlay, who arrived in Europe, but within hours of registration have dropped off the EU radar, never to be found again.
"…it might be the only way he could survive.”
Migrant children en route to Europe either initially leave unaccompanied, become separated from their parents due to the chaos of the journey, or fall victim to the plans of traffickers to take control over the children. In 2014 23,000 unaccompanied migrant children entered Europe, in 2015 that number rose to over 90,000.
NGO Missing Children Europe Secretary General, Delphine Moralis stresses the importance to recognise the common misconception behind unaccompanied minors making their way to Europe.
“Many people believe the children are used as ‘anchors’ sent by the parents to be sent over first, then they will follow. But this is not the case, what we have seen is that the parents will sell everything they own, if they have the chance for safety – they give it to their child.”
“[Passarlay’s] mother paid so much money to send him over by himself. She knew that if she didn’t, then her 10-year-old son would have to fight with the Taliban. Of course she would prefer to keep her son with her. From her point of view, it is a huge sacrifice where their country is torn apart, it’s not an easy choice to make. But it might be the only way he could survive.”
According to Moralis, the reason migrant children go missing is very complex, each child with a different story and different needs. Many of the problems surrounding the disappearances begin at migrant reception centres.
“Reception condition are extremely poor. From not having enough beds, to children in the early days were literally being put in cages. This was used not as a means to punish them, but a way to protect them from the outside world, and simply losing their humanity along the way.”
Current conditions in reception centres like Greece are deteriorating rapidly due to the massive influx of migrants arriving daily, and family reunification and asylum processes are lengthy and indefinite, “you tell a child that it will take a year to be reunited with his mother, and he will leave.”
"Many EU member states have a ‘no action-plan’ when a migrant child is reported missing, treating them as one less mouth to feed. This would be unacceptable if that was a [European] national child.”
The systematic disappearances from reception centres happen for many reasons. Many children runaway because they are discouraged by lengthy asylum procedures or fear of being sent back to their home countries. Some leave because they are discouraged by the inhumane living conditions, and hope for a happier future elsewhere. However, in some cases children are forced to leave because they have become victims of traffickers.
Moralis also identified a clear difference in action taken by authorities for when a European national child goes missing, as opposed to a migrant child.
“Only 4 member states have legal or procedural rules in place on how to deal with unaccompanied migrant children. Many EU member states have a ‘no action-plan’ when a migrant child is reported missing, treating them as one less mouth to feed. This would be unacceptable if that was a [European] national child.”
The fact is, no one knows where these children are. There is a chance that due to fear of authorities because of their illegal status, children refuse to make themselves known until they reach their destination. In the best case, they are reunited with family after a long journey. However, many others are feared to fall into the hands of human traffickers and exploited for prostitution and slave labour.
Smuggling and Trafficking
Passarlay was able to avoid sexual and labour exploitation by traffickers, but still had to use smugglers to get him to his destination. Passarlay was forced to cross the Mediterranean in a boat crammed with 120 people, only designed for 20. He had never seen the ocean. After 50 hours with no food or water the boat began to sink, and if the coast guard hadn’t been there to rescue them, within minutes they would have all died.
According to Europol statistics, more than 90 percent of migrants are facilitated to the EU by criminal networks and smugglers, with the criminal monetary turnover between three and six billion euros in 2015 alone. This turnover is estimated to triple this year due to migrant smuggling being the fastest growing criminal market in Europe. Europol has reported an increase of forced criminal activity of migrant children, as they are easy targets for being exploited to pay for their journey by the smuggling agents.
"When girls start the journey they [the smugglers] give them contraception because they know they will be raped. Clearly they will be raped frequently.”
Europol Senior Specialist Corporate Communications Officer, Jan Op Gen Oorth says unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by criminal networks both prior to, and after their arrival in the EU.
“[Migrant children] may be exposed to labour exploitation, sexual exploitation or be forced to serve as drug mules or participate in the recruitment and smuggling of other migrants.”
In January this year, the rate of migrant women and minors entering the EU increased by 34 percent compared to 2015, Op Gen Oorth said, “there has been an increase of cases in which women and minors who may not [be] able to cover the financial costs of travel to the EU will be increasingly targeted by traffickers.”
The increase of female minors also means the increase of transactional sexual exploitation, Moralis explained that, to prevent pregnancy, “when girls start the journey they [the smugglers] give them contraception because they know they will be raped. Clearly they will be raped frequently.”
Passarlay travelled across ten member states alone on his route to the UK, desperate to reunite with his brother. On the final leg of his journey after spending a month in the Calais jungle in France, Passarlay managed to climb inside a refrigerator lorry, bound for the UK. Had the driver turned on the freezer, he would have died – suffocated and frozen within hours of reaching his destination. But the nightmare for Passarlay didn’t end there.
"Action without plans leads to fragmentation. It leads to the ad hoc improvised situation we have today that leads to cracks, and those children fall through the cracks. That is where those 10,000 missing children are.”
Passarlay could almost smell freedom when he finally arrived in Britain, but instead felt the first few months were harder than the entire journey itself. He was 13 by this stage and was accused of being 16, endlessly tossed through the hands of bureaucrats, child services and officials. Passarlay was made to feel worthless and unwelcome, at one point wondering if life was really worth continuing. It took two years to convince the officials his proper age, and a further five years to gain refugee status.
When it comes to the bureaucracy surrounding children in migration, a clear lack of understanding and action is evident. The Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, made the final address to the 10th Forum for the Rights of the Child in Brussels this week, stating there is no need for action plans, just concrete measures. “We need to expand our focus to all refugee and migrant children and bring together internal and external policy…and this is something we need to do. With or without an action plan, I simply don’t care.”
But measures with no action plans don’t seem to be finding any missing children, but seem to be exacerbating the problem. “Action without plans leads to fragmentation,” Moralis said in refute of Timmermans statement. “It leads to the ad hoc improvised situation we have today that leads to cracks, and those children fall through the cracks. That is where those 10,000 missing children are.”
It is evident that the refugee crisis is not going away. And talking endlessly about whether to have an action plan or not is not going to fix the situation, nor help those who desperately need it the most – the children. Passarlay’s story is one of millions, but he was given a chance to grow up, complete university and now uses his story to advocate for many other refugee children, just like him. We need to stop thinking of refugees as a burden, simply because they were not fortunate enough to be born in our society. We need to change our perspective, to figure out how we can help these kids to grow up into compassionate global citizens, and give them a chance of a better life that their parents wanted for them.