Where Have All the Refugee Children Gone?

Most of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe are either fleeing civil war or the threat of being forced into joining armed groups like ISIS, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.

The Guardian has reported that 10,000 of the approximately 90,000 children refugees reaching Europe have disappeared into human trafficking networks.

Europeans governments are dealing with an unprecedented crisis, but need to work cooperatively to ensure children have safe passage, said Chris Tidey of UNICEF.

“One of the big issues for UNICEF – what we’ve been calling for since the beginning of the crisis – is political will; for governments to come to together to ensure refugees and migrants have safe passage, so that when they do make the decision to move from their countries of origin that they have safe ways to do so, they aren’t turning so smugglers and traffickers,” said Tidey.

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Human Rights Watch recently released a report about the unaccompanied children refugees in Europe. The study interviewed children in Sweden and found that most of them fled countries in the Middle East that are going through civil war, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Also, they fled in many cases because their parents were killed and they faced the prospect of being recruited into armed groups like ISIS. According to the Guardian, about 90,000 unaccompanied children have arrived in Europe in the past year, and as many as 10,000 of them have disappeared, presumably into human trafficking networks.

With us to discuss this dramatic situation of child refugees in Europe is Chris Tidey of UNICEF in Geneva, Switzerland. Thank you so much for joining us, Chris.

CHRIS TIDEY: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: So, Chris, without doubt children are among the most vulnerable in this situation, and need special attention and protection. In fact, the Convention on the Rights of Refugees and Rights of Children require it. So are European countries meeting their responsibilities in protecting them?

TIDEY: Well, it’s a very difficult situation, obviously, and I think what we’ve seen, certainly over the last 18 months, is quite unprecedented in terms of the sheer number of people who have come to Europe seeking asylum and looking to escape very difficult situations, whether it’s extreme poverty, or conflict in their countries of origin. So I think we do have to acknowledge the fact that countries in Europe have been dealing with a lot, and governments and humanitarian partner agencies on the ground here have been working together to do their best and make sure that children are kept safe, and that their essential needs are met in terms of healthcare and access to education, and so on.

That said, one of the big issues for UNICEF, what we’ve been calling for really since the beginning of the crisis is calling for political will, for governments to come together to ensure that refugees and migrants have safe passage, so that when they do make the decision to move from their countries of origin that they have safe ways to do so, so that they’re not turning to smugglers and traffickers, which obviously significantly raises the risk for them in terms of exploitation and abuse. So we’re really hoping to see that political will and cooperation come together as soon as possible, to make sure that children, refugee migrant children, are kept safe.

PERIES: And Chris, off the top of this report I mentioned this Human Rights Watch report and the analysis that they have done. Does this resonate in terms of what you are finding on the ground there?

TIDEY: Sure. I mean, we know that literally thousands of unaccompanied minors have come from different parts of the Middle East, East, North, and West Africa to Europe. And some, indeed, once they’ve arrived on European shores have slipped through the cracks. And I think that it’s difficult to say, or to assume that all these children, or the majority of these children, have wound up in human trafficking networks, or things like that. Certainly that is a real risk–.

PERIES: It’s not a majority of them. The Guardian reported about 10,000 of them are presumed to be absorbed into human trafficking networks, from their own research. They took this issue very seriously, and had come up with a tally. I’m wondering if this is what you’re finding on the ground.

TIDEY: Well, I mean, certainly we’re aware of reports, you know, that children are, some children in different countries in Europe who have come unaccompanied or who have been separated from their families, we’re aware of these reports. Certainly, however, what we’ve also found is just because a child is unaccounted for, an unaccompanied child who’s been registered is unaccounted for, that doesn’t necessarily mean, in fact, that they have fallen prey to smugglers, or traffickers, or so on.

In some cases what does happen, and what we know has happened is that children who are waiting in shelters, maybe without, without any sort of idea in terms of how long they’re going to be there, sometimes they will, in fact, leave those shelters, will effectively run away. Perhaps they know that they have family members in another country, and they leave that protective care of their own volition to try and move on. So those kind of incidences are happening on a regular basis, as well.

So really, there are a lot of issues facing unaccompanied and [inaud.] children in Europe, and I think that that just goes to sort of demonstrate that there’s a real imperative for us, humanitarian actors or governments, to take every step to keep them safe.

PERIES: Certainly I know UNICEF is doing a lot of good work on the ground, but the problem is overwhelming. I mean, it’s overwhelming for nation-states, let alone UNICEF or a UN agency, here. And add to this the number of refugees, number of situations you are dealing with, is huge. I’m wondering what kinds of supports are provided for UNICEF to take care of the children, and what more is required.

TIDEY: Well, I mean, we do have very good working relationships with governments in the affected countries. Also with local NGOs, international NGOs, and UN partner agencies as well. I mean, certainly I think it, as I said before, I think really the support is not really support that we need. it’s political will and public pressure to really make sure that refugees and migrants, as they said, have safe passage so that they’re not putting themselves at risk to, or at further risk, to get to Europe.

Then I think what’s really essential is, certainly for children, is that they do end up in destination countries. Or if they’re stranded along the way, children are children first, and they have the right to access basic support and services. So it’s essential that they have that and that those rights are realized, especially in the areas of education and healthcare. A lot of these children, if they’re coming from countries affected by conflict, for example, they may have been out of school for two, three, even four years. So it’s really essential that they get back into the classroom as quickly as possible.

PERIES: And how are the host countries dealing with the situation of unaccompanied children?

TIDEY: It’s difficult. I think that, you know, certainly in the countries where I’ve been, transit and destination countries in Europe, I’ve been impressed. I think governments are working very hard to identify these children and to keep them safe.

I just spent quite a bit of time, actually, in Sicily, in Southern Italy, where, incidentally, the number of unaccompanied minors who have arrived over the past five months is now over 7,000, and that’s double what it was over the same period last year. And what I did see on the ground was certainly the authorities working very hard to make sure that these children are okay. [Visited] a number of the emergency shelters for unaccompanied minors, and they’re making sure that they do have access to essential support and services, and also access to counsel, in terms of their asylum applications.

PERIES: All right, Chris. I thank you so much for joining us and giving us a little window into the magnitude of the problem and issues you’re dealing with, and I hope to have you back very soon.

TIDEY: Thanks very much for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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