Praxis Watch

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Unaccompanied Refugee Children Exposed to Enormous Risks in the Balkans

It is estimated that around 1,300 refugee children and unaccompanied migrants are exposed to the risk of exploitation, violence and trafficking in human beings due to an increasingly restrictive border control policy and often inadequate response of the social protection system in the countries along the so-called Balkan route. This is the conclusion of a report published by the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, in cooperation with 10 national and international organisations involved in providing assistance to refugees and migrants.

The social protection systems in the countries along the route often fail to identify and adequately support these extremely vulnerable children, including nine-year olds, who, fleeing from the war and poverty, cross thousands of kilometres without parents or guardians. These children are often "invisible" and in some cases, even when the social protection system identifies them, they are placed in inadequate conditions, including detention in some countries.

Risks to children traveling in this way have been further increased following the implementation of the agreement between the European Union and Turkey, which led to the closure of the borders along the so-called Balkan route. Due to these restrictive measures, unaccompanied children are forced to take desperate moves, thus relaying on traffickers or smugglers, whom they perceive as the only way to continue their journey.

The report further states that in this way some of these children become victims of exploitation, because the smugglers and traffickers are forcing them to work so they earn the money to continue their travel, and they are often being abused. Under these circumstances the children get neglected and exposed to enormous stress and danger. Even though they are trying to act boldly, their stories and drawings reveal harrowing details about their experiences on the road, for which they thought, would lead them to safety.

The social protection systems of the countries of the region, which need to identify and provide protection to unaccompanied children, face difficulties in their efforts to respond to the needs of vulnerable children whose numbers have been growing since the beginning of the crisis in 2015. In Serbia, the new demands have been met by increasing the accommodation capacities for unaccompanied children and employing additional social workers to provide them with support. However, additional efforts need to be invested to establish systemic solutions for the adequate protection of this group of children.

"Children need comprehensive support tailored to their needs“, says Jelena Besendić from Save the Children. "It is almost impossible for them to safely and legally continue their journey towards the EU countries. Many of these children decide to stay outside the system, and therefore do not get support from humanitarian organisations, and then often become targets of smugglers who use threats to manipulate them. Thus they become exposed to the risk of becoming victims of violence, abuse or exploitation.“ 

It is necessary to increase accommodation capacities in all countries along the route, and provide accommodation intended exclusively for unaccompanied children. Even when they are identified as children, unaccompanied minors are often placed in some centres together with adult refugees, unknown to them, or in the accommodation similar to detention, as is the case in Bulgaria and Hungary.

It often happens that unaccompanied children are placed under the guardianship of the employees of Social Welfare Centres who are overloaded because of simultaneously handling several similar cases, who lack sufficient experience or training for working with refugee and migrant children, and who are therefore unable to support them in accordance with applicable standards. Some children also complain that they are not sufficiently familiar with their rights or with the legal options available to them.

Every child must get all the help and protection that it needs. The governments of the countries along the route have to improve their system of support to this most vulnerable group, but before doing so, we have to ensure that these governments get necessary support and financial means to be able to handle the crises. The European Union and EU Member States must fulfill the commitments they have made and promise to adequately respond to the needs of these children. This also includes the resettlement of unaccompanied children to the EU countries as well as the reunification with their families,” said Ashly Lovett from IRC. “The governments who are doing so, must discontinue with the practice of placing the children in detention, and should assign trained guardians to unaccompanied children. If this measures are not implemented, the children who have already suffered traumas due to war, conflict and difficult journey, will be put in an even more difficult position, because there is no safe and legal way for them, they are not being adequately protected, and they are desperate to move on.”  The report was coordinated by the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, and its creation was supported by NGOs Atina, Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Centre for Youth Integration, Ideas, Infor Park, Novi Sad Humanitarian Centre, Otvorena porta, PIN, Praxis and Terre des hommes.

For more information, see the announcement at the following link.

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