Journey to Asylum – Lost on the Way
Ben Teuten has worked for the past two years with children on the move. He co-founded the Refugee Youth Service in the Calais Jungle in October 2015, which became the leading child protection organisation in the camp. Ben gave a speech in the House of Lords on the 16th January 2018, outlining the situation of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe today, and the work that his organisation does with these children. Part of that speech is published below.
The General Situation for Children in Europe
According to UNHCR, in the 18 months between January 2016 and June 2017, more than 45,000 unaccompanied or separated children arrived on European soil. More than 45,000 children under 18, either completely on their own or separated from their parents, have arrived in four main European countries; Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Spain. Over 80% of these children arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean route from Libya. Many of these children disappear from the reception centres they are registered in, as they wish to travel to another country further into Europe.
Many minors – like a 14-year-old Sudanese boy I worked with in Italy called Jackson – have legal rights to be in other European countries. Jackson has a father in the UK and under the Dublin III family reunification law (pdf) is legally entitled to be with him. However, lengthy processes that are not child friendly have meant that Jackson neither properly understands his rights nor had sufficient faith in the system to wait and be safely connected with his family. I met him in Ventimiglia on the border of Italy and France and watched as he made his own way, across two European borders, to be with his Dad.
Oxfam stated in 2016 that 28 unaccompanied children go missing from Italian reception centres every day. This equates to over 10,000 unaccounted-for children in 2016 from Italy alone. These 10,000 children, with similar stories to Jackson, have more faith in their own initiative to navigate the dark underworld of illegal migration than to put their trust and faith in a system meant to protect them.
These are the children that we define as ‘on the move.’ I was fortunate enough to have worked with Jackson and monitored his safety. However, we have no idea how many thousands of unaccompanied children are passing through European borders; we can only use the word ‘thousands’ to guess. We have no idea how many thousands of unaccompanied children are living on their own, outside of state protection, moving through Europe.
These children frequently encounter and interact with people smugglers, child traffickers and armed gangs. As we have no idea how many children are passing through European borders, we have no idea how many children are falling prey to these groups looking to exploit them. Every day children on the move face a multitude of dangers: from their interaction with people smugglers, to living on the streets where there is no warmth, shelter or safety. Aside from the short-term damage that is evident, the longer-term damage is as yet unknown.
Refugee Youth Service in France and Italy
Owing to this lack of information about children ‘on the move’, one of the biggest areas of concern that we had in Calais was the lack of records as to how many children were coming and going from the camp. In response to this, Refugee Youth Service set up a monitoring system – where every week we would check in on a child to make sure they were safe and had support available to them. What we soon realised was that when children disappeared we had no idea if they were safe or not. For example, when 14-year-old Atiquallah from Afghanistan disappeared, we asked his friends where he was and if he was safe. They replied that he was ‘in UK’ because ‘he went to try and never came back.’ This statement became hauntingly repetitive.
Because of this, a partnership was created with the Child Trafficking Advice Centre, part of the NSPCC, who were able to check the immigration database to confirm if a child had indeed claimed asylum and was safe and in social care. Since our partnership with them began, until November 2017, Refugee Youth Service made 196 referrals for unaccounted-for children. Of these, only 68 have been confirmed as being in the UK, with 128 children’s locations unknown.
Post-Calais eviction in late 2016, I set up a project in Ventimiglia – a border town between Italy and France, and a major crossing point for unaccompanied children on the move. We conducted psychosocial activities in an informal refugee camp called St. Antonio’s Church. We also continued our monitoring system. Over a 16-week period we monitored the safety of 28 unaccompanied children as they moved beyond Ventimiglia throughout Europe. Our monitoring in Ventimiglia highlighted a clear divide in the amount of time children spent living outside of state protection if their intended destination was the UK, in comparison to children who settled in mainland Europe. Children trying to reach England spent on average 11-and-a-half weeks living on the streets, in comparison to 2.7 weeks (or 19 days) for those settling in France, Germany, Holland or Spain.
Children on the move were a new phenomenon in Europe in 2015, but we cannot say that the phenomenon is new anymore. There are thousands of unaccompanied children that have gone missing within Europe over the past few years and yet no new policies or protections have been put into place to monitor the safety or whereabouts of these extremely vulnerable children. From our experience in Calais and Ventimiglia, we have realised that there is no official body in Europe monitoring children as they move through the continent.
By and large, the work being done to support children on the move (be it direct emergency aid or advocacy) is being done by civil society organisations and individuals all over Europe. In each of the four major hotspot locations where children on the move congregate and move between – Ventimiglia, Paris, Calais and Brussels – there are amazing services on the ground providing emergency support to these children. However, there is no connection between the locations.
We must not act as individual nations in this crisis, but collectively as a group of states, to protect these children. We can see from the joint investigations carried out across Europe by police and immigration officials, who share intelligence and investigate security threats, that working cross-nationally is effective. We need this same international cooperation and collaboration in response to the protection needs of children on the move.