The International Mayors’ Conference NOW Vienna
Austria, January 30th – 31st 2017
Dossier “Children on the Move”
In the debate about migration and refugees we tend to overlook the large group of children and youth who have fled their home countries despite the fact that – often unaccompanied – they are particularly vulnerable to many dangers. It is our objective to turn the spotlight on this issue. This dossier was developed in the course of preparations for the third International Mayors’ Conference NOW January 30th-31st, 2017 in Vienna.
One child out of 200 is on the move.
The current figures demonstrate the scope of challenges we are facing: worldwide, 48 million children under 18 years are on the move. Roughly half of today’s child refugees are from Afghanistan and Syria. Many set out for the dangerous route to Europe on their own. According to Europol, last year, authorities lost track of 10,000 unaccompanied children and youth in Europe. Due to the European states’ policy of isolationism the migration routes are becoming increasingly more expensive and dangerous. Following the closure of the Western Balkan routes, the Central Mediterranean route (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to Italy) and the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey to Greece) are now among the most frequent migration routes. The main destination countries in 2016 included Germany, Italy, France and Austria.
Child migrants are at the mercy of criminal networks.
Most people on the move employ the services of smugglers. Unlike people who help refugees, smugglers are exploitative and act with commercial interests in mind. It is estimated that in 2015 alone, smugglers made profits of up to € 6 billion. Children who are on the move on their own are particularly at the mercy of their smugglers. The boundaries between smuggling – which focuses on the crossing of country borders – and human trafficking – which profits from exploiting humans – are becoming increasingly blurred. This is particularly true when migrants take out a loan with the smuggling organisation which they eventually must “pay back” through exploitative activities.
Displaced Children are under special threat of exploitation, violence and death.
On the move, children – particularly unaccompanied ones – are exposed to many dangers. Very often, the hopes of entire families are pinned on them, which can be easily exploited by individual criminal persons or organisations. Child labour is continuously on the rise in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Children must make a living for entire families under unimaginable work conditions and for drastically low pay. In addition to health-related consequences they are unable to attend a school. Under the difficult conditions in refugee camps, girls are especially at risk of exploitation and sexual abuse. In Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey girls are often married at a young age to protect them from sexual assaults or due to financial reasons. As a result, young girls – some of them below the age of 14 – often find themselves in forced and frequently violent relationships with significantly older men which are hard to escape from, if at all. Furthermore, indications have been made of the existence of markets for forced prostitution of minors both in Turkey and Lebanon. In the form of short-term marriage contracts, which can last for a few hours to a month, young migrant girls are forced into trafficking in countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. In 2015, 700 women and children were abducted by IS and given or sold to jihadis as slaves. In addition to human trafficking, there are growing indications of refugee organ trading. Particularly in Egypt and Lebanon, but also in Sudan, Iraq and Jordan – all places with a high migrant population – there are verified reports of organ trade. Children are among the victims as well. In addition to these exploitative dangers, children are also threatened by other various forms of violence, such as violence exerted by aid workers in asylum seekers’ facilities, violence experienced during conflicts among migrants in overcrowded camps, and violence in the form of racist hate crimes.
Ultimately, children on the move risk their lives. Last year alone, 700 children drowned in the Mediterranean, and at least just as many lost their lives when crossing the Sahara. Many deaths are never registered and families fail to hear about their children’s fate.
All the pain suffered by children in war zones and on the move, has consequences in the country of arrival.
In addition to the visible scars, child migrants bring with them the invisible consequences of their exposure to violence. The extent of traumatisation among child migrants can be enormous. Every fifth child migrant shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly half of them (40%) are potentially suicidal. In particularly overcrowded camps such as in Calais – before it was cleared – the proportion of traumatised children was considerably higher.
In the countries of arrival, the children and youth are also at risk of becoming radicalised or slipping into criminal behaviour. This danger becomes even greater and more unpredictable – e.g. problems with adequate accommodation, interpreting services, psycho-social care, consistency with contact persons/transfer of custody, family reunification, disappearance from facilities/risk of exploitation, school attendance following mandatory schooling, activities and leisure facilities, support during transition after reaching maturity with 18 years, lack of cross-border cooperation between child protection authorities, etc. – if proper support is not offered to the arriving children and youth from the very start.
All the dangers and suffering experienced by children on the move, are our concerns, too. To this end, the objective of the third International Mayors’ Conference NOW in Vienna was to discuss and work out solutions, share knowledge as well as establish networks and exchange ideas with regard to successful models across borders between countries and continents in a mutual dialogue.