Without their parents’ company, Syrian children take risky routes to reach Europe
Enab Baladi – Fatima al-Mohammad
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children migrate annually from countries suffering from war and difficult living conditions towards Europe, and a large proportion of these children are of Syrian nationality.
The children’s families make the sacrifice of leaving them to migrate alone in the hope that the children will be granted a “family reunification” visa when they arrive in Europe.
During their journey, these children are exposed to great risks, which may lead to their loss or death, in addition to being exposed to the risks of forced detention, kidnapping, and ill-treatment.
Tawfiq, the father of a 13-year-old Khaled who tried to take the migration route, told Enab Baladi about the difficult financial circumstances of his family inside Syria, as he works as a car driver, who does not have a continuous job and has now been unemployed for seven months.
The man added that his son Khaled and his brother, 22, were working in Istanbul in a sewing factory, but during the recent deportation campaign, the older brother was detained by the Anti-Illegal Immigration Service and deported to northern Syria, while Khaled remained alone.
The father said that a man from his village in Syria told him that he would go to Greece via a truck without the knowledge of its driver and via smuggling routes and suggested that the father send Khaled with him.
Tawfiq added, “I sent him so that he might be able to provide us with a reunification that would take us to a better place.”
Khaled’s journey was not easy, and he went missing when the truck reached the Greek border, where the two men who shared the journey with him were arrested, while he escaped and disappeared without a trace.
Tawfiq recounted how he searched for his son for 20 days, saying, “I will not forget those days until I die. I posted in missing persons groups and was met with sharp attacks and insults. There are people who sent me pictures of people who were found dead, and I was holding my hand over my heart for fear that my child would be among them.”
The father assigned two people in Turkey and Greece to search for Khaled, and he paid them the taxi fare to search until a man confirmed to him that he had seen pictures of Khaled on social networking sites while he was inside an orphanage in the Turkish city of Edirne, with many Syrian children like him, so he appointed a lawyer for him and took him out.
The adventure ended with Tawfiq sending his son Khaled to the sewing factory, where he worked again.
Thousands of children without their families
The European Union Statistical Center (Eurostat) indicated on November 21 that the Union received about 91,700 asylum applications last September, an increase of 19% compared to the same month last year, and Syrian citizens recorded the largest percentage among asylum seekers during the last two years.
In September alone, 4,465 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum, and the number of Syrians among them was 1,540 minors.
The countries that received the most asylum applications from unaccompanied minors during September were Germany with 1,250 applications, Austria with 795 applications, and Bulgaria with 735 applications.
Mediterranean turned a children’s cemetery
UNICEF reported on September 29 that more than 11,600 children crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy without their parents between January and mid-September, an increase of 60% compared to the same period last year.
The UN Children’s Emergency Fund indicated that more than 7,000 unaccompanied children had a dangerous crossing and that these children were traveling in unsafe ways alone in rubber boats crowded with other asylum seekers or in worn-out wooden fishing boats that were not suitable for travel.
The lack of search and rescue capabilities exacerbates the risks these children face when crossing.
UNICEF noted that unaccompanied children are at risk of exploitation and abuse at every step of their journey.
Between the months of June and August, about 990 people died or disappeared, including children, while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
This number is three times the number recorded in the same period last summer, when approximately 334 people died, and the real number of victims is much higher than that, according to UNICEF.
Disappearing without a trace
The reasons that push the families of missing children to send their children to the path of death and an unknown fate in order to reach Europe are similar, while the fates that befell them are different, as there are those who died or were registered as missing for years, or are in orphanages or detention centers.
Ali, a 13-year-old Syrian child, was wearing a yellow sweater, his family said, when he went missing on May 30, 2022.
Ali’s cousin, Ismail, told Enab Baladi that Ali and his family were residing in Saudi Arabia. Ali came to Istanbul in 2021 with the aim of looking for work, and in the process, he tried to immigrate more than once towards Bulgaria and Greece within one year, hoping he can complete his education in Europe.
In mid-2022, Ali tried to cross the Evros border river between Turkey and Greece twice. He was unable to cross the first time but succeeded the second time with the group accompanying him. On the Greek bank, the Greek border guards attacked them, which terrified them, and they began running towards the river.
Ismail, who declined to mention his full name for security reasons, said that Ali had another minor child and a young man in his 20s with him, and in the middle of the river, the young man in his twenties lost the two children who could not swim, and traces of them disappeared, joining the list of missing people in the Evros River.
Ismail, who is in Turkey, helped search for his relative Ali, the firstborn child of his family. He searched in camps, detention centers, and morgues among the corpses coming from the Evros River.
He said that he looked at pictures of 35 bodies recently brought from the Evros River, most of which had distorted features, and he was unable to distinguish whether Ali was among these bodies.
Ismail searched through all the photos of the bodies, personal belongings of the deceased, and their clothes, and was able to photograph some of them and share them on groups for missing persons on the Facebook platform, as two families recognized their sons through the photos and took their bodies, he said.
On May 18, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor uncovered violations that unaccompanied children are exposed to during their journey to Europe, including discrimination and lack of protection.
The report said that unaccompanied children are subjected to discrimination in treatment compared to accompanied children, are deprived of legal guarantees, and are detained amid a lack of services provided to them, especially with regard to education and integration in many countries in Europe.
The policies and practices to which minor asylum seekers are subjected in European countries are in gross violation of European and international law and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor
The report pointed out that the authorities failed to implement policies regarding unaccompanied minors, which caused the disappearance of large numbers of them.
The monitoring group indicated that 78% of unaccompanied asylum seekers in Austria disappeared in 2021.
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