Here’s a story to break your heart – thousands of Afghan refugee boys who roam Europe alone, without parents, without enough help from European governments, and at risk of destitution, detention, and death.
This sounds like a version of the “Hunger Games,” but this is all too real. At Human Rights Watch, we’ve been documenting abuses of unaccompanied migrant children for more than 10 years, and I’ve personally interviewed hundreds of these children. The kids I met with are sent abroad in a last ditch effort to find a better life or escape persecution. Traveling with smugglers—under trucks, by foot, and in rickety boats—at least 10,000 unaccompanied children enter the European Union each year. There may be thousands more, as the boys have a strong incentive to hide from registration with any government.
Afghan boys –a substantial proportion of the children I met—have fled awful situations at home. Family members might have been killed, and the boys themselves faced daily violence and deprivation. Some had been recruited as child soldiers.
An Afghan boy named Reza’s story really sticks with me. I met Reza (a pseudonym) in an abandoned, unfinished house under a bridge near Patras, a port city in Greece. To reach the house we walked through a gravel underpass, jumped over an open drain, and crawled through a hole in a barbed-wire-topped fence. A dozen or so Afghan asylum seekers lived in the house, on mattresses on the floor, with no running water or electricity. They introduced me to Reza, a tiny, narrow-framed boy with the faint traces of a first mustache on his upper lip.
Reza, who was just 14, had come to Greece by himself. His father had died, and his mother and older sisters had decided that he should leave Iran, where the family had sought refuge, and go to Europe. He told me he came to Europe to make money to support his mother and sisters. He traveled overland for months, crossing into Greece in the Evros region, where Greek police picked him up. They sent him to jail overnight, then let him go, without giving him any extra help or care, even though he looks like the young boy he is.
“I can’t stay here,” said Reza, speaking of Greece. “The police come at night and we have to run…. I have food, but not regularly.” Reza had a list—a mantra, really—of countries he hoped to reach to find safety. “To Switzerland, Sweden. Or Austria or Germany.” Yet Reza’s path ahead was not safe—he would have to dodge border guards and travel clandestinely further into Europe, perhaps stowing away on ferries or hanging underneath trucks for days at a time. Walking away from Reza after hearing his story, knowing he faced a very real threat of harm and even of death, broke my heart.
I was thrilled when I learned that the US TV program 60 Minutes wanted to highlight these boys’ odyssey to Europe, because their story is so important. I hope you had a chance to watch on May 19. Adults, parents – can you imagine your child making a trip like this, for months, where you might not hear from them or have any idea where they were? Or whether they were even alive? And for kids who watch, can you imagine having the bravery to leave home and the resilience to survive this trip and build a new life alone?
If I were in this situation, I can only begin to imagine how bad things would need to be at home for me to feel it necessary for my child to take these risks. I think I’d hope every day—every hour—that someone would look out for him and protect him. Yet the boys who reach Europe really don’t get much help.
European governments treat these boys as undocumented migrants who have broken the law, and give little consideration to their needs as children. Particularly in Greece—one of the main entrance points to the European Union--they may face prolonged detention, abusive police behavior, and treatment as adults after unreliable age exams. They may find themselves—like Reza—without shelter, sleeping where they can, without food, and without access to schools or health care. And ultimately they may face deportation back to Afghanistan, whether or not their families can be found.
Europe needs to do more. The European Union has taken some positive steps toward addressing the situation of unaccompanied migrant children, including on age determination. Yet much more is needed so these kids can have a fair chance. The EU should put forward standards to ensure that children have better safeguards, can defend their rights, and can challenge government decisions on asylum or deportation with the help of guardians and lawyers.
We all should know that for tens of thousands of migrant children, every day in Europe is a struggle to survive. And we should all want to do more – if these were our children, we’d want so much more.
Alice Farmer is a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in Geneva.