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Left at mercy of abuse and exploitation: the silent cries of refugee children

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “over half of the world’s refugee population is made up of children. Youth (aged between 15-24 years) also constitute a large proportion of the populations affected by forced displacement. Many will spend their entire childhoods away from home, sometimes separated from their families.”

According to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) “Syria accounts for the largest number of child refugees, with more than 2.3 million child refugees registered with UNHCR, with Afghanistan accounting for a further 1.3 million.”

“At the young age of 12, Mohammad’s family (name of the child has been changed to protect identity) sold him to an older man to serve as a bacha, or boy child entertainer. Mohammad escaped quickly and embarked on the 3,500-mile journey from Afghanistan to Europe, where he ended up in an asylum centre in the Balkans but other refugees quickly discovered his past. Groups of adult men [abused] Mohammad each night for several days. The local government and humanitarian agencies finally moved him to a shelter for unaccompanied refugee children for extra protection—a necessary intervention that ultimately came too late.

Mohammad experienced extreme and prolonged psychological distress in the aftermath of both fleeing his home and experiencing this abuse.” Emily Ausubel, a specialist in humanitarian response, migration, human rights, and gender, wrote in her article (An Untold Story: The Need to Address Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Refugee Boys) in Kennedy School Review: “Each year, thousands of unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) flee their countries due mostly to war, terrorist threats, armed recruitment, and poverty, making them vulnerable to abuse between 2008 and 2016, approximately 198,500 UASC sought asylum in Europe, almost half of whom arrived in 2015 alone.

Even in 2018, thousands of UASC, particularly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, continued to flee to Europe.”

Some of the boys are even sent by the families themselves to take these perilous and illegal journeys to find some job and to send money back home. These children face inner and outer conflicts. These children have to face many hardships and being unaccompanied are vulnerable right from the start of the journey. There is no trustworthy guidance.

Many children from war zones have lost their relatives, others are forced to flee by their families in the hope of a better future in any European country. However, children being innocent and naïve, without any relatives around, are mistreated, humiliated and abused to a horrifying degree.

Emily Ausubel further states about different reports one from Serbia “more than half of […gender-based violence] incidents reported to authorities were committed against Afghan boys. This exploitation and abuse seem particularly common in Greek refugee camps. Syrian boys interviewed by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported daily sexual violence, mostly from older boys, which prompted many to drop out of school.”

Data collection

For international organisations, it is hard to collect accurate data as many times children dare not report the situation. “Underreporting of sexual abuse and exploitation of refugee children and identification of victims is a major challenge,” said the Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland.

Children don’t like to speak of the abuse as most of these children come from the cultures were in such crimes; the victim is singled out and stigmatised. Thus fear and shame overpower the victims to speak and report to the authorities.

Children are also not aware of their rights.

Their lives are already torn apart during the conflicts in their own countries. Their life focus is food, water, shelter and security for which they trust anyone.

Vulnerability at different stages in the journey

According to Human Rights Watch:

Prior to flight: Children may be targeted for abuse by the police, the military or other officials in the country of origin.

During the flight: Refugees may be sexually attacked by pirates, bandits, members of the security forces, smugglers or other refugees. Border guards may detain and abuse girls, sometimes for extended periods.

In the country of asylum: Unaccompanied children, in particular girls, placed in foster care may suffer abuse by the foster family members.

Refugees may be sexually attacked by members of the local population, by officials, including those responsible for their protection such as border guards, police or military personnel, by international refugee workers, or by fellow refugees.”

Conditions at refugee camps and asylum centres

The conditions of refugee camps or asylums are a vital factor to add to the situation. According to a report by Relief web (Protecting children affected by the refugee crisis from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse) “children are often housed in sports halls, former military barracks or other temporary shelters. Insufficient lighting and the need to share sanitary and sleeping facilities with adults make children particularly exposed to sexual crimes and harassment. Besides, lengthy asylum procedures give an opportunity to offenders to target and groom children.”

BBC reports “there is an increasing number of Syrian refugee children being abused according to aid agencies in Lebanon. More than half of the million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children; thousands are forced to work unaccompanied, making them vulnerable to potential abusers.” 

The aftermath of refugee children abuse

Emily Ausubel, mentions in her article (An Untold Story: The Need to Address Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Refugee Boys) in Kennedy School Review: “The psychological impacts of this violence can be pernicious and extremely impactful on these children. Aid workers in Serbia who have spent time with boy survivors describe extensive cases of self-harm, dissociative panic attacks, and constant anxiety.”

As a matter of fact, these children suffer threefold: losing their parents or families in the home countries, facing extreme war in their home countries, the hardships of the journey taken, loneliness and fear of the unknown and finally the abuse.

Planning for protection

United Nations and many humanitarian organizations are working to improve the situation by keeping unaccompanied children in safe housing one with no adult men in the asylum centre. Save the Children organization has been training foster families about child abuse.

Sometimes, the stipend is provided to such children refugee so that for food or daily necessities they don’t have to depend on some adult.

“IRC recommends that UASC older than 14 years be given pre-paid cards restricted to purchasing essential items together with financial literacy training,” Emily Ausubel, mentions in her article (An Untold Story: The Need to Address Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Refugee Boys) in Kennedy School Review.

Vocational skill building among children also helps them to get some skills and start earning in some situations.

Refugee camp workers are also trained in trauma-informed care to provide assistance to unaccompanied children.

Despite all the efforts, unaccompanied children are still suffering widely from abuse throughout the unsafe journey. More needs to be done to protect such children and survivors.

Rarely a story unfolds without the mention of abuse by unaccompanied children refugee.

Shocking indeed, this horrifying truth also reflects on the mentality of the adult’s males surrounding the children; some of them belong to the same country: the offender and the victim!