“If you try to run, they shoot you, if you stop working they beat you. It was just like the slave trade.” UNICEF reports on the dangers facing unaccompanied adolescent refugees and migrants fleeing to Europe

 

“If you try to run, they shoot you, if you stop working they beat you. It was just like the slave trade.” UNICEF reports on the dangers facing unaccompanied adolescent refugees and migrants fleeing to Europe

Fraternal twins (back-front) Aimamo Jawnoh and Ibrahim Jawnoh, both 16, from Kombu Brikam Village, Gambia at a beach in Trabia, Italy, on May 14, 2016. The boys live at Rainbow, a government administered center for unaccompanied boys that provides shelter, food, education and legal help for unaccompanied asylum seekers in Trabia, Sicily. Of the 150,000 migrants and refugees who arrived in Italy in 2015, the vast majority of people are coming from West Africa. 

Aimamo and Ibrahim left Kombu Brikam village in September, 2015, when their father, who had four wives, divorced their mother. They said their family was left with no money, and the boys and their mother agreed that they should move to Europe in order to raise money and remit it. Their mother connected the boys with a Libyan who agreed to help them, on the condition that their journey was paid for with labour upon arrival in Libya. Their journey took a very long time–they traveled from Gambia to Senegal to Mali to Burkina Faso to Niger to Agadez. From there they travelled by flat bed truck to Saba, Libya, where they were arrested and beaten in jail. The driver, who had evaded arrest, returned to the police station after some days, and secured their release, at which point they boys continued on to Tripoli. There, they were taken to a farm where they spent two months cutting grass with about 200 other Africans, including 20 boys. 

“If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade.” Said Aimamo, who worked from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. “Once I was just resting for five minutes, and a man beat me with a cane. After working, they lock you inside.”

There, in bed, Aimamo said “I used to cry and remember back home.”

The boys don’t know how long they worked on the farm, but guess it was after approximately two or three months when the Libyan driver reappeared, gave them cash for the boats and told them they were to go to a secret

© UNICEF/UN020012/Gilbertson VII Photo

GENEVA/HONG KONG, 14 June 2016 – More than nine out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe this year through Italy are unaccompanied, prompting UNICEF to warn of the growing threats of abuse, exploitation and death facing them.

In a report, Danger Every Step of the Way, released today, UNICEF says that 7,009 unaccompanied children made the crossing from North Africa to Italy in the first five months of the year, twice as many as last year.

The report documents the appalling risks adolescents take in their flight to escape conflict, despair and poverty.

A total of 2,809 deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean between January 1 and June 5, 2016, as compared with 3,770 for the whole of last year. The vast majority were on the Central Mediterranean route – and many were children.

Unaccompanied children generally rely on human smugglers, often under a system of ‘pay as you go’, which opens them to exploitation.

“If you try to run they shoot you and you die. If you stop working, they beat you. It was just like the slave trade,” Aimamo, 16, said of the farm in Libya where he and his twin brother worked for two months to pay the smugglers. “Once I was just resting for five minutes, and a man beat me with a cane. After working, they lock you inside.”

Some are sexually abused and exploited. Italian social workers told UNICEF that both girls and boys were sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution while in Libya, and that some of the girls were pregnant when they arrived in Italy, having been raped.

However because of the illicit nature of human smuggling operations, there are no reliable figures to show how many of the refugees and migrants die, disappear into forced labour or prostitution, or linger in detention.

“It is a silent and desperate situation- out of sight and out of mind. Yet tens of thousands of children face danger every day and hundreds of thousands more are prepared to risk everything,” said Marie Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant crisis in Europe. “We urgently need to protect these children from all types of abuse and exploitation by those taking advantage of the situation to exploit their dreams”.

With summer upon the Mediterranean, the latest numbers of children on the Central Mediterranean route may well be just the tip of the iceberg, according to UNICEF. Another 235,000 migrants are currently in Libya, tens of thousands of them unaccompanied children.

“Every country – those the children leave, those they cross and those in which they seek asylum—has an obligation to establish protection systems focussed on the risks that unaccompanied children face. In the European Union and other destination countries, there is an opportunity for policy and legislative reforms to lead to more opportunities for safe, legal and regular channels for these children.” Poirier said.