January 17, 2016
UNICEF helping children connect with their smugglers
Unaccompanied minors from 10 to 17 years of age are a common sight
among refugees. Mostly they travel in groups that include older boys,
who are not related to them. Quite often there are also groups of three
or four brothers or cousins, all under 18 years of age. Very frequently
they are being ‘guided’ on their journey by smugglers whom they refer
to as ‘agents’. The majority come from Afghanistan or the northern
areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
They come from conflict zones, to escape being hired by the Taliban.
They all say they would like to go to school. Taliban don’t approve of
schools. But these children are also often the breadwinners in their
families, having worked from a very little age. They say they were told
by the agents they would be able to go to school and work in Europe.
When they are told it is impossible for children their age to work in
Europe, they do not believe this. They know of other children who left
home and send money back.
The money required for their journey is usually paid by selling whatever
the family has, a bit of land, a shop etc or very often by taking a huge
loan which can be paid back only if the child sends money to his family.
Half of the sum is paid in advance at home to the ‘main agent’. The rest
is payable when the boy reaches his ‘destination’, most often Germany
or Norway. In the perilous journey from Afghanistan and Pakistan to
Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria to Serbia (the usual route) they have to meet
a new agent at every stage and continue onwards. If they approach the
wrong agent they can and are frequently kidnapped for ransom.
When they enter Serbia the border police register every child over 13
as born in 1997, otherwise they would have to stop these children from
going on and place them in the care of the state.
The department for social services, the department for the prevention
of human trafficking and the police, all of them see no problem here.
Even when the possibility that these children were sold or are being
trafficked for child labor is extremely high, all departments concur that
it is very hard to determine if a child is just being smuggled or also
trafficked. Are their smugglers also their traffickers? The same
smugglers who promise them that they will work in Western European
countries and send money to their families back home? It is almost
impossible to prove trafficking, they say.
Now and then when the system is forced to intervene, the
unaccompanied minor is taken to the police, who call in a social worker.
The social worker’s job is to assess if the child is at risk. If the child is
found to be at risk, or completely alone, they are placed in a home.
Usually the social worker does not see any risk at all. Their mantra is
“this is normal for these people”. The home the children are placed in is
not a prison. It is just a bleak, awful place where the child is left alone
for hours on end. Children are free to leave. And they do leave. The
moment they get their hands on a cell phone they call their agent and
UNICEF recently budgeted the purchase of cell phones for children
placed in homes, for them to ‘call their parents’. They have made it
easier for these children to connect; to connect with their smugglers or
traffickers and disappear.