January 17, 2016

In News

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.