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More Children Are Making the Dangerous Journey to Europe Alone

More than 3,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived to Europe so far this year, and their numbers are only increasing.
June 11, 2015, 7:35pm
German Navy Handout via EPA

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Italy is struggling to cope with thousands of minors who have arrived unaccompanied and unprotected, according to aid agencies.

At least 3,358 children have arrived alone so far this year, according to UK-based charity Save the Children's figures, and the number of juveniles making the treacherous journey by themselves is increasing.

On Monday, at least 66 children — all traveling alone — were among a group rescued by a British warship, the HMS Bulwark. Last year 170,000 migrants arrived to Europe by sea, of which 13,000 were children.

Gemma Parkin, a spokesperson for Save the Children, told VICE News that last year the proportion of unaccompanied children was about 50 percent of the total number of children arriving, whereas this year it's at 70 percent.

"What we're seeing is that within the total number of children, the number that are unaccompanied and then arriving alone without their parents is increasing," she said. "Syrian children tend to arrive with their parents…But with countries like Eritrea and Somalia, there are many children that are making those journeys on their own."

She said that Eritrean and Somali children are much more likely to arrive in Europe without their families.

Related: Italy's Mediterranean Mass Grave: Europe or Die

Farah Abdi Abdullahi is one of those who migrated to Europe as a minor. The Somali-born man was just 16 when he set off from Kenya for Europe by himself three years ago due to fears of persecution because of his sexuality.

"As a Somali citizen there were no legal channels to get to the western world, to get to Europe, so I was forced to leave in an irregular manner," he said.

He said that the voyage across the Mediterranean was only the final stage after months of traveling across Uganda, South Sudan, north Sudan, and the Sahara.

"I was in Libya for seven months, detained five times trying to cross by militia, because at the time there was no government," he said. "I finally made it to the island of Malta in November 2012. The whole journey had taken me nine months from Kenya to Malta, seven of which I spent in Libya."

Parkin says Abdullahi's story is not unique, and that migrants face a variety of dangers just trying to get to the Mediterranean from across the many turbulent areas of the Middle East and Africa.

"They put their lives into the hands of people smugglers, the networks of people who cram them onto trucks and take them into Sudan, on to Libya, before they get put onto a boat," she said. "And what happens when they're packed onto those trucks is that there are so many people that sometimes people fall off the back and nobody goes back to check if they're alive."

She said some reports indicate that migrants or who are too weak or who become too dehydrated to complete the trip are left to die.

Abdullahi says that for these reasons, the Mediterranean represents only the final hurdle for many migrants.

"When you arrive in Libya that's the end of a difficult journey because the desert is really difficult," he said. "And also going through all those countries without papers, and that's like the final phase for most migrants who are making the journey. It's a journey full of uncertainty, because you don't know if you are going to make it."

Parkin said that some minors had recounted stories of being physically abused or raped by their smugglers.

Once the migrants arrive in Europe, aid and social workers screen the children to try to identify which minors may have been victims of trafficking. Seven of the children who were rescued on Monday were Nigerian girls who had no idea that they were in Italy, and claimed not to have paid money for their trip, Parkin said.

Children involved in trafficking networks are also more likely to attempt to try to run away from a reception center or children's home, according to Parkin said.

Related: More Than 50,000 Migrants Have Arrived in Italy This Year

Parkin said that it's important to get children alone and encourage them to participate in "age-appropriate" activities like drawing with a crayon for young children, or playing football for older children, so they relax and open up.

"Then you can spot the signs of trauma," she said.

The children are then interviewed, and those children showing signs of trauma will be referred to social services if needed.

Ascertaining the correct age of a new arrival can also prove a challenge.

"Often you'll have children that you suspect may be 14-years-old, that look very young, but because they take this journey on their own they become used to expressing a level of maturity in order to protect themselves," she said. "And then you have the concern of adults pretending to be younger."

Parkin said the only way to determine age is to take an x-ray of the wrist bone, since the density of the bone is a way of proving age.

"However we have an issue with that, because the margin of error can be up to two years," she said.

Four children were among the 28 people who survived what is believed to have been the worst disaster this year, when as many as 800 people died on April 19, including around 100 children.

But in the words of Abdullahi, who eventually ended up in Malta, the world he was leaving behind made the dangerous migration to Europe worth the risk.

"Risking your life is not the best option, but if I had to go back I would do it all over again."

Related: A Teenage Survivor of the Mediterranean's Worst Migrant Disaster Speaks of His Traumatic Ordeal

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Watch the VICE News documentary, "**Migrant Prisons of Libya: Europe or Die."**

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