When David Cameron did a U-turn on Wednesday and agreed that the UK could take in up to 3,000 unaccompanied minors after all, I can't imagine it was because he sympathized with the young Syrians fleeing their decimated homeland. Nor because he particularly cared about gay teenagers running from death sentences in Gambia, or the Afghan kids escaping the no-go zones emerging in Kabul since troops pulled out. No: He did it to quash a growing Conservative backbench rebellion, which would have been highly embarrassing for him. But still, we should be thankful for small mercies.
So far we've lost track of around 10,000 refugee kids in Europe. They've dipped under the radar and are now living on roadsides—working illegally if they're lucky, being trafficked if they're not. These are the most desperate cases. Lone children taking off from their homeland in fear of death and running blindly across foreign territory just to try to stay alive. Some are as young as nine years old.
As borders across Europe slam shut, new routes open up, each more dangerous than the last. Since the EU-Turkey deal in March halted the flow of refugees through Greece, now Sicily, and the nearby island of Lampedusa—the closest points of Europe to Africa—have become the new front line. According to Save the Children, so far this year, the number of lone teenagers washing up on these Italian shores is 4,100—four times as many as last year.
And they are getting younger. These days, 13- and 14-year-olds are commonplace, and the emergency reception centers dotted in the rolling hills of Sicily's heartland are full of young boys (and it is overwhelmingly boys; 90 percent of all unaccompanied minors are male) struggling to get their bearings. One of the main routes out of Africa is now through Libya, where a dark chaos reigns and each boy who passes through brings with him hellish tales of imprisonment, bonded labor, and beatings.
"Our goal is to give these boys the tools to become independent," says Save the Children, which provides emergency care from the moment the boys step off the boat. An impressive ambition. Caring for 3,000 of them in the UK is a start. Cameron has agreed to take in the most needy—but his next battle is working out which.
At a Save the Children center in Sicily, I asked a number of young refugees for their stories.
Drissa, 17, from Mali
It's taken me two years to get here. I left my country because of the civil war. I was living in Bamako, the Mali capital, and we were in the crossfire. We pretty much lived under siege in our home—it was difficult to go out even to get food. My school closed down a long time ago, my parents died when I was smaller, and when my elder brother was killed in the conflict, I had no choice but to leave.
My grandmother gave me some money, and I set off in April of 2014 and traveled to the Ivory Coast. I stayed there for almost a year selling plastic carrier bags, trying to raise money for the rest of my journey.
The moment I left the Ivory Coast, I realized how difficult it was going to be. I wasn't brave enough and wanted to go back. I called up my grandmother, but she told me Ebola had broken out, and I couldn't return.
I went on through Guinea, Niger, and on to Libya. I got there in February this year and was immediately taken and locked in a kind of private prison in someone's house. I was there for five days when some men came and took me away and made me work for them. They paid me nothing. My job was to fill bags with sand and carry it up to a house that was under construction.
Eventually they let me go. I went straight to the beach to try and cross the sea. The police stopped me and took all my money before they let me get on the boat. We set off at midnight and the moment I got on I thought, This is it, my time is up. I was sure I was going to die. It was terrifying. Thankfully, at ten the next morning, we were picked out of the sea by an Italian rescue boat.
I have spoken with my grandmother on the phone; she is so very happy that I made it here. But the thought of me staying here and her being over there is too much to bear. I try not to think about it. It is very bad.
Sunny, 17, from Pakistan
I can't remember when I left Pakistan. I think it was about six to eight months ago. I lived near the border with Afghanistan. I left after two of my best friends were kidnapped and taken to join a terrorist group. I never believed things like that really happened. I was terrified I would be next. I talked about it with my mom and dad, and they agreed for my safety it would be a good idea for me to leave. I have an uncle in Italy, so I thought I would try and go to him.
I traveled through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, and Austria. My father is retired from the military; he gave me €6,000 [$6,800] for my journey. I traveled mainly by paying people to take me in their cars. Often there were many, many people squeezed in—ten in the back seat and five in the front. To get to Greece I got in a three-by-nine-foot boat. I was half in the water and half in the boat. When we landed, the army directed us to a camp, and we were sent first to Germany and then on to Sicily.
I try to speak to my mom and dad and uncles as often as possible. My dad sent me my certificates from Pakistan. I have one in office admin and two from Scout camp. I'm hoping they will help me get a job.
Bo, 15, from Nigeria
I was born in northern Nigeria and am the youngest in my family. When I was 12 years old, a group of men came to my home and surrounded my family. I was lucky because I was behind the window, so they didn't know I was there. I saw them tie my brother's arms and legs, and they slaughtered him like a goat. I could see my father and my mother crying. Then they killed my father with a dagger; they just cut his neck. They also killed two of my three brothers. I saw it all.
My mom motioned to me to run because she knew I would be next. I started running. I saw a truck with the back door open and just ran on to it. Eight days later, I arrived in Niger and started begging in the streets for money. A man approached me and asked if I would like to go to Libya. I didn't know where or what Libya was, but he said it was better than Niger.
I got in a very big, long truck. It was full of people, and many of them were fighting. There were lots of people—people from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana—and all of them wanted to go to Libya. It took about three days to get there because the truck broke down in the desert. Luckily, I had a little bit of my own water. I was a little boy, so people didn't try to steal it from me.
When I got to Libya, I was arrested. I thought they were police because they were in uniform. I was told I had entered the country illegally, and then I began the worst part of my life. I was put in jail for two years, where I was crucified, sometimes upside down, and beaten day and night. They put me in chains—I'm still covered in scars. When they gave us food, they gave it to us like dogs; they would throw it on the floor and rub our head while we ate it straight off the floor. I lost my mind a little bit more every day.
One night, I saw some people running, so I ran too, and that's when I saw the boats. I didn't have any idea of what Italy was or where it was, but I ran and jumped on the boat anyway. I had been seeing people die in front of me for years at this point—I thought anything would be better than where I was.
I'm here now and happy to be alive. I don't know where my mom is, and I haven't spoken to her since I left. If they allow me to stay in Italy, I would love to. I would like to go to school and work, and to know what life is.
Joseph, 17, from Guinea
Both my mom and dad are dead. After they died, I wasn't brave enough to stay in Guinea. I do have one older sister, but she has a fiancée, so she is safe. When I told her I was thinking of leaving, she encouraged me. She gave me some money to get to Senegal. I spent a year there working as a porter to raise money for the rest of my journey. Then I traveled through Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The minute I got to Libya, I was put in prison. My captors ordered me to ring my family and tell them to send money. I told them I had no family, and they beat me.
It's impossible to describe how bad it was in prison. There were around ten to fifteen of us, and we were picked up every morning at six or 7 and made to go and work. They paid us nothing. After about a month, they suddenly just let us go.
We went in the night to take the boat. There were one hundred fifteen of us all squeezed into a very small boat. I wasn't scared. Everyone else was scared, but I was calm. I thought, This is just something I have to do. When I called my sister to tell her I had made it to Italy, she couldn't believe it. She was so happy for me.
For more information or to pledge support for unaccompanied minors, visit Save the Children's website.
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