Voices

The Overwhelming Number of Child Refugees is a Massive Global Fail

As world leaders meet in Italy, UNICEF rings the alarm that bold steps are needed now to address a humanitarian disaster.
May 26, 2017, 8:15pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend the big dogs of global leadership are getting together in Southern Italy to hash out the collective futures of billions of people. The Group of 7 (G7) is comprised of top officials from the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. The crew meets annually to discuss a variety of big picture issues like international trade, security, climate change and relations with Russia, who was kicked out of the group in 2014. The location of the summit, Taormina, is right on the Mediterranean Sea and in the midst of what is nothing short of a disaster zone with refugees routinely failing to make the treacherous trip from North Africa. According to a new report released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), since 2010 there have been five-times more refugee and migrant children traveling across borders alone. And somewhere in the ballpark of 1.5 billion people are living in a hostile state of conflict or in areas of economic and social collapse. To address what is ultimately a massive fail of modern society, UNICEF's Deputy Director Justin Forsyth will be buzzing around the G7 and fighting the good (and very uphill) fight. As they've done for years, UNICEF is hustling for the voiceless and vulnerable and hopes to get influential governments to adopt an action agenda they see as necessary for protecting refugee and migrant children.

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VICE Impact caught up with Forsyth about the new report, the G7, and what people who aren't global heads of state can do.

*VICE IMPACT : A five-fold increase in refugees since 2010 is pretty staggering. Was this surprising to you?*

UNICEF Justin Forsyth : We've seen signs of this for the last few years. We work in the countries of origin -- places like Nigeria, Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, and in Europe and in the US with children coming across the border from Central America. We know children are on the move and increasingly alone.

So we've been collecting our data, but the data we've used is probably only the tip of the iceberg. This five-fold increase is only of children who are registered. They've applied once they've crossed a border for some kind of help or asylum. What we know is that there's probably hundreds of thousands of other children that are below the radar, traveling by themselves, who don't register.

One of the biggest challenges on this whole issue around migrants and refugees is the patchy nature of data. We're probably hugely underestimating the true scale of the problem.

What's responsible for the increase?

There's a range of factors, but conflict is the major one. I've been involved in operations rescuing people where many migrants and refugees first land, and they come off to the boats onto the docks and are helped for the first time. A huge number come from northern Nigeria or West Africa and are fleeing violence or full-scale war.

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On top of conflict is extreme poverty and the opportunity for a better life. This is where the traffickers and smugglers prey on people the most. A number of stories included in this report include ones where teenage girls are enticed by a better life and promised that they'll get jobs in Italy or wherever. But actually, they're being trafficked into prostitution. I met one girl who'd been kidnapped by traffickers, and then was held in an underground prison in Libya for eight months, raped, and then sold into prostitution in Italy. These girls come off and they have telephone numbers of criminals that they've been given by gangs in Libya. There's a big criminal network preying on these children.

In regards to refugees, what's at stake for the G7 Summit? Best case scenario: What can realistically come from it?

Expectations are relatively low. There's a big disagreement amongst different G7 countries on how to handle the whole refugee and migrant situation. But the one glimmer of hope is that even amongst all the disagreement in the wider issue there's actually a lot of common ground on the need to protect children.

We're hoping that even if leaders can't agree on those wider issues that they can agree on protecting vulnerable children from traffickers and smugglers.

But even if we don't make any progress, the summit is in Sicily in Italy, the epicenter of one of the big route for unaccompanied children, so this will draw attention to the issue. Regardless of the outcome we hope it'll be a building block to other things.

What are some of those particular disagreements among the different countries?

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People have very different views in practical policies about how to handle the whole refugee situation. Germany has taken one million refugees, Canada has taken tens of thousands. That's very different than what the UK and US have done. But they, more than any of the others, have spent more money on aid to refugees in the region like in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan.

What we're saying is that even though you disagree, in the midst of all of this are some children and we need to help them. There's a chance everyone can agree on that.

What can people who aren't heads of state or diplomats do? Is there a call to action for the everyday individuals concerned about this?

In the US and Europe, a lot of communities and individuals reached out to refugee families to have meals with them to welcome them and show acts of solidarity. We hear refugees tell us that these small acts of friendship make the biggest difference.

We've also sent out a small manifesto on social media asking people to retweet it to show their solidarity. It's a small thing, but it counts when trying to raise awareness and bringing more people to an issue. The public sentiment showing they care about this issue will be very important. It influences what the politicians do. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Check-out UNICEF's new social campaign, #AChildIsAChild, which brings awareness to the experiences of migrant children.