Podcast 7: Unaccompanied Minors

Welcome to the MOAS podcast where we want to include you in what we do, to explore different angles of migration, and help you to better understand the people we save. Our focus of this week’s podcast is on minors who are attempting the crossing alone as number of unaccompanied minors increases year on year.

Bini Araia, Project Manager of Investing in People and Culture, Middlesbrough UK

My name is Bini Araia and my job is a Project Manager for a local charity based in the North East of England called Investing in People and Culture (IPC). IPC is a registered charity and works on the main ideology of integration of new and emerging communities through social and economic engagement.

Can you tell us a bit about your work helping unaccompanied minors?

As part of our social integration work we look at various sections of our community who are new and emerging, and within that group there are refugees and asylum seekers, and within the asylum seeking and refugee community there are unaccompanied people. They are another group that are vulnerable in their own right. We liaise with local authorities, social services and health services to try to ensure that unaccompanied minors are fully supported. We do this through 3 things: one, by providing training to health professionals and social work professionals to make them more aware of unaccompanied minors’ journeys and their social and cultural needs.

We also work with the health services to make sure that some of the mental health, the trauma, the complex adverse situations they might have passed through or witnessed on their journey are some of the causes of their mental health or distress and disorientation. So the mental health professionals need to have that background so that they can provide an appropriate treatment or find some meaning for the diagnosis, because in most cases they don’t understand what it is causes certain things; they cannot relate it to the root cause. So by providing that training it helps them to reason out why someone is behaving in a certain way.

We also look at their social integration in the community. We provide football activities, music, art, so that they are fully engaged, we take them to museums and various activities to make sure that they are comfortable in their new society. One of the things that we always also advocate for unaccompanied minors is that they are our future citizens. They are vulnerable, they have seen awful things, they have lost their parents and loved ones or their guardian has vanished along the way. They are very disturbed and emotionally destroyed young people and we need to make sure that we give them the comfort; that it is not everyone that is against you.

What are some of the experiences that unaccompanied minors go through on their journey?

Well, like any other refugee that comes to a safe country, unaccompanied minors are not immune to those horrific experiences. To mention some would be: starvation, torture in the hands of human traffickers, harvesting body parts, physical beatings, prison, beatings, kidnappings, what they call the reduction system. When these small boats leave Libya, and then they take people in huge numbers in small boats to come to Europe through Italy, if at some point during this horrific sea journey the boat is leaning to one side because of the weight, what the heartless traffickers do is reduce the people from the boat and they throw them right into the middle of the sea while they are alive in attempt to balance the weight of the boat.

So these are young people who have witnessed some of their friends being thrown away into the sea, people who have been raped, experienced sexual violence and physical beatings. So it’s a range of things that they share and you can obviously imagine the impact of this on their physical and mental health.

What sort of age range are the people you’re helping?

Out of the 24 young unaccompanied minors that my charity is working with, the youngest is 11 years old, and the oldest are 16-17 years old, so that’s the range. But I would say that they are predominantly 14-15 years old, but we had an 11-year-old unaccompanied minor from Sudan. In terms of country, we have young people who are Kurdish, who are from Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan: 3 out of the 24 are from Afghanistan.

Do they have the means to contact their family back home?

It’s a mix. For example, one unaccompanied minor, his mum died in the Mediterranean Sea while she was heavily pregnant, so he’s in a complete shock from that experience. Others, yes, they manage to make contact with their parents. Others are still trying to make that contact with part of their families in Europe. I was this morning at an immigration solicitors office, whereby the unaccompanied minor was assisted by the immigration solicitor to make a call to their parents from the office phone, and according to him social services also allows him to use their office phone once a week, which is great.

What challenges do these young people face?

Some of the challenges that they face when they are in a new country, particularly in the UK – even though most of them are likely to get leave to remain, which is a plus from the UK side of things – but I think that because their head has been constantly moving, constantly moving to the next town, to the next country, in their minds they are still moving even though their paperwork says they have leave to remain, but they are not settled inside, they think their journey is still continuing. If you think of someone leaving Afghanistan, by the time they arrive in the UK they have passed around 10 different countries. Yes, their end is here, but it needs a lot of reassurance for a young person, to tell them that look, this is now your home country, this is your destination. When someone has been constantly moving, in most cases unplanned movements, with no control over that move, being snatched by human traffickers.

One thing I forgot to mention is that people are being sold like kitchen pans, or an animal, from one person to another, so this is how they are treated. So if they don’t trust anyone, can we blame them. But if you don’t trust anyone, how can you explain what your real issues are, how you’re feeling, but at the same time we can’t blame them why they don’t trust people, because their experience of adults is such an awful experience. It is also part of our charity to show them some love, that they are important to our society. What is most important is that they are our future citizens, so whatever we invest on them now will pay off how they will turn out to be as adults in the future, But if we marginalise them like the human traffickers and the dictatorship, who knows what will happen when they grow up.

Is integration difficult for young people?

It depends. It is very difficult if they haven’t been given the right support. But if they are given the right support then it is not so difficult. Identifying what their interest is, identifying what they enjoy, talking to them, accompanying them to places for the first couple of weeks, making sure that their aspirations are embedded into the activities, then it is easy.

[…] I think it depends on the circumstances and the support that is being offered. In my experience, for young people’s integration, to make it difficult or easier will entirely depend on what you have offered to facilitate that integration, and are you doing it for them or are they leading their own integration. I think that’s a key word for me. Young people and refugees need to lead their own integration. It means that they can integrate as much as they want, in three months or six years. I think agencies and charities need to offer people the tools, and when they are ready then they will integrate, so all the information and opportunities have to be available, but people are people so they have different experiences. You can’t imagine someone who has been raped three times a day, and then all of a sudden ‘oh well, I have offered him a ticket to the cinema, I asked him to come and watch football with me, but he refused so really I don’t care’ – you can’t say that because you don’t know what their experience is around big groups of people.

Dominik Kalweit:  KOPIN Malta and member of the Destination Unknown Campaign steering committee

What does your organization do to help unaccompanied minors?

KOPIN is a bit of a hybrid organization so we work in three fields, one of them is refugee support, another one is development cooperation with partners in Ethiopia, and third is education with a focus on development and also human rights education.  In the field of refugee support we have a focus on children and women. Over the past years we have implemented different programmes, mainly social, recreational but also educational programmes for refugee women but also children including unaccompanied minors.

With unaccompanied minors we’ve conducted regular English lessons in a centre called Dar il-Liedna, which is based in Fgura, which is in the South of Malta.  So basically our team went in there five times a week, sometimes or rather often providing one to one sessions with the aim for the youths to acquire some skills in English and the English language, but through fun activities.  So it was more with the non-formal or informal approach to learn English.  The idea was that acquiring language skills would be a first and very important step for them to move further both in terms of inclusion and integration but also with regards to their education and possible job prospects in the future or if they might move on away from Malta, English is always a good thing to have knowledge of.

What are some of the experiences that unaccompanied minors go through on their journey?

Well the experiences are of course very different, it always depends on the person but there were some things that they would share in common, where often they would experience, that they were sent by their families  or by their communities who would often get into great depth financially speaking to finance the journey of their youths.  The idea as we understood it would very often be that the young ones would be the hope for the families.  So they would get a better future but they would eventually also be able to support the family from wherever they land and also pay back the debt and that is also a key challenge that we realize was faced by young people. So, they were in a bit of a conflicting situation where on one side many would like to further their education but on the other side they are aware they have this financial burden on their shoulders and they feel this responsibility to earn money in one way or another.  One should never forget that those are simply young people.

The youth that we’ve engaged were 16, 17, the unaccompanied minors and those in the end they are just teenagers like all other teenagers too but many of them have experienced a lot of challenges too including losing family members or losing friends or just the separation from family and from the regular place where you grew up and where you live all of that is quite challenging, and perhaps to some extent also traumatizing – not using the word necessarily in its clinical sense  – and not taking away the agency and resilience that these young people are capable of.

What kind of challenges do they face when they get to Malta?

Well a number of challenges. I think one very basic challenge is language.  It’s very fundamental to able to communicate in some way.  Another one is I think that often they wouldn’t necessarily feel welcome here.  There are often a lot of misunderstandings, misconceptions when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers and that doesn’t stop with young people.  That makes it more difficult, I think there’s some underlying sentiment that one could grasp quite easily whether or not you’re feeling welcomed in a society and if it’s not the case then its more challenging I think in the first place to try to integrate or include yourself in the society.  I think those are fundamental challenges.

Now I think the Maltese system offers some opportunities too, so there’s compulsory school education until the age of 16 and I’m also aware of cases where the Ministry for Education actively supported young people to further education also beyond that.  But then the challenge I mentioned earlier regards earning money, and another quite challenging situation is once minors in legal terms turn adults, from 17 to 18, that transition period is not really catered for so, what happens in the cases of the youth we’ve worked with was they simply had to move the centre and they were no longer in the centre environment they were in before and the males were transferred into a big open centre with other males from different countries and speaking different languages and various age groups and a complete different system.  So there’s quite a change once when they experience that transition.  If you don’t have a support system in place that of course is particularly challenging. If you don’t have a certain set of experiences perhaps you can rely on, that’s also specifically challenging.  So when we speak of unaccompanied minors, we always need to keep the particular vulnerability in mind not neglecting also that there is a lot of agency and resilience.

You said at the beginning that unaccompanied minors coming to Europe are looking for work to repay the debt for their travel, that there is a pressure do that.  I’m curious from the ones you’ve worked with whether it does feel like a burden or do they feel it to be a duty to repay their debt?

Possibly, it’s a mixture, it always depends on the character.  It’s important to keep in mind also when we look into statistics and so forth that those are always individuals who think and feel differently, one from another.  From what we know is that some would feel relieved and some would feel like there are new opportunities opening up.  I can speak most precisely about the feelings that one young Somali has shared with us, her name is Farah Abdi and she wrote a book together with us that is called ‘Never Arrive’.  In this book she describes the feelings she experienced along her journey and also when she arrived in Malta very precisely.  So there was a mixture of fear, of hope, of hopelessness and very often facing the challenges of, it’s a question of character I assume and it’s also a question of whether or not you would find to some extent the support you need.

When you look into the situation in Malta you will find social workers that are very dedicated and that will support unaccompanied minors in the best way possible.  You will find a lot of volunteers that are doing their best to support unaccompanied minors and children and young people who migrating in general. You will see that there are many people who have a good heart, who do their best and also have a great understanding of what is required and what is needed when you deal with children and the particular situations.  But it’s an individual situation, one youth is different from the other.  I think there’s a mixture of feelings as it is with young people all those feelings probably sometimes culminate altogether and are a bit overwhelming, it’s nothing that only teenagers experience.

Why are the taking and supporting of unaccompanied minors such a political issue?

KOPIN is part of a wide network of organisations that work on the rights of children who are on the move or otherwise affected by migration, its called the Destination Unknown campaign, it’s a global campaign involving more than 100 member organisations in all regions of the world and one main aim is to advocate for the rights of children who are on the move and that often includes also means engaging with political decision makers and stakeholders.  Now we do this in a political context where you see quite a political shift towards the right and that’s not just in Europe, it’s also experienced in the US.  This polarizing interaction that we can see in politics and the shift towards the right makes it more challenging for us to support the inclusion of youths in the host societies.  Once we see that populism is more on the increase you will also see that mainstream parties are also following it.  You can see that in Germany, you can see that in France.  Even mainstream parties would follow more on the right side not to lose the votes. So we very often work in a context of where the prime aim is more of a short term aim and that is to retain the power and to stay within government, and within this context to operate and to ensure that the rights of children on the move who are affected by migration are not neglected but rather strengthened is quite a challenge.

What do you make of the new policy guidelines outlined by the EU commission this April?  They say that they will provide a whole ream of reforms that will prevent children falling through the cracks or going missing.  Do you see this working?

Well I think there’s a very fundamental problem when we look into EU policies and the implementation that is, what kind of approach are we seeing there? We are critical that we are not seeing a rights-based approach that is underlying in the policies.  We see that the occurrence of foreign policies that are responding to domestic policies in a way that is potentially against the fundamental rights of people who are moving; for example the EU-Turkey agreement, for example the proposal that we heard about, the similar agreement with Libya that we exactly know what is going on with asylum seekers and migrants and refugees in Turkey but also in Libya.

Considering all this, looking at other EU policy proposals and implementation proposals makes me a little bit pessimistic from outset; put it that way.  Now to see why children are going missing, we need to understand that despite that we try to be more coherent in policies across the EU, there’s still a lot of incoherence and that even boils down to the national levels, so the interagency collaboration even within a country like Malta when it comes down to unaccompanied minors and people going missing, it’s not yet as developed as it should be.  So more coherence is those policies would definitely be desirable but fundamentally speaking, any policy that relates to children on the move affected by migration needs to be one that focuses on the rights of those children and on a human rights based approach.

In our next podcast, we’re looking at soundscapes from our rescue vessel, the Phoenix. 

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From all of us here at MOAS: goodbye.



This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained.