Unaccompanied Minors

“Children are among the most vulnerable of those embarking in dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean and the unaccompanied ones among them are particularly so. Unaccompanied and separated children are at record level in comparison to previous years.”

(Open Migration,2016)

MOAS is a frontline witness to the current humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Fleeing persecution, war and poverty, men, women and children are forced to find dangerous routes to cross over to Europe, in the hope of finding a better life. In 2015, among asylum seekers registered in the EU, an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied minors requested asylum (Eurostat). In addition to the perilous journey across land and sea that these vulnerable children undertake, they must face these challenges alone, with no-one to care for them or help them through their ordeal. In honour of the International Day of Families, MOAS dedicates this blog post to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have attempted the Mediterranean crossing, often so far away from their families.

Even though I see that they’re ok now on board, the kids, I can still see them on those boats and I can’t understand it, because it’s not their place there. They have to be in a safe place – kids are something important, they’re the most important thing in life. It’s not their place there, risking their lives”. (Dominic “Mimmo” Vella, MOAS crew member)

The UNHCR defines an unaccompanied child as “a person who is under the age of eighteen, unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier and who is separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, has responsibility to do so”. Indeed, during our operations, MOAS often comes across many young people in this situation. According to UNICEF, 9 out of 10 migrant children who crossed the Mediterranean last year were unaccompanied. One of the challenging aspects of this complex situation is that we are dealing with people who, in the eyes of the European rulebook, are still children who need to have a legally appointed guardian. Given the experiences and the journey they have gone through, however, they have had to become adults before their time and actively take responsibility for themselves, and perhaps even for others around them (e.g. younger siblings, friends etc).

When we look at the main push factors that lead young people to move, we find that they are “economic push factors, educational needs, cultural pressures such as the feeling of responsibility to improve the family’s standard of living, traumatic experiences such as the need to escape sexual violence, or conflicts and natural disasters” (IOM, Children on the Move, 2013). Young people may feel that they have to support their families financially and therefore try to find better sources of income, or they may even move to try to reunite with their families who may already be in the receiving country (International Detention Coalition).

Since the beginning of this humanitarian crisis, there has been a lack of a coordinated response to the people arriving. While the E.U. promised to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers in 2016, by January 2016 only 272 people had been relocated (Human Rights Watch). In an attempt to improve the response to these arrivals, an emergency mechanism has been put in place for unaccompanied minors arriving to Italy and Greece, in order to prioritise their relocation to other countries. Furthermore, the Italian Parliament has recently passed the “Zampa law”, which will serve as a model for Europe: it includes a series of measures to protect refugee and migrant children.

Challenges Unaccompanied Minors Face

Despite the efforts that European countries have put into making unaccompanied minors (and other vulnerable migrants) a priority, these young people face significant challenges throughout their journey and upon their arrival. Packed in detention centres in Libya, food and water are scarce resources, and they rarely have access to any kind of health care or legal aid. They are especially vulnerable to various forms of “violence, abuse and exploitation, including human trafficking”, according to a UNICEF report.

Upon arrival to Italy or other reception countries, unaccompanied minors may also face cultural and language barriers: in addition to the physical and psychological trauma they may experience, language barriers may be caused by interrupted or limited previous education. As they are in a developmental phase of their life, they may face specific issues with identity and belonging, or with changing family responsibilities (Roads to Refuge).   Furthermore, a phenomenon particularly affecting unaccompanied minors arriving to Europe has been their disappearance, supposedly due to “the disjuncture between how state authorities treat unaccompanied minors and how minors imagine and envisage their migration project” (Open Migration). Indeed, while most countries will require unaccompanied minors to be allocated a legal guardian, some of these children may have been caring for themselves for a long time, and therefore consider themselves to be adults. They may find it difficult to have a legal guardian making decisions for them and therefore run away. According to Missing Children Europe, up to 50% of unaccompanied minors accommodated go missing.

Here at MOAS, we have rescued and assisted many unaccompanied minors, and our hard-working crew does everything in their power to make that little piece of their journey feel as safe and comfortable as possible.

“Three kids travelling without parents look into the water on their way to Italy. The kids—two from Nigeria and one from Senegal—were rescued from a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy. One of the boys, who did not know how to swim, was pulled from the water. The boys were transferred at midnight onto MOAS’ rescue vessel for safe transport to Italy. Their clothes were soaked and stomachs empty. Onboard, the post-rescue care team gave them health checks, warm clothes, food, water, and blankets. The first thing one boy asked for was a toothbrush and was thrilled when he was provided one. All three dream of being educated in Italy.”

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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