Watching refugee crises through the eyes of children

It is certainly true that children are brought to the fore when reporting about the consequences of wars, diseases and disasters. (Representational photo) Related News

Children fleeing from conflict and acute impoverishment in search of a better and safe life in Europe must have witnessed and experienced terrible circumstances during their perilous journey. To describe the horrors, the children use words like torture, shootings, killings, rape and slavery, says the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Over three-quarters of Europe-bound youth between the ages of 14 and 24, fleeing to the continent via the Mediterranean route, report being subjected to forced labor, sexual abuse, child marriage and other forms of exploitation, according to a recent study jointly published by UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which surveyed about 11,000 child migrants.

As unimaginable as it is, it is now “standard practice that children moving through the Mediterranean are abused, trafficked, beaten and discriminated against,” says Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s regional director in Europe.

The risk of such atrocities happening is doubled in the case of unaccompanied children, the report stated. The children from sub-Saharan Africa are most at risk of exploitation, with 83 percent of those attempting to reach Europe via Libya having experienced some form of abuse. It’s so painful to confront these findings because they reveal the sufferings of the weakest of the weak.

This does not mean that the experiences of adult refugees and migrants are any less traumatic or they deserve less sympathy. Nevertheless, the suffering of children affects us in a special way, as they are particularly in need of help and represent the future generations.

Spotlight on children

Skeptics consider such shocking reports as exaggerated accounts. Media outlets, also European ones, have often been accused of bias in their coverage of the refugee crisis. Critics say they and their photojournalists have focused too much on children and women – and their tragic conditions – in their selection of pictures, although young and able-bodied single men accounted for the great majority of those streaming into Europe.

In this way, critics allege, the media has presented a distorted picture of the refugee crisis, and attempted to advance a false “welcome culture” agenda while ignoring the concerns of the local populations. These accusations have tarnished the reputation of the mainstream media in Europe and elsewhere.

It is certainly true that children are brought to the fore when reporting about the consequences of wars, diseases and disasters. Very young and old as well as female victims are perceived as particularly vulnerable and in need of assistance. And, of course, the focus is turned towards them to generate more attention, more compassion and even greater financial assistance.

But it’s far-fetched to allege that there’s a deliberate distortion of narrative when it comes to child migrants and the problems they face. While there are almost 50 million child migrants worldwide, over half of them (28 million girls and boys) have fled war and persecution, according to the first UNICEF report on the issue of child migration worldwide published last year.

Conflict situations pose special dangers for child migrants and refugee children; they face abuse and exploitation. They also have to work under perilous conditions to earn a little money that’s barely enough for them to survive. In addition, they experience violence, coercion and rape. The suffering leaves serious physical and mental trauma. Many of them also suffer a lot of shame and ostracism in the country they migrate to. Moreover, anxiety, sleep disorders and depression are widespread.

An appeal to all

With the publication of its latest report, UNICEF wants to jolt the European Union (EU) into action. Europe needs to take care of the high number of traumatized children and EU leaders “should put in place lasting solutions that include safe and legal migration pathways, establishing protection corridors and finding alternatives to the detention of migrant children,” the UN body said.

The agency has also called on European nations not to send children and young people back to countries where they might be at risk.

This appeal is quite justified, since the European states have not yet found any convincing answers to the refugee crisis. On the contrary, they are hopelessly at loggerheads over how to tackle the problem and agreement on a reasonable solution seems to be out of sight.

In Europe, the main concern now is to curb a further influx of migrants and asylum seekers by securing the continent’s external borders and setting up refugee camps in North African states. Furthermore, efforts are being made to raise awareness about the life-threatening hazards inherent in undertaking a high-risk endeavor to reach European shores on ramshackle dinghies, and the lack of asylum prospects for the people who come in this manner.

The view through the eyes of the innocent children should not only be an appeal for the Europeans to allow legal immigration. It should also serve as a warning to all parents and make them cognizant of how hopeless it is to undertake such a dangerous journey – both for them and their children.

Despite all their hardship and despair, they should not turn to illegal immigration because that would result in their being helplessly exposed to criminal human smugglers and other heartless people who are only interested in taking advantage of their misery.

Only in the case of legal migration, there is hope of a safe travel and high possibility to secure permission for long-term stay in the host country. For this, however, Europe will have to act quickly and provide a useful legal framework for immigration.

The governments in the transit countries, through which the asylum seekers pass to reach Europe, also bear a responsibility to act to resolve the problems.

Facing adversity and despair, the migrants and asylum seekers have left behind almost everything they have in their home countries and hope for an iota of humanity. The refugee children, like all other children, just want to play and learn. They need protection and support, which must be ensured by those in the transit nations.

But the main challenge will be to effectively combat and eliminate the actual causes that drive these people to flee from their countries of origin. In this, Europe can also help. However, this is not just the task of Europe, but rather that of the leaders of the countries from where so many desperately flee.

To achieve this objective, sometimes money may help. But so do institutional support and international pressure.

In some cases, solutions can be found swiftly and the situation can be stabilized quickly. In others, it might take years. Still, more international commitment will be worth it, because people will not flee from their homes voluntarily as long as there is hope – especially for their children.

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