I just returned from one week following the refugee and migrant route.
We started at the border between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, walking about a kilometre on a dirt road to the Gevgelija Reception Center, in the middle of nowhere.
At the Center, I saw a 105-year old woman in a wheelchair being carried by her grandchildren and I saw young couples holding hands and carrying on their backs a few belongings in black plastic bags.
I witnessed hundreds of people, mothers, children, families, old people, young people, queued up to get on a train to the Tabanovce Train Station, close to the border with Serbia. Only small groups were allowed on the train at a time, at a cost of 25 Euros per person, 5 times the cost of the same train ride at the beginning of the summer. Here I saw a mother with three little kids, carrying her baby being pushed back because she could not find the 25 Euros which would allow her on the train.
The train was dirty, and the toilets were clogged and closed. I saw how the flow of people sometimes separated members of the same family and how siblings called each other through the windows, promising to be reunited at the next stop.
The priority of all involved was not to delay the process, the tempo must be kept and the flow of refugee and migrants in and out of the camp must be sustained.
I saw sadness and anxiety in the eyes of parents, fearful of being stopped in their journey; but I also saw hope that somewhere in Germany or in Northern Europe, there was a future awaiting their children.
UNICEF strives to protect every child, refugee or migrant, regardless of their legal status. We are on the ground in reception centers and at border points along the refugee and migrant routes, providing places for children to rest, play and receive psychosocial support if needed; safe spaces for mothers to nurse, and where everyone can get clean water for drinking and washing. We are working with governments to make sure that mothers and children are given priority and special attention.
Here are the top five facts that everyone needs to know about children on the move in Europe:
- Refugee and migrant children are children first.
They are not just refugees, migrants, or asylum seekers. They are children, regardless of their legal status. Each and every child has the right to be protected.
- Children are at the centre of the crisis.
Children on the move in Europe bear the consequences of a situation they didn’t create. Many speak of fleeing horrific scenes of war, violence, and hardship. In Preševo, Serbia, I met Ahmad, who had fled Baghdad with his two children with disabilities, and told us he didn’t want his children growing up in a community that would stigmatize them, one where they’d have to be kept indoors for the rest of their lives, separated from the rest of society.
- The number of children on the move is constantly rising.
Refugee and migrant children continue to arrive in Europe in record numbers. In mid-September, 60,000 children had arrived in Greece from Turkey since the beginning of the year. Two months later, this number has increased to 175,000 – children now represent 1 in 4 of all sea arrivals in Greece. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia alone, the proportion of registered children crossing the border from Greece has grown from 1 in 10 in June to 1 in 3 in October. And this continues to increase.
- Children are forced to grow up overnight.
I saw many children carrying babies or taking care of their younger siblings. In Opatovac, Croatia, I met Abd al-Rahman, his three brothers, his mother and her sister travelling with her two boys and two girls. They had fled from Syria to Turkey and only made it to Greece on a third attempt to cross the sea. At 16, Abd al-Rahman had to lead the boat to the Greek islands, after just a one-minute explanation from the smuggler. His brothers took turns in the water to reduce the weight of the boat when it started to sink even after they had thrown all their bags in the Mediterranean sea. Through this, he kept his future in mind: when he gets to Germany, he wants to get back to studying.
- Children are not being counted.
Many of the children on the move in Europe are not being registered. This, along with the speed at which people pass through reception centers and our child-friendly spaces, is making it very hard for humanitarian organizations to address the urgent needs of children, protect unaccompanied children and reunite families. Often, groups of adolescents travelling together avoid registering, for fear of being placed in an institution or getting stuck in guardianship procedures that would take months and prevent them from reaching destinations in western or northern Europe.
Traditional ways of responding to crises don’t work in this context. UNICEF is working with local authorities and humanitarian partners to adapt to the situation to provide children on the move the protection they need
Is Europe ready to help build the future children and their families are risking their lives for?
Marie-Pierre Poirier is the Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe and Regional Director for CEE/CIS. She recently travelled the migrant route through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.