Children Alone Walk a Rough Road to Asylum

Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, founder and chairperson of Education Above All, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visit refugee children attending the Dignity School, part of EAA’s Educate A Child Programme, implemented by UNHCR, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo by Aisha al Musallam / UNHCR)

By Sunny Lewis

WASHINGTON, DC, April 30, 2019 ( News) – Unaccompanied children who seeking asylum in the United States face long dangerous trips without their parents or guardians. Sometimes they travel more than 1,000 miles and cross several borders on foot, by bus, or on top of freight trains. Desperate for a chance at a better life, they face exploitation, violence and death.

These are the findings of a new study by a research team from the Department of Health Management and Policy, Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania together with researchers from the Health Federation of Philadelphia and the Hepititis B Foundation.

They estimate that between 75–80 percent of newly arriving unaccompanied children are victims of human trafficking, as they travel into the U.S. with smugglers who then sell them into forced labor or prostitution.

The majority of unaccompanied children are between 13 and 17 years of age; a larger proportion are boys, the study shows. This group includes pregnant girls and a growing proportion of elementary school-age children.

The term asylum refers to the legal permission to stay somewhere as a refugee, which brings rights and benefits. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

In U.S. procedural documents, these children are referred to as “unaccompanied alien children.” The Homeland Security Act defines unaccompanied alien children as those under 18, with no legal immigration status and for whom there is no available parent or legal guardian in the U.S.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, a U.S. guard monitors refugees as they leave their cage, December 18, 2018 (Screengrab from video “The Real Border Emergency” by U.S. Senator for Oregon Jeff Merkeley) public domain.

Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley believes President Donald Trump has deliberately created a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. On January 17, Merkley revealed a previously secret document that shows the Trump Administration plotting to create a crisis at the southern border. The memo, dated December 2017, details plans to implement a family separation policy as a deterrent to would-be asylum seekers and lays out strategies to increase detention of migrant children.

While migration is an issue that President Trump now calls a “crisis,” it certainly is nothing new. Trump separates children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage migrant families, thus creating more unaccompanied minors who are detained in wire cages at the border, facing an uncertain future.

But President Barack Obama also had to deal with a flood of migrants, and he did so without family separations. The number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border spiked during the Obama Administration in fiscal year (FY) 2014 (October 1, 2013–September 30, 2014), when U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 70,000 unaccompanied children. This is a 77 percent increase compared to FY 2013.

Child migrants speak of their experiences at a demonstration to honor all immigrants in front of the San Francisco office of U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris, a Democrat, led by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, April 18, 2019 (Photo by Peg Hunter) Creative Commons license via Flickr

In FY 2016, Border Patrol reported apprehending almost 60,000 unaccompanied children, the second-highest number of apprehensions during the 2012–2016  period.

The majority of unaccompanied children come from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America: in FY 2016, almost one-third (32 percent or 18,913) arrived from Guatemala, followed by 29 percent (17,512) from El Salvador and 18 percent (10,468) from Honduras; an additional 20 percent (11,926) arrived from Mexico. Between 2012–2016, the number of unaccompanied children from these four countries more than doubled.

“Escalating and uncontrolled violence is a major factor forcing children to flee from their home countries,” the researchers report. In 2012, Honduras was ranked the most violent country in the world, with a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico had homicide rates of 41.2, 39.9, and 21.5 respectively, while the global average rate was 6.2 per 100,000 people.

Such an extraordinary level of violence in the region, the researchers report stems from “continuing political turmoil, relative weakness of governmental institutions, widespread domestic and sexual abuse, and the power of organized crime”. Three types of organized crime groups – street gangs, Central American drug transporters, and Mexican drug cartels – are primary agents of forced displacement.

At this point, unaccompanied children who want to be granted asylum in the United States go into the court system so that a judge can make that determination.

Fewer Children Seeking Refuge in Europe

The countries of the European Union, too, appear desireable to children on their own seeking asylum, but the numbers of such children decreased last year.

The latest figures from the statistics agency Eurostat show that almost 20,000 unaccompanied minors were among asylum seekers registered in the EU in 2018. One-fourth of this group are Afghans or Eritreans.

In 2018, 19,700 asylum seekers applying for international protection in the Member States of the European Union were considered to be unaccompanied minors. This is down by more than one third compared with 2017 (31,400) and below the 2014 level (23,100), when the first increase was observed after remaining at a relatively constant level of around 12,000 per year between 2008 and 2013.

In 2018, at the EU level, unaccompanied minors accounted for 10 percent of all asylum applicants aged less than 18.

On Universal Children’s Day, November 19, 2018, the European Commission pledged to provide the best possible care for migrant children who enter the EU.

“Armed conflict, poverty, natural and man-made disasters, or displacement naturally take their hardest toll on children. The European Union is at the forefront of supporting children, especially those most vulnerable and affected by crises, both inside the EU and abroad.

The EU works to provide access to psychological support and trauma treatment, helping to protect and reintegrate children who were associated with armed forces and combat groups around the world.

The EU provides 10 percent of its humanitarian aid budget for education in emergencies. This is far above the global average and the EU therefore calls upon global partners to follow suit.

The EU also contributes to protecting all children in migration, whether they are unaccompanied or not. The interests and the rights of children must be safeguarded and protected at all times: to receive appropriate accommodation, health care, access to education as well as guardianship where needed. In combating trafficking in human beings, children also remain at the core of the EU agenda,” the Commission said.

Qatar to the Rescue

Sometimes displaced children get a lucky day. Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia it was one of those days thanks to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar.

Their visit to Malaysia, a country that hosts some 167,000 refugees, follows an agreement to pursue a strategic partnership aimed at enrolling more than 450,000 refugee and internally displaced children in schools in 15 countries.

Sheikha Moza is the consort of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, former Emir of the State of Qatar. Since 1995, she has led education and social reforms in Qatar and has founded national and international development projects – including Education Above All (EAA).

“I can’t emphasize more the importance of proper schooling for refugee and internally displaced children, millions of whom lose out on the education they need,” said Grandi. “Not only does it help children heal, it stabilizes families, aids acceptance locally and provides hope for the future.”

The partnership of the UN refugee agency and Education Above All will make available a shared contribution of almost US$100 million in support for learning among refugee and internally displaced children. Support for this partnership project will include a contribution from EAA’s strategic partner, the Qatar Fund for Development.

“It is clear from what I have seen here in Malaysia that quality primary education can truly change the course of a child’s life,” said Her Highness Sheikha Moza, who serves as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate. “Equipping refugees with knowledge and skills means they can be assets to their host countries and later support the rebuilding of their home countries. I’m proud of the work being done here and thankful to Malaysia and its people for helping these children access a better future.”

“With over four million refugee children currently out of school worldwide, there is so much more to do,” Her Highness said. “I urge more partners to come forward – we all need to be playing our part to get more children into classrooms – which is where they belong.”

Education Above All and its partners are already supporting more than 10.4 million out-of-school children in 50 countries, providing them with access to education. About 2.3 million of these children are refugees or displaced within their home countries.

Featured Image: Unaccompanied minor girl from South Sudan is registered at Kule Camp in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, August 12, 2014. (Photo courtesy UNICEF Ethiopia)

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