Abandoned child refugees are targeted for slavery and sex abuse in Europe

When Omar’s family crossed the Turkey-Bulgaria border it was February and it had begun to snow. Whilst the children took shelter, urinating on themselves to keep warm, Omar’s father and his uncle went out to look for food. They never came back because they froze to death. Later, Omar’s cousin was held hostage by people smugglers for one month until the family paid off their debt.

Between agonising sobs it is 11-year-old Omar who recounts this story to the makers of The Forgotten Children, a new documentary which draws attention to the phenomenon of child refugees in Europe. An estimated 88,000 children are stranded in Europe without their parents; they have no safe place to live and many have suffered at the hands of criminal gangs who are targeting children for slavery and sex abuse. Europe’s criminal intelligence agency has estimated that some 10,000 child refugees have gone missing since arriving in Europe.

Whilst the media has covered the refugee crisis extensively, there has been little footage of the children who are caught up in the tragedy until, that is, The Forgotten Children, which follows the lives of four groups of orphaned children who tell their own stories.

Twelve-year-old Nagham and 13-year-old Mohamed from Aleppo live in a derelict petrol station in northern Greece with no toilets or showers. Every day, they walk miles to collect food from a state-run camp. After their father was kidnapped in Syria, their mother was killed in an air strike and the two children nearly drowned crossing the sea to make it to Greece Nagham and Mohamed thought that they would find safety in Europe. But in a particularly sobering comment which sums up just how bad life really is for child refugees Nagham tells the camera: “The situation is exactly the same as Syria. If you go outside, anything can happen to you.”

With no fixed place to stay, Nagham and Mohamed move between the petrol station, a state-run camp and a squat run by anarchists. None of these is a safe place for a child to grow up in – particularly a child with no parents – but the siblings have been caught between a cruel system and a continent that doesn’t want them. Whilst the Greek government is trying to move all refugees into camps, despite reports of violence within them, the Balkan countries have sealed their borders and thus the route into the rest of the EU.

It’s true that Greece has other problems beyond the refugee crisis. Huge debt and high unemployment in the country has meant that volunteers have poured into the country to deal with a situation that the government says it cannot manage. Sadie Clasby, who runs a school with her mother close to the Turkish border in Bulgaria, and human rights activist Neda Kadri and Rafat, her husband and a Syrian refugee, are just some of the volunteers doing great work who are featured in the film.

Nevertheless, managing an escalating crisis is no justification for reports of violence and nor does it excuse the fact that the Greek authorities are locking-up refugee children in detention centres along with adults.

Because state-run camps in Greece have closed the door to journalists, Neda and Rafat go into a detention centre undercover to speak to one of the children being detained there. Firas was sent across the border from Turkey by his family, who could only afford to smuggle one person into Greece; he was detained when he entered the country. In the six weeks that he spent in detention he was suffering from PTSD and had open bullet wounds on his back, although he was neither seen nor treated by a doctor in all this time. The authorities have refused requests to send him back to his family in Turkey.

The Forgotten Children raises some serious questions about how Greece has dealt with its refugee crisis, but it’s also worth considering what some of the richer EU countries have done to help relieve the pressure on frontline states coping with the bulk of arrivals. None make it into the list of top 10 countries sheltering the most refugees.

Earlier this year the UK government was shamed into making a U-turn on its abysmal position on child refugees and the House of Lords voted to amend the immigration bill, which obliged the home secretary to allow 3,000 unaccompanied minors into Britain. However, instead of taking in large numbers as people expected, just two months later only 20 had been accepted and some of these not even transferred.

Whilst the British government drags its feet, what chance do Omar, Nagham, Mohamed, Firas and all the other thousands of children abandoned in Europe have?

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor