In memory of Jo Cox, 1974-2016, campaigner for immigrants and refugees, MP from Batley and Spen (Yorkshire).
UNICEF–the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund–has released two reports on the tragic situation of refugee children who are fleeing areas of conflict and poverty for the West. These reports–Danger Every Step of the Way (June 5) and The Refugee Crisis in Europe (June 16)–are written with great understatement. They tell a few individual stories, accumulate statistical data of the problem and make pleas based on the international legal obligations on states. The prose is dry even as the subject matter is urgent and terrible. The reader is taken to the precipice of rage. Is there anything that could be done? UNICEF has suggestions, but the world’s leaders have poured wax in each other’s ears.
Between January 1 and May 31 of this year, the International Organisation of Migration and others counted seven thousand five hundred and sixty-seven children amongst the desperate refugees who crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Italy. Of them, startlingly, ninety-two per cent came without an adult. Almost all these children–in other words–went alone on the dangerous journey from Western and Eastern Africa, through the Sahara Desert, into war-torn Libya and then across the perilous sea. Peace (age 17) from Nigeria recalls the horrors of the journey, “So many people died in the desert. We saw dead bodies, skeletons.” Strikingly, Peace–who is now at Rainbow House in Sicily–said, “I wish my friend had told me how difficult it is. I would have continued suffering in Nigeria.”
Asylum in Europe is elusive. Children sit in refugee centers or prisons for months on end as their paperwork stutters through the system. Laws in many European states only allow children to be unified with their parents, not their extended families. This means that children cannot be turned over to aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings. UNICEF finds that ninety-six thousand children cannot be accounted for in the system. In Slovenia, eighty per cent of the unaccompanied children are missing, while ten unaccompanied children go missing each day in Sweden. One in nine unaccompanied refugee children is unaccounted for or missing – although this figure is a low estimate. The children have vanished into Europe, with fear that “some may have fallen prey to criminal gangs.”