Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | September 19, 2015
The present refugee crisis in Europe is the biggest since World War II. As the conflict in Syria digs deeper in its fifth year with no political solution on the horizon, desperate Syrians are undertaking perilous journeys across the Mediterranean sea to reach Greece and Turkey, through Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia and Serbia, crossing Hungary and then finally reaching EU’s borderless Schengen zone.
It is being estimated that out of the total four million Syrian refguees, about half of them are children. As the bombing on Syrian governorates intensified in the past few months, the proportion of women and children is increasing among those who seek asylum in the more affluent northern European countries. Nearly 10,000 people, approximately 40 percent of whom were women and children, were registered crossing into the FYR of Macedonia at Gevgelija from Greece between September 1 and 6. More than 7,720 people were also registered crossing into Serbia through Presevo over the same time period.
Unicef warns that the actual number of women and children reaching the reception centres in both countries is likely to be double the reported figures, as many families travel onwards without being officially registered.
According to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) figures, since June of this year, more than 80,000 people have been entered the FYR of Macedonia from Greece through the border of Gevgelija, which has emerged as a major refugee centre, while 89,161 people who have expressed their intention to seek asylum have been registered crossing into Serbia during the same period. The IFRC has launched an emergency appeal for 3 million euros to support the Red Cross of the FYR of Macedonia scaling up its assistance to support the 4,500 people, on an average, arriving daily.
As thousands of children make this journey across the Balkan nations, Unicef representative for FYR of Macedonia, Dr Bertrand Desmoulins, spoke with Shreerupa Mitra-Jha on the increasing numbers of children crossing the borders, the trauma that these children face and how UN resolutions fail to have a quick impact on the ground, among other issues.
A quarter of those seeking refuge in Europe this year are children – over 1,06,000 children have claimed asylum in the first half of 2015. Do you see the proportion of children among those fleeing wars and conflicts increasing?
What we say is that we have noticed – [though] nobody has hard figures – the estimate is that half of the refugees or migrants that are crossing the borders are registered. Another half are not registered because of logistical issues – not enough space or time or willingness, whatever the reason may be – but among those that we see, clearly, there is an overall increase in the number of people, there is an increase in overall families (sic). The proportion of families has increased – by that I mean women and children. Even the latest estimate, we could say that women and children are almost 40 percent of the overall flow at the moment which is a picking rate – it went from 10 percent to 30 percent and now is ever increasing.
Could you give us a profile of these children – what age group are these children, what proportion are unaccompanied children and where they are from?
You have different types of children. You have families with small kids and those are the ones who come to visit our child-friendly reception centres. They are with their mothers. Then you have another group of minors – you cannot really call them unaccompanied minors – who are in groups. They are 16 or 17 or 18 years old and are a group of teenagers and are fleeing because they are just tired of waiting in a refugee camp. And these are young normal boys and girls – they want to learn German, they want to go to German schools and they want to make a life. Those are the young people who are called ‘unaccompanied’ in local terms but at the same time you cannot put them in a foster home here. They will escape immediately and it will be going against their willingness. Even though they are not adults per law, they are really very mature and they know what they are doing. They are not looking for families. They are usually going to meet somebody [family or friends] who has already arrived in northern Europe.
Unaccompanied minor children are more likely when you have a huge influx and people are separated for a few hours at the moment of crossing the border, [for example] at the moment of boarding the train, sometimes you have chaos, then they may get reunited a few hours later.
And these are mostly Syrians – 80 percent of them – then Afghans, Iraqis (five percent) and Pakistanis (five percent) are the leading countries producing the people [refugees and migrants] here. Eritrea is a small number. There are some from Palestine, Somalia, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
From June [this year] until now [first week of September] there are about 60,000 people who have come.
A resolution on unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents and human rights was adopted in the 29th session of the Human Rights Council. Did the resolution have an effect on the situation on the ground? Are you hopeful that it might have an effect on the situation?
[Laughs] I think you are joking, no? You think somebody wrote something in the General Assembly or even at the Human Rights Council (HRC) [will have an effect on the ground]. Nobody is even aware of that [laughs]. They have to do their job. When you vote anything in the UN, it takes a long time, it takes for people like us on the ground to make the difference. The HRC, can vote anything that they want and adopt any text, if you don’t have anybody to follow up, first to make them know because the people who are voting, be it in Geneva at the UN or be it New York at the UN, they have to inform at least their government. I am not naïve – your question is either provocative or a joke. Call your ministry in India to see if they are aware of what has been voted. And you have the biggest country on the planet where you will, at least, have dozens of people [working] in [the UN offices at] New York. Take little countries – they will usually have one ambassador and a few staff. Any resolution requires a lot of work before it has an impact on the ground – from advocacy to explanation and to put it into practice. If all of the people who are there at the HRC would be applying their own things to themselves then the world would be [a] better [place] but I haven’t seen [that happening] (sic).
Two incidents in the recent past have shaken the world – the shocking story of the dead refugees in the back of a truck in Austria and the heart-wrenching photograph of little Aylan washed ashore in Turkey. Surely, many children have perished en route to Europe who don’t make it to the headlines. Do you have an estimate of how many children have died trying to cross the seas since the conflict in Middle East began?
Nobody would have an answer but those who would be the closest [approximation of the death toll] would be the EU people (sic). My job is to make a difference to those people who are crossing here from Greece. So clearly, those who have made it to Gevgelija – the border between Greece and Macedonia – are those who haven’t died. How would you estimate all those who have died between Libya and Malta, between Libya and Italy, those [who] are going from Turkey to the Greek islands? We don’t know. All we know is that here it’s okay. Here we had people dying because they were walking on the rail tracks, because they were hiding and then they were dying. They were accidents but connected to their situation. So here [now] we don’t have anybody dying from something that could have been avoided.
Since they have voted the law for all those people crossing the border not to be illegal migrants but get a chance to be asylum seeker, for 72 hours which gives them the time to cross the country – everybody is taking the train or the bus – according to their financial condition (sic). [A new Macedonian law that came into force in June states that migrants passing through the country can stay a maximum 72 hours, after which they must leave or apply for asylum.] That has been the major change. Before, we could not provide them services because they were hiding and were victims of smugglers.
But the FYR of Macedonia had declared a state of emergency in August.
Not an emergency but a state of crisis – crisis in the northern borders and in the southern borders.
What are the typical traumas that you observe in these children who have undertaken these journeys?
They are typically exhausted because they have been on the go for a long time. They have been emotionally traumatised having lost everything even though they are with a family member. Also, having been out in the sun, they are dehydrated, and [with] all kinds of wounds. The most important is the fact that they haven’t had the life of a child for weeks or months.
What are the rights of these children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC]? What is Unicef calling for in the context of this refugee crisis in Europe?
We [Unicef] do everything in the best interest of the child and so we are not dealing with [focused on] a specific Article of the Convention [CRC] but all of that [holistically].They need to have access to healthcare and give them what is most essential at the moment, which is, food, water, psycho-social support and things like that.
(The interview appears in the September 16-30, 2015 issue)