As coronavirus sweeps Europe, unaccompanied refugee children are becoming more vulnerable ǀ View

“I will do anything to avoid returning to Greece,” a Syrian refugee once said to me.

She shared her experience sleeping in the streets before saving her two boys from starvation by eating berries she foraged. Today, Syrian refugee children and parents crowd into the same Greek camps I hear about in more personal accounts shared by refugee children and mothers seeking asylum near my expat home in Zürich, Switzerland. There, over 1,600 unaccompanied minors (children) wait for a passage to safety.

Those refugees left behind in Greece try to survive in unsanitary conditions while fearing the spread of coronavirus in their crowded conditions. Adult refugees have staged protests over it. Meanwhile pressure mounts among the estimated one million Syrians displaced in the unsafe city of Iblid where desperate, displaced people are expected to flee, not only from warring between rebels and Assad but because only 64% of the public hospitals in Syria needed to respond to the global pandemic are fully functioning. In addition to Syrians in Greece, refugees in Bosnia are being imprisoned or deported due to coronavirus fears. Refugees from the South Sahara are trapped in Morocco trying to reach Europe without food or basic amenities.

As an American expat mother and volunteer working with refugee families, I didn’t think the situation for mother and child refugees could get much worse in Europe, but indeed it has.

This week, 10 European cities are trying to help these children in need of safety. But many nations are stalling or refusing to help. The UK recently refused to assist. And so I must ask my dear, privileged international friends, not just in the US where frustrations mount about lack of compassion for immigrants and refugees alike but here where I volunteer in Europe, who will help the refugee children now? Germany has moved to transport a small portion of children to safety, but without the aid of other wealthy and capable nations like Switzerland, its efforts barely make an impact.

For three years, I’ve volunteered inside Zürich refugee camps interacting with generous staff from the state-run organisation, AOZ. Not long before Swiss lockdowns, however, I could no longer work with its staff as volunteers were barred from entering the high security refugee camp, except for on specially scheduled and managed tours (one AOZ employee told me that he has now resigned because of cutbacks and the effects he saw on refugee rights). Instead, I was permitted to volunteer in an activity room on the BAZ refugee camp’s perimeter. In the small room where I resumed volunteering, hordes of unaccompanied child refugees have poured in recently, seeking community and any activities that felt remotely child-like. No one could explain why so many minors had suddenly appeared unaccompanied.

“It just takes one person to care,” an unaccompanied refugee girl said to me recently. “And then I feel like it’s worth living.”

And though I’m certain that the average Swiss citizen and government employee is charitable, refugees I’ve recently seen at the camp have told me that they haven’t been able to access social and emotional support or guidance during initial asylum-seeking stages. When I asked questions, I learned that this absence of services and supervision for children is due to understaffing, heightened adult-style security, and what has reportedly become an underfunded camp.

When some of the Zürich area’s first coronavirus cases were reported, several at the camp told me in confidence that they couldn’t access soap in the bathrooms or elsewhere for handwashing. In response, volunteers joined me in collecting soap to supply to the camp. And this made me wonder; if more residents of Switzerland, of Europe, knew of lack of funding and care inside the camps, would they want to help more children?

If European’s citizens had more connections to these stories of children losing parents, homes, and identities, perhaps they’d act more swiftly, opening more doors, demanding more social services to the vulnerable seeking asylum. Perhaps the average person doesn’t see that when these children finally play games, cook food with volunteers, and share stories, they often talk of a deafening fear, a sense of inhumanity, unproductivity, of grave and traumatic uncertainty from day-long interrogations that lead to invalidation and confusion about when, where and how they’ll achieve asylum anywhere. Families worry daily, when and where will I end up?

Inside the camp, where officials recently permitted me to attend an “exclusive” tour, I smelled concrete and saw nothing child-like among grey balconies, bare walls, depressed faces of wandering adults, and yet children mingled about unaccompanied. I saw multiple layers of locked, guarded doors and dim rooms stacked with bunk beds. I saw humans unable to work, to have visitors, to eat familiar food, to engage in recreational activities inside the camp.

Mothers and children have shared with me tales of leaving jobs, schools and homes to find safety, of crossing the Mediterranean, surviving in tents along borders, traveling years to reach Switzerland. I’ve heard of travel via airless cargo containers, of slavery, murder, of losing children and parents.

An employee working alongside the camp told me to stop listening, stop asking. Another advised me to avoid emotions. But if we don’t listen to our emotions, how will we develop the drive to care for these children?

It’s time for Europe to lead with compassionate guidelines dictated by UNHCR for Protecting the Rights of Refugee Children. European nations must allocate funds to appropriately house refugee children; not solely with roofs and armed guards, but with sanitary conditions, compassionate volunteers and enough trained staff to dedicate time to social and emotional needs of the most vulnerable.

Switzerland, host of the Geneva Convention, recently pledged to help more unaccompanied children. Politicians have also called for more support for refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Yet despite this, Switzerland closed two asylum centres last year. Switzerland ranks as the fifth happiest nation with citizens the richest in the world. In the case of an event like the 2015 migration crisis, when hundreds of thousands of refugees sought safety, Swiss State Secretary for Migration, Mario Gattiker said, “…we have to be able to react quickly.” The “event” is here. 900,000 people in Northwest Syria, 60% of whom are children, have been displaced since 1 December alone.

So, dear Europe, who will help refugee children now?

  • Amy Aves Challenger is a volunteer at refugee camps in Zürich, Switzerland, who has worked with unaccompanied minors for three years.


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