“Unaccompanied Minors” rescued by Aquarius roughly fall into two categories: those who are close to 18 and those who are nowhere near that age, travelling without a responsible adult. The younger members of this are as young as nine. Imagine being nine years old and taking local transit alone. Now imagine crossing a continent and a sea by yourself. Or, as we sometimes see, crossing the continent and the sea while caring for up to three younger siblings.
Some of our young unaccompanied minors start their journeys with adults only to be separated from them when they are kidnapped or placed into boats on Libyan beaches. Others have their adults die on the trip. Still more start the journey alone, often pushed out by family members who no longer want to look after them or who propel them to make the journey in the hopes that these young people will make it to Europe and send money back to the family. I cannot fathom the pressure that these children feel – at their age I was focused on saving up my allowance to buy a book, not looking for food for my half-starved siblings.
The unaccompanied boys break my heart as they navigate the physical space on Aquarius, the search and rescue ship run by MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE, that I’ve been working on for the last 3 months. These boys want to be on deck outside with the men and but really belong in the shelter with the women and children. They do not fit into either space. Even in the relative safety of the Aquarius, these boys are incredibly vulnerable. At times, I have put my foot down and sent them to bed in the shelter rather than letting them sleep outside with the men. The boys may not like it, but for a brief period of time they actually have a team of people looking out for their best interests and part of our job is to keep them safe and feeling secure. It may not feel “cool” to them, but at the very moment they insist they are old enough to be outside with my men, my mind usually flashes to an incident from earlier in the day when the same child was in tears because someone stole the pen or toy they were using. Try as they might, these kids are not adults. I deeply wish we could give them back their childhood for more than 36 hours.
We recently had a ten year old onboard travelling with his 3 siblings – all young enough to still be in diapers. He kept his crew together, made sure they were dry and staying out of trouble, but the responsibility was clearly crushing him. He told us that he alone had been looking after his siblings for over 2 months. He did seem a bit happier when we were able to give him some paper and pencil crayons – he drew the great pictures attached.
Our amazing cultural mediator, Asma, was able to use the information the ten year old boy gave her to track down a woman on Facebook who sounded like she was the children’s mother. She printed out a photo and showed it to the oldest whom, finally after days of appearing emotionless, broke out into the biggest smile imaginable. He took the photo to his siblings who all started to hug and kiss the image. Our midwife, Jonquil, who runs the shelter, taped the photo above where the children slept and our team contacted the Red Cross Family Reunification Program and Save the Children on shore, giving them the information required to help reunite the family.
Some might ask why we didn’t Facebook message the mother and tell her that we knew where her children were? But in a world teeming with child traffickers, we have to be careful and we leave family reunification to the experts.
And then there are the girls. Though many of them don’t know it, they are being trafficked to Europe where they will end up working as prostitutes. Most of the unaccompanied girls tell a story of having trouble at home – often with a step-parent or relative with whom they are supposed to live. I’m sure all of us dreamt of running away from home at some point in our childhood, but these girls have been lured away from home by huge multinational trafficking syndicates who promise them easy and lucrative jobs in Europe while leading them into situations where they will be continuously raped for weeks, months, or years. We flag these vulnerable girls for Save the Children and UNHCR to meet with on shore, but we know that thousands of them disappear from overburdened Italian reception centres every year. It’s likely that a huge proportion of the missing children are working in forced prostitution in European cities.
Ideally, Europe would have a reception process that aggressively protects these children and works quickly to reunite them with family members or find foster families for them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Until this happens, we on the Aquarius will give them a few days where they can be kids if they feel like it, sleep in a protected environment, and be handed over to other NGOs who are looking out for their best interests.