Child refugees ‘making trip to Europe alone for better life’
When Habibullah, a softly spoken 16-year-old from Afghanistan, was offered $5,000 (about £3,385) in order to get out of the country, he didn’t ask any questions.
The teenager from Baghlan in the north-east wanted to advance his education, but his hometown was too unsafe for him to so. His native province is rated by Unicef as the worst in the whole country for children, and Habibullah dreamed of something better.
“I always attended school in Afghanistan,” Habibullah says, “but my father told me that it’s not safe to stay at home. He said, ‘You can go to another country to continue your lessons. Security is always going to be bad in Afghanistan – but if you want, you can go and I will help you.’”
Scotland on Sunday initially met Habibullah in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in early December. His journey is fairly common – it’s been estimated by Save the Children that one in four refugee children who arrive in Serbia come alone, for example.
The International Rescue Committee has seen up to 50 unaccompanied children arrive on their own on the island of Lesbos – and those are only the ones who have been identified as travelling solo.
The boys are often escaping extreme violence. In Habibullah’s case, his family of ten – six brothers, one sister and his mother and father – is from the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority. His grandfather was killed in a Taleban massacre in May 2000.
Along with his grandfather, 30 bodies were recovered and it discovered that many had been tortured after spending four months in captivity. All the bodies had bullet holes in their backs.
“My grandfather was a very helpful and respectable man,” Habibullah says. “He would help people and would do it for free. For that, the Taleban killed him.”
Habibullah’s father gave him $5,000 – though he doesn’t know how his father got the money, as he is unemployed.
But the teenager took the cash and after weeks of travelling is now in a refugee centre in Sweden.
He is now feeling the impact of the move at such a young age. He was initially keen to leave Afghanistan, but now doesn’t want to be away from his family.
He says: “It’s very hard for me because I’m so young – I should live with my father and mother.” Does he miss his family? “A lot. A lot.”
Habibullah’s English is good, but there are gaps in his vocabulary – he knows the meaning of the word “hitman” but not “fear”.
He is also worried that he won’t get the education he travelled so far for, saying: “They don’t send me to school. I just eat and sleep in the refugee centre – I don’t do anything. It’s very boring.
“I love English, I’m attempting to improve but here they all speak Swedish. I hope I will go to school, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Emma Eggink, an employee of local non-governmental organisation the Starfish Foundation, says that information they have received shows that the majority of young refugees are male and she says that it’s much more common for boys to arrive on their own. “The data shows very clearly that people are leaving behind their daughters. You very rarely see teenage girls.”
Eggink thinks this is because of the expense of being a refugee – it costs around $1,200 to get into the boat from Turkey to Europe alone.
“It’s really expensive to go, and girls above the age of 15 are marrying [and staying at home]. Most of the boys travelling alone are Afghan.”
Shaya, 13, has also travelled without his parents.
Coming from Afghanistan via Iran, he travelled in a car with 14 people crammed into it. His parents are working in Afghanistan, and he is travelling with a distant cousin and his wife.
“When walking through Afghanistan, some people got sick and died. I spent ten hours climbing through the mountains in Afghanistan,” he says. He also tells of how the boat he had paid $1,000 to get in sank off shore, but he swam to safety. Cocky and funny, Shaya pulls faces and flexes his muscles when describing his journey.
UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov says: “It’s very important for the unaccompanied children to be detected as soon as possible.
“Sometimes we see them with a distant family member – a cousin or uncle – but in principle most of the unaccompanied children will be going alone.
“Sometimes they’ll join a family they’ve been involved with, but it’s extremely important to be provided with professional support and they have very specific needs.”
He adds that the same story is told over again: “Many of the Afghan boys that I’ve spoken to have told me the same story: that their family, concerned with a very volatile security situation, pools all of the resources they have and trust that the boy will be able to make the arduous journey to Europe.”
Cheshirkov points out that the situation is difficult for refugee children wherever they are from, as they are escaping hardships that many Europeans will find difficult to even understand.
He adds: “If you’re a Syrian child that would have been a first grader in 2011, chances are you’d have never been to school.”
Habibullah climbed across mountains, undertook a dangerous boat journey, and is living thousands of miles away from his family – all in order to attempt to get an education. His story is far from unique.