Data that BIRN has obtained show that more than 160 migrants and refugees currently in the Balkans are unaccompanied children or children separated from parents.
Most are staying in collective centres, hostels, asylum centres, parks, or in outdoor areas, in Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Bosnia.
Traveling alone on the new Balkan route towards Western Europe exposes them to numerous dangers such as hunger, human traffickers and sexual abuse and exploitation.
The topic of unaccompanied child refugees and migrants has risen up the international news agenda since the US started controversially separating migrant children from their parents on the border with Mexico.
President Donald Trump’s wife Melania has added to the furore by intervening in the debate to say that she “hates to see children separated from their families”.
Official data meanwhile show that the number of people of all ages using Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia as a new transit route to reach Western Europe is rising rapidly.
A group of migrant children from Iraq and Afganistan pose for a photo at a window in front of the center for migrants in the eastern Serbian town of Pirot, in Serbia, 29 December 2016. Photo: EPA/DJORDJE SAVIC
The 18 reception and asylum centres managed by Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration currently host 682 children – 410 boys and 272 girls, the Commissariat told BIRN, adding that this number makes up a quarter of the total number of refugees and migrants in Serbia.
“Of the total number of children [i.e. 672], 75 are unaccompanied minors,” it noted.
The Commissariat underlined that it takes care to ensure that unaccompanied minors are placed in separate rooms from those where single adults stay.
“All primary-school migrants, regardless of their legal status, have access to education,” it added.
The Commissariat explained that in the 2017/2018 school year, the Ministry of Education included all children of migrants and refugees aged seven to 14 years, regardless of their status, in the primary education system.
“There are currently 276 [refugee and migrant] children of school age in Serbia, 22 of whom are unaccompanied minors in the seven-to-14 age group,” it said.
The Commissariat underlined that it is cooperating with NGOs in providing additional activities for children, such as learning Serbian and creative workshops.
Jelena Besedic, Balkans Migration and Displacement Hub Programme Director for Save the Children, told BIRN that this charity had established the Balkan Hub, the BMDH, in late 2017, focusing on migration in the region and on efforts to provide support for children on the move.
“The Western Balkans route remains active and arrivals and departures continue. Save the Children estimates that more than 3,700 people have entered Serbia since the beginning of the year,” Besedic noted.
She added that, due to the lack of safe and regular routes, and inadequate access to international protection, refugees and migrants often travel with smugglers and are exposed to violence and exploitation.
“Collective expulsions, often accompanied with violence inflicted by border guards, are reported from all borders in the region.
“There is a need to support both new arrivals, children and adults exhausted by a strenuous journey, and those who remain stranded in Serbia for months and years now, facing high levels of stress and risks of deteriorating mental health due to the uncertain prospects for their future,” she concluded.
Refugee children from Syria sit in their tent during a rainy evening in a makeshift refugee camp at the border between Macedonia and Serbia near the village of Tabanovce, 10 March 2016. Photo: EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Bulgaria has experienced both an influx and an exodus of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum recently.
From only 185 in 2013, the number of registered refugee and migrant children without parents rose to 940 in 2014, rising to 1,815 in 2015 and up to 2,750 children without parents who sought asylum in 2016.
Since then, numbers have dropped to only 48 as of May 31, according to data from UNHCR-Bulgaria.
These children often receive inadequate support.
“Due to the lack of administrative, residential and financial capacities of the social services, including language training and experience with unaccompanied and separated children, most of them are accommodated in the registration-reception centres, sometimes together with unrelated adults, without specialised care,” a UNHCR spokesperson told BIRN.
Coupled with the lack of support to cover basic needs and financial assistance, which is common for all refugees and migrants in Bulgaria, this increases their vulnerability to exploitation, abuse and trafficking.
Many unaccompanied children soon abscond from the reception centres and fall prey to smugglers.
UNHCR told BIRN that construction of a facility designated exclusively for unaccompanied and separated children with funding from Norway has been under discussion since 2017 and should become functional by 2019.
However, thousands of children are already out of reach of the Bulgarian authorities and are in the hands of smugglers and traffickers.
One reason for that is that while local municipalities ought to appoint representatives for unaccompanied children, they often do not do so, as they lack the staff, the capacity, financial resources and training, a UNICEF-Bulgaria spokesperson told BIRN.
“There is still no working mechanism for guardianship to allow the timely appointments of qualified and trained guardians to safeguard the best interests of unaccompanied and separated children and ensure their access to rights,” UNICEF added.
Representatives were appointed to 613 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in 2017, according to UNHCR data.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Refugee children wave from the window of the train heading for the Serbian border, near the city of Gevgelija, Macedonia, 06 January 2016. Photo: EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI
The overall number of child refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied and separated children, remains low in Bosnia, according to the latest report published this month by the International Forum of Solidarity coalition.
This comprises Emmaus [IFSEmmaus], Save the Children, SOS Kinderdorf, the UN Children’s Fund [UNICEF), and World Vision.
A total of 381 child refugees and migrants have been identified in Bosnia at several locations from Sarajevo and Mostar to Selakovac and Bihac and Velika Kladusa in the northwest.
Of these 381, 29 of are unaccompanied and separated children, all of them boys. Six are under 14, ten are 16 and 12 are aged 17.
Most of them, 41 per cent, are from Afghanistan; 21 per cent are from Pakistan, 17 per cent are from Syria, 7 per cent are from Iraq and 3 per cent are from Palestine.
Notably, another 37 unaccompanied and separated male children were identified in Velika Kladusa but refused to be interviewed.
Of 12 children with different forms of physical and/or intellectual disabilities, five were unaccompanied and separated children.
Most of the children, unaccompanied and accompanied, are hosted in collective centres, hostels and asylum centres. Some are staying in parks or other outside areas, according to this report.
Most are also unaware of the risks posed by mines left over from the 1992-5 war on their route through Bosnia, especially in the Una-Sana Canton, close to the border with Croatia, which is close to Bihac and Velika Kladusa.
Bosnia’s Mine Action Centre says the region is one of the most mine-affected areas in Bosnia, especially the area close to the border with Croatia.
The number of refugees and migrants arriving in Bosnia rose fast in late-2017.
In contrast to an average of 32 arrivals a month recorded from January to November, in December, the number reached 198.
The trend has continued into 2018 and the number of recorded arrivals has more or less doubled each month this year, increasing from 237 in January to 2,557 in May, according to Bosnia’s Ministry of Security.
Data referring to Croatia that the Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS, a non-profit humanitarian organisation, gave to BIRN say that refugees who have obtained asylum in Croatia include about 130 children.
About 100 children of asylum seekers [whose number varies as families often leave Croatia before the completion of procedures] are located in reception centres in Kutina or Zagreb.
The JRS estimates that they include about ten unaccompanied under-age refugees.
“In the absence of documents that reveal the identity and age of refugees, it is difficult to conclude accurate data,” Martina Prokl from JRS said.
Children staying with their parents, within 30 days of submitting an asylum application, need to do tests to be included in the school program, which begins with 70 hours of preparatory lessons. Children of pre-school age can join pre-school facilities and kindergartens.
As life in the reception centres can be tough for asylum-seekers, the JRS offers support to families, focusing on women and children as the most vulnerable groups.
They provide language courses, inform refugees and migrants about working rights and organise socialisation with locals, and more.
The issue of incorporating children into society as well as their healthcare or education is advancing in Croatia.
“Today it is much better than it was a few years ago, but there are still no good systemic solutions,” Sara Kekus, from the Croatian Centre for Peace Studies, CMS, a human rights NGO, told BIRN.
Unaccompanied children face special problems. Those under 14 are sent to a home for abandoned children, and those over 14 end up in correctional institutions for children and youth – usually focused on children and young people with behavioural and personality disorders.
“That’s a problem because these children are automatically classified as problematic group,” Kekus said.
As unaccompanied minors try to join their families, many soon leave Croatia to join relatives in Western Europe.