Most Refugees Are Women and Children, and Dozens of Them Are Drowning

"It gives you an indication of just how desperate people are."

(Photo: ©UNICEF/UN07702/Kljajo)

Feb 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Last September the photos of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler whose body had washed ashore on the coast of Turkey, ignited international outrage and sparked calls for action by world leaders. Five months later, new data from the United Nations reveals that the number of children making the dangerous journey across the cold, choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea has surged to the highest level since the start of the migrant crisis in Europe.

According to a statement released on Tuesday by UNICEF, children are now 30 percent of all refugees and migrants, up from 10 percent in June 2015. And while men made up 73 percent of people fleeing war and sectarian violence during that same month, there’s been a marked change in who is on the move. In January, UNICEF found that nearly 60 percent of people seeking refuge are women and children.

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“It gives you an indication of just how desperate people are, how desperate families are, to leave all they know and continue on an extremely treacherous journey over the sea and to an uncertain future on land,” Sarah Crowe, the crisis communications chief for UNICEF, said in a phone interview with TakePart.

Crowe said the exact reasons for the shift require deeper study but people are “seeking safety, they’re seeking schooling, they’re seeking a better life in total. We know particularly in the case of Syria and Iraq that millions of children are out of school. Their schools have been destroyed.” But as in the case with other human migrations, “the male head of the household will go ahead and eventually be followed by others in the family: the mothers, the children, the women in general,” she said.

Paying a smuggler to make a dangerous winter crossing over rough seas is also more affordable, so the members of a family or village may pool their resources to send an unaccompanied minor to meet an uncle or other relative who is already in Europe. “As the price goes down, the flow goes up. In the winter time, you wouldn’t normally have as many who would throw themselves on such a treacherous journey,” said Crowe.

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Hundreds of people perish during the trip, and as with three-year-old Alan Kurdi, many of the fatalities are children. According to data released on Tuesday by the International Organization for Migration, 60 of the 272 people—22 percent of individuals—who drowned in January while crossing from Turkey to Greece were minors.

Once these children are on dry land, their situation is no less dangerous. “These unaccompanied and separate children are extremely vulnerable to being abused, trafficked, smuggled, and preyed upon by smugglers,” said Crowe. If kids don’t have information or resources, they often end up on the streets. Traffickers “hang about border posts, they’ll hang about centers, they’ll look out for children and bring them into gangs, into prostitution rackets, and into drug dealing gangs,” she added.

A report from Europol released on Monday said that that there are 10,000 missing children, raising concerns that those kids have fallen into the hands of traffickers. However, Crowe said that they may simply not be accounted for in the system used to track the movement of refugees.

Unaccompanied and separated children and minors, particularly refugee kids who are teenagers, often travel together in groups and they don’t want to be delayed or detained on their journey, explained Crowe. “When they do identify and they register and they are prepped in a center and process their asylum claim, that process takes a long time and it is too lengthy. These kids get frustrated and they just want to continue,” she said. As a result, adolescents sometimes leave a refugee camp and attempt to make their own way.

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UNICEF has learned that instead of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to working with these children, it’s in the best interests of these youths to involve them in decisions that affect their future, said Crowe. “These are young people with clear ideas about what they want and where they are going,” she said. "They want to go ahead and carve out a life for themselves.”

For younger kids, more effective monitoring and guardianship systems are needed. “We know now that institutions are not in children’s best interests. They are often places where children are abused and we’ve seen this over time,” said Crowe.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

Of course, the ultimate solution, which the world must address, said Crowe, is the end of the war and violence driving people from their homelands. “We know that there will be no end to the influx and the continual migration flow unless there is a political solution in the countries of origin.”

As seen in the animated video below by UNICEF, crossing the Mediterranean is terrifying for kids but their mothers are also suffering.

“If you just put yourself in the shoes of a mother who has lost her children—lost in the sense that they’ve left home to go and try to carve another life for themselves—it is tremendously traumatizing when they’ve already been exposed to another form of trauma: the violence, the war, the conflict in their home countries,” Crowe said. “To go and undertake another trauma like this leaves deep psychological scars, so that’s why there needs to be the work that we’re doing.”