Gambian asylum seekers discuss their journey together while looking at a map on the wall at an asylum seeker reception center in Italy. ©UNICEF/Gilbertson VII
Over 100,000 refugee and migrant children, a third unaccompanied, arrived in Europe last year. Many of them knew all too well that they could be killed or drown at sea. They fled anyway. As a young refugee in North Africa told me recently, you don't tear yourself from your family home, or put yourself in the path of violent traffickers, if you're not escaping something much worse behind you.
At Unicef we are acutely aware of the dangers children face. Our striking new study with REACH helps us to better understand what motivates them to leave home in the first place, and what they endure on their journeys. And it calls on us to take action now, with solutions as simple as letting children be with their loved ones.
What we found, in our 850 interviews with children who had arrived in Italy and Greece, was that the vast majority left home without telling their parents, fleeing poverty, conflict and violence. Many of the girls were escaping child marriage. As some peddle the narrative that children are coming to the EU in tens of thousands due to 'pull factors' we must respond with facts: as this new study shows, the majority have no intention to reach Europe at all. They leave in hope of a better life elsewhere in North or Sub Saharan Africa, but in countries such as Libya witness and suffer such extreme trauma and abuse that they are left with little option but to continue on in their search for safety. Almost half of children report being kidnapped for ransom in Libya - a truly staggering figure - while others are arbitrarily arrested or subjected to unimaginable violence and abuse. Some of their journeys took up to two years. These are children, let's not forget.
The study showed us something we can take immediate action on: reuniting children with loved ones in the UK who are willing to care for them. We have seen children often arriving in Italy or Greece knowing they have family in other EU countries but on making an application to join them, find themselves waiting for months, even years. For example in Italy, out of the 14,229 people who requested to be reunified with family elsewhere in Europe in 2016, only 61 were transferred. The whole time the majority are alone and many drop out of official systems to take their future into their own hands, again falling prey to traffickers and smugglers who abuse and exploit them in return for the journeys they facilitate. We heard reports of children engaging in sex with strangers to finance journeys too, others sleeping under bridges with little or no access to food or water. Is this what children should have to endure to reach family waiting to give them the care they need?
Even those who wait in official reception centres face risk, from violence and theft in camps to severe anxiety, distress and uncertainty. One can only imagine the impact this has on a child's mental health and we cannot be surprised when they give up on legal systems that don't appear to work or are too complex to understand. Despite what they go through, children remain determined to reach their family in other countries. Unicef UK is calling on the government to step up.
The UK government can do something simple but effective. Currently, children need to reach European shores before they can apply to reunite with close family members in the UK. Through a simple change to our family reunion rules, we could allow them to apply from their country of origin instead, thereby preventing children having to make the terrifying journey across seas in the first place. The sad reality is that all too often children have lost their parents, been forced to leave them behind, or found themselves separated from them due to the perils of war. What they need is for our rules to allow them to reunite with not only parents, but also adult siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and to be able to do so from wherever they are. This simple change to the UK's family reunion rules would bring loved ones back together. It would prevent so many of these devastating journeys. It would cut off the trade of traffickers and smugglers. It would give children back their futures.
There is added urgency to this desperately needed change - Brexit. As the UK gets underway with negotiations to leave the EU we cannot forget the implications for children. In the very likely case that we leave 'Dublin III' - the regulation that allows children within Europe to reunite with family elsewhere in the EU - unaccompanied children will have nothing to depend on aside from the UK's own rules, rules that aren't working right now. By fixing them we can stop children facing these horrors and losing their lives.
If we're serious about continuing to be a compassionate, global Britain we must act now to uphold not only our moral but legal duty to children who desperately need us, and desperately need to be with their family.