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BBC News, March 3, 2010

Big rise in Afghan child migrants

UNHCR spokesman William Spindler shows the dire living conditions for child migrants in Calais

By Imogen Foulkes

United Nations aid agencies are increasingly concerned about the number of children from Afghanistan migrating across Europe alone.

Latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency show that the number of Afghan children under 18 who applied for asylum in Europe last year rose by 64%, from 3,800 to more than 6,000.

Abdullah an Afghan refugee in Venice
I hid between the wheels of a lorry on a ferry to Italy. It took 40 hours, with no food and only one bottle of water -Abdullah, Afghan migrant (Photo: BBC News)

That figure is believed to represent only a fraction of child migrants, since many do not apply for asylum, either because they don't know they have a right to, or because they fear an application could lead to detention or deportation.

The journey across Europe typically begins in Greece, after an already hazardous trip from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.

Seventeen-year-old Abdullah's decision to make such a dangerous journey began long ago, when he was 11. He is a member of the Hazara ethnic minority and, after both he and his father were threatened by the Taliban, Abdullah's parents decided to send him away.

"If I had stayed, I risked being killed," he said.

Dangerous journey

Abdullah spent some years working in Iran, earning money to fund the next stage of his trip. He then made his way to Turkey. From there he crossed to Greece in an inflatable dinghy. It took him four attempts before he succeeded.

Greece has one of the lowest rates of asylum approval in Europe, however, and many Afghan boys, Abdullah among them, decide not to try to stay there.

"From Greece I hid between the wheels of a lorry on a ferry to Italy," he explained. "It took 40 hours, with no food and only one bottle of water. It was very difficult, and I was very scared."

Abdullah's fear is justified - in the past year, at least two Afghan boys, one only 13, have been killed trying to make the same journey.

Abdullah's home now is a disused army barracks just outside Venice. The buildings have been converted into a centre for migrant boys just like him. This one centre alone is receiving five new arrivals from Afghanistan every single week.

"We offer them a safe, warm place to sleep," explained social worker Paolo Sola. "We also offer them medical attention, and eventually lessons in Italian."

"But, especially the Afghan boys, they often stay just a few weeks," he continued. "They want to continue with their journey, many want to go to the UK or Scandinavia."

Benefit to smugglers

The reasons for the choice of destination are complex. Some of the boys in Paolo's care said they had heard the schools in Norway were good, others said they had friends or distant relatives in Britain, which has a long-standing Afghan community.

What this means is that Paolo often comes to work to find that some of his young charges have left.

"We even had one little boy who was only seven," he recalled.

"He stayed three weeks and then he left. It was very difficult for us to accept, because we wanted to protect him, but we can't keep them here against their will. We can only advise them what they might experience on the journey, but mostly they don't believe us."

Many aid workers blame a lack of coherent policy within the European Union. They say it contributes to the dangers faced by young migrants, and benefits the smugglers.

"There are so many different standards within European countries," explained Laura Boldrini of the UN refugee agency. "In Greece, for example, you have basically zero chance of getting asylum, in other countries you might stand a 50% chance."

"The same applies to conditions of assistance," she continued. "There are no unified standards at all, and what happens is that in Greece, these boys are told it is better in Italy, in Italy they are told it is better in France, and so on. In the end it is the smugglers who make money out of this."

Calais misery

Certainly if young migrants believe conditions will be better in France, they will be disappointed when they get to Calais.

Since the closure of the so-called jungle, an unofficial migrants' camp, last September, the French authorities have been determined to prevent any more such camps springing up.

That means migrants are not offered any food or shelter, and are constantly being moved on by the police.

What's more, the French authorities have introduced a "crime of solidarity", under which local people who attempt to help migrants can be prosecuted.

Nevertheless, one or two local charities try to distribute at least some food every day, and every day a queue of migrants forms to receive it.

"Every day up to 300 people come here for food," said Maureen MacBrien, a UN field worker. "The youngest boy we have here is nine, and since I started work here in September I have seen the number of under-18s increase."

Child protection

The UN estimates that a quarter of all migrants in Calais are under 18 and, as such, are entitled to special protection under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But here again the discrepancies in standards between different countries and even towns causes problems.

In Venice, young migrants are offered their own centre. It is basic, but at least they are kept with boys like themselves.

In Calais, the French authorities can also offer places, but these tend to be in homes for French boys who are disturbed, or who have drug problems.

Policies in Calais are designed to deter migrants from making the journey at all, but that is clearly not happening. Instead, they keep on arriving, and the boys gathered there are more determined than ever to make the last step of their journey to Britain.

"I'm going to London," said one 15-year-old. "I think life will be easier there. Where I come from there is bombing and killing, it's impossible to have a normal life."

"I want to go to England," said another, just 13. "It's a good country."

Everyone believes that somewhere in Europe, life must be better. So, as long as that belief remains so strong, young boys will continue to leave Afghanistan, and embark on the journey across Europe, despite the enormous dangers, and the difficult conditions.

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