A Perilous Journey to an Uncertain Future: Eritrea’s Child Migrants

It is hard to imagine the circumstances that might compel a parent to send their child across the desert, through a warzone, and onto over-packed boats crossing the Mediterranean. However, due to the dearth of information coming out of the country, it is also hard to imagine what daily life is like for most Eritreans.

Image courtesy of Roberto Maldeno © 2003, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Roberto Maldeno © 2003, some rights reserved

The country of around 6 million people on the horn of Africa has only been at peace for the last decade. For nearly thirty years it was engaged in a civil war with Ethiopia. Since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the country has been governed by President Afworki, who has created one of most secretive states in Africa. Once he came to power, Mr Afworki instated mandatory military conscription for Eritrean men and all unmarried Eritrean women. Many military conscripts are forced to work In Eritrea’s agriculture industry for unspecified periods of time, with reports from some migrants claiming that mandatory enlistment can stretch anywhere from 10-30 years. Meanwhile, dissent and opposition to Mr Afworki’s government is quickly repressed, and the country has been accused by Amnesty International of using ‘enforced disappearances’. For many Eritrean parents who have grown up with this bleak reality, the harsh, risk-laden journey to Europe seems like the better option for their children.

In recent months the UNHCR has started reporting on a growing number of children, some as young as seven years old, turning up unaccompanied in refugee camps in Sudan on their way to staging points in Libya. While camp officials try to warn these children about the dangers they face on the journey ahead, few are dissuaded. Statistics from fall last year attest to the rise in unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy from North Africa – by October 2014 the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Italy from North Africa had topped 12,000.

Footage of the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean has become an almost weekly feature of news programs. What is less evident but just as dangerous is the situation facing migrants when they reach Europe. For children in particular the risk of being caught up in forced labour, criminal activities and trafficking is incredibly high. It is estimated that nearly one third of the 12,000 children who had arrived in Italy by October last year have disappeared.

There are several reasons why it is so easy for these children to disappear. For starters, most centers designed to house and care for the children until a more permanent situation can be sorted out are operating far beyond their capacity. For example the 20 bed emergency care center for children in the Italian city of Augusta was recently recorded as housing up to 150 children who have been rescued by the Coast Guard in recent months. Secondly, without a safety net of relatives and a community, children are at great risk of being exploited by traffickers. The burden put on families to pay off their debts to the human traffickers who ferry them (often unsuccessfully) across the Mediterranean motivates children to accept jobs working on farms or in markets so they can send money back to their families to pay off these debts. Finally, many migrants who do get across safely do not register for asylum in Italy, in the hope that they will eventually make it to other countries in the EU. The strategy is a result of the Dublin Regulation, a series of agreements between EU member states that attempts to regulate the issue of asylum seeking in the Schengen Zone. As part of the agreement, asylum seekers must register within a member state when seeking permission to stay. Usually, the state an asylum seeker registers in is the first EU member state they arrive in. However many migrants choose to avoid registering in Italy in the hopes that they will be granted asylum in member states in Northern Europe and Scandinavia when they eventually make their way to these countries.

The BBC’s Panorama program aired a documentary this week highlighting the difficulties faced by Eritrean children on their journey to Europe. Although this is a good first step in highlighting this issue, it is not enough. More awareness needs to be raised both in Europe and in Eritrea about the risks unaccompanied children face after their dangerous voyage to Italy. Many parents are willing to put their children in such a risky situation because they believe Europe holds a better future for them. If they knew more about what their children were likely to face in Europe they may be less likely to encourage or allow their children to go.

A model for this sort of awareness campaign can be found in the Dangers Awareness Campaign that the US Customs and Border Protection launched this past summer. The campaign was created in response to the surge in child migrants who began trying to cross into the US from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in the first half of 2014, and targeted communities in these countries. While the campaign tries not to be too sensationalist or graphic, it sends a clear message to parents. The journey to US is difficult, and there is no guarantee of safety once the children arrive.

A campaign of this sort would be very difficult to implement in Eritrea, particularly because of the secrecy surrounding the regime and the difficult foreigners face getting into the country. However, it is worth trying.

A larger overhaul of the EU policy towards migration is also imperative. Frontex, the EU border management agency, has recently taken over patrolling Italy’s Mediterranean coast, but it is overstretched and under capacity. Until the Dublin Regulations are reviewed, Italy will continue to struggle with the influx of migrants to its shores. Furthermore, the more marginalised migrants become, both during the journey and in Europe, the more at risk they become of being exploited. A more comprehensive asylum or workers-visa program needs to be created to deal with the new reality Europe is facing on its southern border.

Revising the Dublin Regulations is not the only change that needs to happen. It is easy to understand why parents, unaware of the dangers of trafficking and forced labour their children may face in Europe, are willing to send their children on these journeys. Eritrea is a prime example of the selective nature of both EU and US human rights agendas. It has long escaped any condemnation or pressure from the West, largely because the government’s repression is focused internally and is distinct from the larger geo-political threats in the region. Yet as long as the internal situation remains so uncertain and repressive, migration will continue to attract Eritreans, both old and young, to risk their lives trying to make it to Europe.

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