Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2018, 16:20 GMT

EU: Abuses Against Children Fuel Migration

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 23 June 2015
Cite as Human Rights Watch, EU: Abuses Against Children Fuel Migration, 23 June 2015, available at: [accessed 22 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(Brussels) - Large numbers of children from war-torn countries, often traveling alone, are fleeing abuses in their home countries to seek safety in the European Union, Human Rights Watch said today. Many are fleeing recruitment as soldiers, child marriage, and attacks on schools, or escaping other effects of war in Syria and Afghanistan or discrimination against Afghan refugees in Iran.

In 2014, over 6,100 asylum-seeking or migrant children were recorded as reaching Greece, the vast majority by sea, according to figures provided to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by the Greek police and coast guard. Of these, about 1,100 were registered as unaccompanied or traveling without family members. Actual numbers are almost certainly higher, as many children traveling alone claim to be 18 or over to avoid prolonged detention while authorities find space in shelters for unaccompanied children.

"Thousands of children risk perilous journeys on their own because they believe they have no choice," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The least that neighboring countries and the EU should do is to make sure they aren't abused or denied their rights when they arrive."

In May 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 newly arrived asylum seekers and migrants, on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos. All had arrived by boat from Turkey within the previous month. Most of the 41 children interviewed were from Syria and Afghanistan. Twenty-four of them, overwhelmingly boys between 15 and 17, were traveling without family members.

According to UNHCR, 42,160 migrants and asylum seekers were recorded as entering Greece by sea during the first five months of the year, close to the total number for all of 2014. According to official Greek government data, Syrians have been by far the largest national group in 2015, followed by Afghans. Child casualties in Afghanistan increased by nearly 50 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year, according to a new UN report.

Some children and parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had fled to avoid recruitment by the Taliban in Afghanistan, or conscription by the Syrian army, or recruitment by insurgent groups. Hani, a 17-year-old who traveled on his own from Idlib in northwestern Syria, told Human Rights Watch that he fled to escape serving in the army. "Maybe you'll stay till death or until the war is finished," he said.

Many children and their families said they fled because of attacks on schools or other barriers to education. According to Save the Children, at least 3,465 schools in Syria have been partially or completely destroyed since the war began in 2011.

Fourteen of the children interviewed were Afghans who had fled Iran, which systematically denies newly arriving Afghans the opportunity to lodge asylum claims or to register as refugees. Many had been barred from school or were unable to afford fees and had become trapped in exploitative labor situations.

Two families interviewed said they fled Afghanistan to avoid child marriage. An Afghan couple who fled Herat in April 2015 told Human Rights Watch that a 65-year-old man connected to the Taliban had proposed to marry their 10-year-old daughter. "If we didn't accept, they would kill us," said the mother. "We escaped in the night."

Some children said they had left their homes on their own initiative, but with their families' support. The children or their families typically pay smugglers with money that they have saved or borrowed. Some said their families had sold their house to finance their journey.

Children undertake perilous journeys to reach Greece. Some Afghans described walking 12 to 14 hours through the mountains in waist-deep snow to cross the Iran-Turkey border, and being fired upon by Iranian border police. Many said the most difficult part of their journey was crossing the Aegean Sea in overcrowded inflatable boats, arranged by smugglers who charged US$800 to $2,000 per person.

Upon arrival in Greece, unaccompanied children may be detained much longer than adults while authorities search for space in children's shelters across Greece. Although shelters are meant to protect children, many children perceive the prolonged detention as punitive. As a result, many claim to be 18 or 19 so that they can be released to continue their journey to Athens and other countries of the EU.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has found that detention of children based on their migration status is always a violation of child rights and has called on countries to "expeditiously and completely cease" detaining children on the basis of their immigration status.

Greece should ensure adequate reception conditions on the islands, with special attention to the needs and best interests of children, including those traveling alone. Greek authorities should expedite processing of families with children and unaccompanied children, and avoid detaining children, in line with recommendations from the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The Greek government should ensure sufficient capacity in shelters for unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children to minimize as much as possible detention pending transfer to shelters. The EU should provide financial assistance to the Greek government to achieve these goals.

EU countries should support proposals to help alleviate the burden on Greece by relocating people in need of international protection, and ensure that such a program takes into account the best interests of children traveling with their families and unaccompanied children. Measures to increase safe and legal channels into the EU should include attention to the particular needs of asylum-seeking and migrant children.

The governments of Syria and Afghanistan should protect children from violations in armed conflict, and from other abuses such as child marriage. Iran should ensure Afghan children's right to education, and take measures to end exploitative child labor and police violence. Donors should support stronger child protection systems in countries of origin for asylum-seeking and migrant children and in countries hosting refugee populations.

"Children forced to flee abuse or life-threatening danger and who encounter even more danger along the way shouldn't find more abuse and neglect when they arrive," Becker said. "Their own countries, the countries where they land, and other countries should be doing a lot more to protect and help them."

Denial of Education
Mohammad left Deir ez-Zor in Syria in May 2015 with his wife and two sons, ages 3 and 10. He described an attack on his son's school in 2012 in which 22 people died, mostly children. He believed that the Syrian government targeted schools for attack:

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