How Separated Children Disappear

They come from countries torn by war conflicts, others faced individual persecution. They left their home countries and arrived to our territory through various ways, in many cases after a complicated journey lasting several months. Usually they are teenage boys of Somali or Afghan nationality. Parents of unaccompanied minors are deceased, missing or they got separated during the migration. Minors are put into children’s homes as a preliminary measure and the court appoints the Office of Labour, Social Affairs and Family as their guardian. With the Office’s help, children apply for asylum, however, they are usually granted only with subsidiary protection, i.e. a limited residence permit.

Separated children frequently disappear during the first weeks on our territory. The Slovak system does not make them feel safe and protected so as to prevent them from running away. Consequently, these children become easy targets for human smuggling, trafficking, sexual exploitation or slavery. This issue is dealt with by the Human Rights League supported by the NGO Fund. We talked to Alexandra Malangone, lawyer of the HRL, about separated and disappearing children. More information can be found in the Disappearing Children publication.

Can you tell us more about the lives of separated children migrating to Slovakia?

Basically, their lives are similar to those of any other children, but they are not in touch with their families. For example, there is a boy in Trenčín who was granted with subsidiary protection and he attends secondary school. Just like Slovak children, he can stay in children’s home until the age of 25, as long as he attends university and trains for future profession. They also have to face the same problems like Slovak children leaving children’s homes with nobody to lean on. They must find accommodation and sort out their lives without any support.

We had a former social worker who took a boy to foster care when he turned 18. He stayed in her home as an adult and attended school. However, this is an extremely rare case. In Slovakia, it is not even possible to adopt a foreign child. Foster care, or family care in case of unaccompanied minors, is very sporadic. Few unaccompanied children are at such age (note: age suitable for adoption), usually they are 17 or 18 years old. But we have a two-year-old boy living with professional parents. Such children cope with their lives in a completely different way, as they have a point of reference, a person they can trust, looking after them. This is what every child needs.

Those who are not so lucky stay here after their 18th birthday and get a subsidiary protection. Many of them leave children’s homes and go to Bratislava. They may work in pizzerias, some work for some time and then return to school. I know a former unaccompanied minor who has just finished university studies in the area of information systems and industry. This young man completed his bachelor’s and master’s degree in Trnava and now he has subsidiary protection.

They are 25-year-old people who have no one, they live alone. They are lucky if they do not meet anyone who wants to take advantage of them for work or something else. They struggle through life and I think it is a hard lot. Many of them simply strive for some stability. After five years’ time, when subsidiary protection is prolonged, they can apply for a long-term residence permission.

How do unaccompanied minors disappear?

First of all, they want to be with a family member or a relative. They are also aware that legal procedure is complicated and lengthy, so they take a risk and go the illegal way. It is a combination of feeling unwanted, unaccepted, the situation being unclear and the fact that they prefer to stay with their families or relatives. Their time to decide is short and they hear stories on how extremely complicated it is to get a Slovak ID. So they continue their journey, as they don’t see a chance to stay here.

Those who stayed here talk about another factor, which is eagerness to work. They might have paid around 10,000 dollars just for the transition from Ethiopia to Moscow. By the time they arrived here, the debt had increased even more, which is a significant factor of vulnerability. It’s not that they believe their lives will be easy if they go to Western Europe. What matters is that they might earn more money and pay off their debt. There are also larger communities of foreigners, so they will fit in easily and feel more accepted.

Few of them are mentally prepared for more struggle. Many of them told us that the others wanted them to join and run away. Those who stayed were usually boys who had nobody. They had no relatives at home or they did not know where they were, they were killed or they simply lost touch. Therefore, they did not have money for the journey, they were exhausted and fed up with everything. They decided to stay, gradually overcame the hardest weeks and months and never left.

In some cases, the reason for staying was a feeling of resignation. They tell themselves “I simply can’t keep on going, I just want to feel accepted, I haven’t done anything wrong.“ They tend to feel very depressed for not feeling welcome. The possibilities are limited and complicated. There are no guarantees of residence permit, no certainty of what will happen – How will I live? What chances do I have to get an asylum or subsidiary protection? What happens when I turn 18?… I would say that these are the main factors forcing them to run away.

How do you try to help them with your project?

Even though there are few of such children, we aim to control the situation since the very beginning and completely change the system of care. Basically, we try to buy us some time, so that we can look into legal options and gain the trust of these children. When someone wants to run away, they would run away even if we locked them up. But it is different when we stand by their side and fight for them. And we can try to reunite the family.

We had a case of a boy who was supposed to meet his brother who had been granted with asylum in the United Kingdom. The UK and our Migration Office lead long debates on who shall pay for DNA tests confirming that they were relatives. The discussions were so lengthy that the boy had enough, came to the asylum seekers’ camp and left with a group of his countrymen. And he had been here for one year. When you look at the situation objectively, you cannot even blame him for giving up, if the authorities were not capable of agreeing on who pays 300 euros for DNA tests.

So I would like to focus on drawing up measures preventing such disappearances. Naturally, we do not believe that we can stop everyone from running away. We just want to stop them from being exploited by human smugglers or traffickers, prevent them from illegal work. There are legal ways, although they are lengthy and complicated. They may or may not turn out well, but let us at least try and not use excuses, such as “they want to leave anyway”. Children on our territory belong under our jurisdiction. We simply must take care of them as we would take care of any Slovak child.

This topic is not widely discussed in the public, common people are not aware of the issues. How can a common person – not a lawyer or an expert – contribute to change?

There are not many of such children, but if you meet them at school or at work, they will appreciate if you try to make them feel welcome. They want to feel that they belong, that this country wants them here because they have not done anything wrong and they went through a lot. It is enough to involve them in normal activities, invite them to the cinema, to a concert, go camping or go on a trip, introduce them to your friends. This is precisely what they miss, as it is very rare and they are not used to it. At weekends, they are all alone, even if they study at university. Slovak students spend their weekends at home and they are left alone. If none of their classmates comes and says “hey, come join me on my way home to Prešov” during the five years of university studies, it is very hard. Just try to overcome the barrier and make them feel included, make it a bit easier for them.

Author: Michaela Kučová 17.03.2015