Uncertain Journeys? Death as an Option

The reported deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean in the last week have highlighted once again the horrendous risks which thousands of migrants take to flee persecution and insecurity. According to reports from UNHCR, the Italian Coastguard rescued 8,500 people last weekend, and at least 500 people have died on the crossing since the start of 2015. While many of the reports mention that women and children were among those who died, and there is some indication of their nationalities, what remains completely invisible is how many of the migrants aged under 18 were travelling without family members i.e. as unaccompanied children.

In the very important International Organization for Migration (IOM) 2014 report Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration, the contributors provide an excellent overview of the dangers migrants take and how these vary between regions. The report also stresses the difficulties in collecting data for migrant deaths. These are due largely to the environments in which migrants die, such as at sea and in deserts. There is also a lack of political will or capacity of national authorities to collect the data and there is no coordinated international system to do this.

In the whole of the Fatal Journeys report there was very little mention of unaccompanied minors. There is brief mention of research by Altai Consulting regarding unaccompanied minors being sent by their families from West African countries to Libya for employment (page 117) and an increase in unaccompanied minors moving in East Africa and the Horn of Africa (page 118). One of the case studies is of a 15 year old Ethiopian boy who tried to travel to Saudi Arabia for work (pages 174-5). Given the problems in collecting mortality data, it is unsurprising that this group is given little attention. The IOM report contributors stress that in the majority of cases it is impossible to record gender and age information accurately. Whether a child migrant was unaccompanied or not would be even harder to assess. You might also argue that accompanied status is of very little concern once an individual has died.

However, it is important that the presence of this group of migrants is recognised. The willingness of young migrants to migrate alone and/or for families to send children on such a perilous journey is a strong indication of the unbearable conditions in which they are living. This was very evident in the interviews conducted as part of Paul Kenyon’s BBC Panorama programme ‘Children of the Great Migration’ broadcast on 23rd February 2015. One young Eritrean man said “Eritrea is a little hell… We don’t have a future. You cannot make it. You cannot stay there.”

What Kenyon’s report also included was evidence of traffickers and people smugglers using international law to facilitate their business of transporting hundreds of migrants across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Southern Europe. As unaccompanied children seeking asylum cannot be deported due to international law regarding the protection of children, gangs are forcibly recruiting under eighteens to captain boats. Combined with the overcrowded and poorly-maintained vessels, the use of these poorly-trained young men adds yet more danger to an already very hazardous journey.

Current figures suggest that this year is likely to see an increase in the number of migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean in search of a more secure life in Europe. Among the thousands who will attempt to reach Europe will be hundreds of unaccompanied young people aged under 18. It is likely that a proportion of these will be among those who perish at sea.

Katie Willis