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Photo by Diego Cupolo, Alamy Stock Photo

Minor Migrants

Germany isn’t the only country switching its focus from accommodating migrants to deporting them. The European Commission ruled at the beginning of the year that European Union (EU) countries will be able to return migrants to Greece, where many of them traveled before moving on. And in October, the EU and Afghanistan signed a joint agreement allowing member states to deport unlimited numbers of Afghan refugees to their home country, despite concerns raised by human rights organizations.

In the middle of this arduous back-and-forth are thousands of migrant children—often unaccompanied. Thirty-five percent of asylum seekers in Europe last year were minors, according to the United Nations (UN)High Commissioner for Refugees, and 10,000 children have gone missing after arriving in Europe. 

“It is feared that some of these children are being exploited by criminal gangs, due to the often-close ties between human smugglers, who facilitate travel for around 90 percent of the migrants, and criminal networks,” according to an EU Civil Liberties Committee debate on the topic. “These children may be sexually exploited, used for begging, or forced to commit crimes.”

A lesser-known but equally con­cern­ing threat to child refugees is induction into extremist organi­za­tions, according to Refuge: Pathways of Youth Fleeing Extremism, a report by counterextremism organization Quilliam. This issue is expected to worsen as more refugees are sent back to stopover nations or to their home countries. 

“Some of these areas have extremely dangerous terrorist organizations operating and seeking to prey on and poach these young people, who are being forced back and may be exhausted by the political systems that have let them down,” says Nikita Malik, the leading author of the Quilliam report. She explains that the journey from a country of origin to an asylum country—especially for young people—“isn’t a process from A to Z, it’s multiple nexuses of risk on this journey.” 

Whether it’s in their home countries or along their travels to a safer destination, children are prized as potential recruits, the report shows. “In the eight-month analysis of extremist propaganda, we saw 263 references to refugee youth, so there is an obsession amongst these groups over young people: young boys to become soldiers, and young girls to become mothers for the next generation,” Malik says.

And while many minors are leaving their home countries due to the threat of being abducted or coerced by these extremist groups, they sometimes end up joining them out of necessity. “We see young people joining up with these groups because of lack of other opportunities,” Malik explains. “It’s not really a theological or educational indoctrination—that tends to come much later. These short-term needs—the fulfillment of basic services such as water, food, and a little money—can sometimes be all it takes for young people to join these groups.”

When a person leaves his or her country of origin, it’s often not easy to travel straight to a final destination country, Malik explains. Most refugees will take a boat or pay smugglers to get them to a safe third country—where they will be registered and often kept in refugee camps for extended periods—before they are put into a system to enter a country of destination, such as the United Kingdom.

“Many young people who are separated from their parents are put in the hands of smugglers, simply because they tend to show that they know how to take these young people out of areas of conflict into safety zones,” Malik says. “A lot of money and trust is put in these individuals who often abuse this, and then tend to work with radical and extremist networks during the journey.” Most people are forced to pay to make the journey to Europe, and extremist groups often allow refugees to join them to waive the payment. This creates a sense of debt and loyalty to these groups, she explains.

Because many refugees arrive in sanctuary countries through smuggling networks, they may not register in refugee camps and instead join urban camps or seek illegal employment. This is often a point in the journey where underage refugees “disappear” with no official paper trail, and can easily and unwittingly become involved in human trafficking, child labor, or extremist organizations, Malik says.

 If individuals are able to reach their destination country, they are often put into detention centers and eventually moved to an immigration removal center for long periods of time while their paperwork is processed. Between 2010 and 2015, 853 minors were put in detention centers, Malik notes. Quilliam found that this portion of the journey finds minors most susceptible to recruitment. 

“Extremists try to establish contact with refugees inside refugee centers and at local mosques under the guise of providing aid, using opportunities to preach and proselytize among refugees, warning them about Western values and norms whilst promoting negative attitudes towards officials and the public,” the Quilliam report notes. 

Malik explains that at this point in their journey, minors are often suffering from what she calls the politics of exhaustion—they are “simply so exhausted and violated at this point, there aren’t systems or processes in place to include or integrate them, that they just give up or go back right into the hands of these groups they may have wanted not to join in the first place,” she says.

Even after getting settled at one of the immigration centers, some refugees are still turned away because they are unable to prove that their lives were at stake in their home country, Malik explains.

“The burden of proof lies on the refugees themselves,” Malik notes. “This can be an incredibly tall order to ask of someone under the age of 18 who is not fluent in the language, who has gone through extreme trauma and violence during their journey, and in the case of women, there might be a cultural stigma that prevents them from talking about sexual violence. As a result, being unable to prove persecution and threats to life will then lead to a refugee being sent back and repatriated.”

Malik explains that when European countries reject or deport migrants, they are sent back to the sanctuary country they came from, and often those countries repatriate the migrants in the countries they were originally fleeing. This is especially alarming in light of the recent revocation of the Dubs Amendment, a commitment by the United Kingdom to take in 3,000 child refugees. Only 350 children will be accepted before the law phases out.

The Quilliam report identified a number of ways to counteract the recruitment of minor asylum seekers, focusing on training and integration. Malik explains that Safeguarding and Resilience against Extremism (SRE) training is critical for frontline workers in both destination and sanctuary countries to understand what underage asylum seekers have gone through and the threats they face. 

“In conversations I’ve had with [the UN refugee agency] and individuals who work in housing units or refugee camps, they have very little education on radicalization or extremism,” Malik explains. “They simply don’t know when a young person may be preyed upon or groomed by extremist or radical groups.”

The training would promote better understanding of what refugees have been through and provide officials with the skills to properly document the experiences of refugees, especially children. “SRE training and implementation must treat children as children first,” the Quilliam report notes. “Treating refugee children as asylum seekers first and foremost means that they are not afforded the same rights and protection as any other child in the United Kingdom.”

If child refugees are eventually accepted in a destination country, it’s imperative to create a strong support system and provide them with basic necessities, including the ability to integrate and contribute to society.   

“There are extremist organizations in the United Kingdom that can give a sense of solidarity to a refugee, feeding into these negative grievances against foreign policy,” Malik explains. “They’re saying, ‘isn’t it terrible that you had to make this journey, you don’t speak the language, people here are unfriendly, the United Kingdom is responsible for what happened in your country in the first place, which is why you had to be separated from your family.’ This is a common tactic to create a sense of community and engagement and friendship. And we should be, as government actors, frontline practitioners, foster parents, teachers, and nurses, filling this gap, but we simply don’t have enough resources or capability to do so.”

Both the Quilliam report and Malik say that the populist movement has had a major negative impact on what resources are available to refugee settlement organizations, making it more difficult for officials to build these safety nets for children.

“I think the discourse and rhetoric we’re seeing in political organizations and individuals who have voted for very anti-immigrant policies, starting in the EU with Brexit but also with Trump’s refugee ban, have become incredibly mainstream,” Malik says. “As a result, politicians are tending to have a kneejerk reaction to the integration of refugees.”

This type of “reciprocal radicalization” can also turn refugees into scapegoats by both the far right and Islamic extremist groups to radicalize others, the report notes.

“Radicalization and extremism go hand-in-hand with smuggling and trafficking groups and the normalization of violence against young people,” Malik explains. “We have to be focusing on effective policy and programmatic approaches on the ground to provide the right resources to be able to socially integrate individuals. Instead it’s been very much the view that we just won’t take anybody in, and by locking these doors we’re leaving them with little alternative but to return to areas of extreme conflict and be poached by radical and extremist groups.”