Children hoping to reach Western Europe via the Balkans are frequently subjected to violence, according to a new report published by the NGO Save The Children. Border police and smugglers are the most common perpetrators, but not the only ones.
Physical violence at the hands of border police is the most common form of violence experienced by migrant and refugee children on the Balkan Route, states Save The Children in a report published on Monday (September 12).
This usually happens during pushbacks -- the illegal act of pushing migrants and refugees back across a border without giving them a chance to ask for asylum, the paper states. "Interviewed children describe being stripped naked, forced to stand in the cold, and being given electric shocks and beatings with sticks, which led to serious physical injuries such as fractures or severe contusions," the researchers write.
All young migrants and refugees interviewed experienced violence
The report is based on in-depth interviews with 48 children between the ages of 13 and 19 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia, most of them unaccompanied boys, but also eight boys and ten girls travelling with their families; as well as interviews with field workers supporting refugee and migrant children.
All children interviewed by the researchers reportedly "recounted being subjected to physical, psychological, sexual or other types of violence, directly or indirectly" -- in their country of origin, during their journey, when crossing borders, in reception, asylum and detention centres, in squats, in the street and in the workplace.
Border police and smugglers most common perpetrators
After border police officers, the report found, smugglers and their accomplices are the most likely perpetrators of violence against migrant and refugee children. One in three of the children reported suffering violence at the hands of smugglers.
"Smugglers commonly beat children on the road when they start lagging behind or when they are loud or ‘disobedient’. Several children testified that the smugglers would kill or leave adults and children in conditions that they would not be able to survive on their own, because they could not physically withstand the journey, they were hurt or sick, or did not have the money to continue the journey," the report said.
A 19-year-old girl recounted the following incident to the researchers: "During the journey on a boat in the dark, when the police was not supposed to hear or see us, one of the children started to cry in his mother's arms. The smuggler took the child from the mother's arms and threw the child at sea to silence him or to protect himself. The mother started arguing with him, she tried to scream, at that point the smuggler threw her over board too and no one knows where they are now."
Threat of sexual abuse against children at camps
The Save The Children report also found that migrant and refugee children run a very high risk of sexual violence, particularly those traveling alone. While none of the children interviewed said that they themselves had been the victim of sexual abuse, nearly two thirds of the children interviewed said they had either witnessed sexual abuse against a child or heard stories from people who did. Some also told the researchers that they were in situations where money or favors were offered to them in exchange for sexual services.
Many interviewees said that smugglers pressured and forced children into sexual acts. Camps in Greece were also mentioned as unsafe due to the threat of sexual violence, in particular the now-defunct Moria camp on the island of Lesbos.
Children forced to work in dangerous conditions
Many of the children interviewed for the report recounted having to work -- in particular in countries where they had stayed for longer. They recounted working in factories in Turkey and on farms in Greece.
"Children sometimes work long shifts, even for up to 14 hours, in dangerous conditions that have consequences for their physical and mental health and severe effects on their development. People who employ children blackmail them by postponing their wages, paying them far less in wages than other workers who are in a regular position, or not paying them at all," the report stated.
Some children also recounted minors being recruited by smugglers, usually to help in border crossings, but also to sell drugs at times. The interviewees also said that they saw migrant and refugee children turn to begging and sexual exploitation to make ends meet.
Migrant and refugee children traumatized by violence
The report found that due to the stress and hardship faced on their journeys, many refugee and migrant children -- in particular those who were unaccompanied and thus particularly vulnerable -- were traumatized and showed signs of self-harm, suicide attempts and alcohol or drug abuse.
"The lack of protection at the European borders has terrible consequences for children. Europe's emphasis to dissuade arrivals means that children are subjected to shocking violence by the police and the frontier guards; violence which goes unpunished", said Ylva Sperling, director of Save The Children Europe. "Refugee and migrant children should be given access to legal and safe migration route so that they may never face the abuses documented in this report."