26,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Europe in 2015, according to Save the Children. The EU’s criminal intelligence agency maintains that 10,000 are missing, many feared to have fallen into the hands of traffickers.
In recent weeks the fate of children in the ‘Jungle’ has come into focus particularly with plans to abolish the south section of the makeshift refugee camp in Calais. Of the 3,455 people in the “Jungle” 445 are children of whom 315 are without parents. Leading clergy, actors, writers, artists and others have signed a petition demanding that minors be given full child protection within the French system or allowed to reunite with family in Britain.
But behind these numbers lie thousands of children’s individual stories. We know the fate of two of these children. Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, drowned along with his brother and mother when their boat capsized en route to Greece. His father Abdullah, the only one to survive, wanted to take his family to safety in Canada where his sister lives. The image of Aylan’s corpse washed up on a Turkish beach went viral and caused an international outrage – for a few hours, days or weeks perhaps. Missy Higgins was moved to write and perform this song about Alan Kurdi.
And just before New Year, Masud, from Afghanistan, suffocated in a lorry in his attempt to get across the Channel. He had a legitimate claim to join his sister in the UK but found the conditions in the ‘Jungle’ intolerable and took matters into his own hands. Things could have turned out differently. Last month British judges ordered 3 Syrian youths and accompanying adult be allowed to join their relatives in Britain and escape the ‘living hell’ of the Calais refugee camp.
But what of those children that do survive: that settle in the UK, across Europe or beyond? They are just starting out on life – wanting security, education, a future. What challenges will they face and perhaps overcome? What opportunities will open up, or be denied, to them?
Not all the stories of child migration on this website are as harrowing as those of children fleeing Syria, although some are. Many were not refugees and some came as British subjects from countries that were then part of the Empire. Yet perhaps their stories can shed light on those experiences that affect the child migrant not only as a young person but as an adult and throughout their life.
Children may have less choice than adults as to whether they leave or stay. Eylem expresses this well. “You were almost caught in a flow of water and just being dragged and nobody’s asking me did I want to leave Turkey?” Children may be given little notice that their lives are going to be turned upside down. “Yeah, my grand aunt, my grandmother’s sister told me that I’d be flying to England in the morning to be with my mother,” says Richard from Jamaica. “ It was like they took all my childhood away from me and sent me off to this freezer.”
Children may block out memories that are painful. “I have no recollection about being on the plane and that journey,” says Manzila. “ It was so horrendous that I completely blotted it out of my existence.”
And how will the child adapt to living with ‘strangers’ even though they might be family? For Argun stepparents could never replace his birth parents. “It’s not like mum and dad is it? When you say, ‘Step, step, step, step,’ it’s not 100%.”
Children who have experienced war are especially vulnerable. They may relive that trauma not only in the months or years after the conflict but throughout their adult life. For Maurice, who saw his grandmother die of poverty in front of him during the Biafran war, “death became routine really.”
Duncan still suffers from flashbacks from seeing a boy on a bicycle being killed yards away from him during the riots in Calcutta. “As a child you don’t have the means to deal with this stuff.”
And how do children cope in different education settings? Will they be bullied like Heather from Jamaica because of her accent. “I had a very thick Caribbean accent and I was laughed at in class so I consciously switched and changed.” Or like Nimo from Somalia who was laughed at because of her lack of English. “The students, they was kind of abusing me, like, oh my God, she’s year 11, she doesn’t speak English.” Or perhaps the teachers do not see the potential of such children. Surya balked at her school’s suggestion. ‘And they said, ‘You can do typing’. And I was like, ‘I’m not going to be a secretary. I want to write.’”
Will children today find that special someone who supports and believes in them? For Manzila it was her English teacher. For Femi, on her own at the age of 16 in Hackney, it was someone she met by chance who helped her find accommodation, an immigration lawyer and a place in education.
Will the children make friends with their own community like Said who, having experienced civil war in Somalia finds it difficult to trust people outside his immediate friends and family? Or will they be more confident like Sadeka who has developed a wide range of friends?
“Because, wherever you go, you’re not always going to find Bengali are you? And if you are not used to mixing with other people, then it’s going to be a struggle.”
Will the children who arrive today show agency and search out opportunities? Like Ruhul, who determined to realise his ambition of becoming a filmmaker, approached a Chanel 4 crew in Brick Lane. Or like Balquis who believes that if she was still in Yemen,” I wouldn’t have a future. I would have been absolutely a different person. I think I might be married at home with kids and running around going crazy.”
What relationship will they have with the country of origin? Will they be like Errol who misses rural Jamaica. “You’ve got the goats running around, you’ve got all the birds in the trees, you know, you don’t get that here.” Will they be like Ligia who says it is impossible to choose between Brazil and the UK , “that would be totally unfair” or like Jalal for whom his connection with the country of his birth is central. “Wherever you were born, that pulls you back all the time, even when you die that pulls you.” For Henry, “El Salvador is just a dream that I left behind. I can always go back and dream again, but Hackney is my home.”
It seems fitting to leave with Tomasz’s heartening and hopeful words. “Kids are very resilient. You adapt to whatever situation you are in.”
I hope that the stories of children here, albeit who have migrated in different circumstances and at different times, can give us some insight into how better to support those children who arrive in our communities today.