Meeting the child survivors of the Mediterranean crossings
When I meet Naouffel he is exhausted, having only slept eight hours in four days.
He’s worked for Save the Children in Sicily for just one year but already he’s seen around 500 boats land on Italy’s shores with children on board, rescued trying to reach Europe.
When 300 people died last month, drowned or killed by hypothermia, Naouffel was one of the team responding to the crisis. Four of the survivors were children, boys aged 11-13, who had made the journey alone, one from Mali and three from Ivory Coast. “Like puppies”, he said, “very disoriented.
There were two young Somali girls, just 16, with babies. They were exhausted and shocked”, when they were interviewed by Save the Children staff at the first reception centre on Lampedusa, understandably so. These children have seen more in one year than most adults see in a lifetime.
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Trust is vital
“You can see what they’ve been through from the expression on their faces”, says Naouffel. “Even if you’ve been doing this work for years, the horror of a shipwreck doesn’t go away. You try not to think about it, but it’s always like the first time.
Weeks later I’ll be on my own somewhere and will recall all their faces one by one and will not be able to think of anything else”.
The most important thing, for Naouffel, is to make the children feel at ease. “Without trust, the rest of the work we do is impossible”. It affects their work from the moment the children step off the boat. As a cultural mediator in Sicily, he works with the children to explain the legal path that that is their best and safest option to remain in Italy.
Children that have been treated as commodities by human traffickers tend not to trust bureaucracy or authorities, so it’s very difficult to persuade them of the value of legal avenues. “They don’t understand the law. They don’t have ID cards. They don’t know when they boarded or where they are.”
Fleeing desperate situations
They have seen a lot of horror along the way and the boys especially make an effort to be men. They may wear hoods and play up to the carefree character they imagine proves to Europe they are strong. Because for so long, showing vulnerability may have been a fatal mistake.
If I’ve learnt one thing by visiting Lampedusa, it’s that if a child chooses to make a journey across two continents on their own to seek a better life, it is generally because they are fleeing a desperate situation.
The journey itself often involves crossing deserts and war zones before they even reach the treacherous sea crossing. On route they face dehydration and malnutrition, kidnap, detention and extortion, torture, child slavery, trafficking, sexual abuse, all alone without their families. The route is laid out by people smugglers.
Human trafficking is a booming business and it makes no sense to continue to ignore this problem.
Naouffel’s aim is to at least give them a perception of their rights in Europe and the risk they expose themselves to if they leave the legal process.
“Even if they decide to stay on the legal route just a little bit longer, they learn some Italian, pick up more information and maybe return to us later down the line.
“When they arrive we give them a phone card with credit to call home and tell their families they are alive. They all have our number, so they can call Save the Children, day or night. Sometimes the only numbers they have in their phone are of traffickers and smugglers.
“When I think about that one reliable and safe number they have in their phone, I feel satisfied with the job we did.”
There’s a harrowing reason Naouffel decided to become a cultural mediator for the charity, as he lost six of his best childhood friends, who died making the crossing from Tunisia during the Arab Spring.
Little wonder he has such an emotional connection to these children and finds it difficult when the journey goes so tragically wrong, as repeatedly happens off the Sicilian coast.
How many of these tragedies can the international community watch from the shores before we are morally compelled to respond? It is not acceptable to prioritise border control over life-saving rescue missions.
In just over a month, more than 3,500 migrants have risked their lives attempting the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. This is almost 60% more than in January last year.
We must do more
It is essential that the rescue at sea of migrants is a priority for Italy and for Europe, and that the European Union strengthens its capacity for search and rescue missions. Mare Nostrum, the EU sea rescue operation, had its funding cut earlier this year. The EU at the time said the prospect of being rescued at sea was encouraging people to take the risk in crossing and led to people smuggling. Now we have Operation Triton, which only operates 30 miles from the European coast and has a primary function of border control. It doesn’t focus on sea rescue outside of European waters. And yet, more people than ever are risking their lives making this perilous journey on rickety boats.
The majority of groups or families attempting this sea crossing are Syrian and this problem will not go away while there are nearly four million Syrian refugees living in limbo. The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and approximately half of refugees today are children.
Refugees cannot be expected to wait years to be resettled. It is outrageous that children spend entire childhoods in refugee camps. Lost hope is the trigger for many children to embark on this journey. So why are rich nations not doing more to resettle the most vulnerable refugees?