Europe Must Help Child Refugees or They'll Be Dealing With 12-year-old Terrorists

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Children sit under covers as they wait with migrants and refugees near the registration camp in the town of Presevo after their arrival in Serbia, on September 10, 2015. Credit: AFP

The world is failing the refugees. More people are on the move right now than in any period since World War II. We are not prepared, says Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of the United States Fund for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The worst breakdown is in how the children are being handled. More than 10,000 refugee children who reached Europe by themselves in the past year and a half have gone missing, Europol’s Brian Donald said late last week. About 5,000 went lost in Italy and another 1,000 in Switzerland. Some may have found their families again, but the fear is that at least some fell into the hands of human traffickers and are being abused.

At first, the tidal wave of refugees heading for Europe consisted mostly of young men, but that’s been changing. Among the more than a million sanctuary-seekers and other refugees who reached the continent in 2015, 27 percent were minors, but that proportion is trending upward. According to UNICEF figures published on Tuesday, in January, for the first time, the number of women and children reaching the shores of Greece outstripped the men.

UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe said children now constitute 36 percent of the souls risking their lives to cross the sea separating Turkey from Greece, and that women now constitute about 60 percent of those crossing the border between Greece and Macedonia. The change in composition of the refugee population exacerbates concerns about the threats to which the women and children are exposed.

Stern, since 2007 head of an American fund to collect donations and help for UNICEF, says the fact that more than 10,000 children have disappeared in Europe proves that they hadn’t been perceived first and foremost as children who need protection by adults, but as a threat because of their countries of origin.

There are means to cope with the crisis but they aren’t being used, or at least not adequately, Stern says. Children should be identified and registered at every crossing point; face-recognition software should be used to create an international database of underage refugees, to help them locate lost families – and avoid inimical others who might be seeking them.

Child-friendly spaces should be created for these child refugees, some of whom experienced massacres and other horrors, she adds. “Spaces where those children have an opportunity to just be kids again, where everyone who surrounds them is specially trained and understands their needs.”

A makeshift refugee shelter in a high school gymnasium, Feb. 2016.Credit: Reuters

A personal story

It was her personal history that impelled her to devote her life to helping children in crisis, she says. Her mother had been shipped off from Vienna to the U.S. at age six, accompanied by one person she didn’t know, to save her from the Nazis. She spent two years in a Manhattan orphanage before being reunited with her family. Her grandfather had been on the St. Louis, a refugee ship that left Europe in May 1939 but was not allowed to dock either in Cuba or the U.S., and had to sail back to Europe.

“So my family history is one which I understand what happens when the world says yes, as happened to my mother, and I also understand what happens when the world says no, and that’s what happened to my grandfather and the St. Louis. Now, in many places of the world we are saying no,” Stern says.

The refugees reaching Europe are the tip of the Middle Eastern iceberg of woe. At least Europe is making a partial stab at keeping track. UNICEF estimates that about 30 million children have had to flee in the Middle East and North Africa. Some 24 million living in areas of conflict don’t go to school. With the help of UNICEF, more than a million children in Syria are getting better access to school. Hundreds of thousands of children in neighboring countries, which are also fielding vast numbers of refugees from Syria and Iraq, are getting help with studies and more than 600,000 are receiving mental help in coping with the violence they witnessed.

If morality doesn’t move one to help these children, self-interest should, says Stern.

“We need to wake up,” she says. “If we don’t, we are going to lose an entire generation because the other thing that’s happening is that those kids on the move, they are not kids at school, so not only will they not learn to read and write and do arithmetic, which means they will become dependent again, but it also means they’ll never develop full critical thinking skills. They will be prey to a single ideology, and history has shown us that if you don’t get those skills you can be corrupted or coopted into things that are dangerous and harmful.

“If you don’t help those kids now, you will find many of them captive and attracted to terrorist groups, you will find many of them being forced into trafficking, forced into soldiering, domestic slavery, all those things that kids fall prey to because they are not able to protect themselves.”

Stern visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan this week and praised it as an example of how the world should be helping the Middle East refugees. The authorities running the camp view the refugees as people, not numbers. A mother she met at the camp told her how after exposure to violence in Syria, her loving, good-hearted son turned so belligerent that she came to fear him – but by virtue of help and counsel, her son is now at a normal school.

“There is a Harvard research showing that exposure to violence affects brain formation in children, but we don’t know the long-term effects if they don’t get help, they don’t get counseling, and right now most of them don’t,” she says. “We should make sure there’s an education system in place. We should do that because it’s the right thing to do, but also as a precaution for ourselves.”

Choosing her words carefully, the UNICEF U.S. president stresses that the first step in dealing with the problem is understanding that these are people, not future threats. The world isn’t doing enough but there is some reaction, and in contrast to World War II, nobody can claim they didn’t know what was happening.

Despite Stern’s caution, one cannot help but think that if the Europeans don’t do what it takes to care for and protect these child refugees, at least when they first arrive, some may wind up being swept up in Jihadist brainwashing, which is happening on European soil too. If that nightmare comes true, the Europeans could find themselves dealing with 12-year-old terrorists. However, in contrast to the situation in Israel where some 12-year-old girl may get into a fight with her parents and decide to commit suicide by soldier, the child-terrorists in Europe would be operated by seasoned terrorists who aim to strew as much destruction as possible, with commensurate results.

“Children are optimistic by nature,” says Stern. She herself is optimistic by nature, she adds. When one spends time with the children, including at refugee camps, that optimism is infectious. After a conversation with her, it’s hard not to be infected – but it’s also hard to shake off the suspicion that Europe will realize its duty to protect the refugee children only when it’s too late, after the first one blows up on the streets of Paris or Berlin.

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