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Alone and Afraid: Protecting Unaccompanied Migrant Children Along the ‘Eastern Route’

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Migrants at the MRC participate in a social activity aimed at raising awareness on the risks and dangers of irregular migration. © IOM 2020/Alexander Bee

The odds of survival were stacked against seven-year-old Amara* when she was trapped in a sinking boat controlled by smugglers off the coast of Djibouti.

Amara was among at least 60 migrants and refugees who were attempting to return from Yemen to the Horn of Africa via Djibouti in April when their boat broke up and sank.

She is not yet ready to speak about the incident which killed her mother and younger brother, along with dozens of others. Her survival – one of only 14 people on the boat who did not perish – is miraculous. Alone and afraid, Amara relied on other survivors to find help. Together, they made their way to shore where they were picked up by the Coast Guard and transferred to Djibouti City, Djibouti.

Djibouti is a major transit point for mainly Ethiopian migrants travelling across the Arabian Peninsula through the so-called ‘Eastern route.’ The ‘Eastern route’ involves three legs. The first is from the migrants’ countries of origin to Obock in Djibouti or Bosaso in Somalia. The second involves the sea journey between Obock or Bosaso and Yemen, and the border crossing point from Yemen to other Gulf States – mainly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

Typically, over 90 per cent of the migrants who arrive in Yemen hope to make it to KSA, but with increased border security since April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, crossing into the country has become almost impossible.

“Many had hoped to find work in the Gulf to repay the debt that financed their journey and send money home to their families,” says Mouna Ibrahim, National Protection Officer at IOM Djibouti. “However, their hopes were dashed once they discovered that it would be impossible to reach their final destination due to border restrictions.”

As a result, at least 32,000 migrants have been stranded in Yemen, living with extremely limited access to shelter, health care, food and water. Migrants in Yemen are subjected to human rights abuses including kidnapping, exploitation, and arbitrary detention. These risks existed before the pandemic but have been rising over the past 18 months.

With few options to return home, migrants along this route mainly risk using smugglers for the sea crossing back to Djibouti and Somalia without any guarantee of safe arrival. Smugglers use small, unseaworthy and overcrowded boats that can easily capsize. Occasionally some throw migrants overboard to reduce the weight.

According to IOM’s 2020 A Region on the Move Report, Ethiopian men make up 72 per cent of movements along this route, but IOM is observing a higher number of unaccompanied migrant children (UMCs) taking this dangerous journey that cuts through desert regions, the sea and war-torn Yemen. The proportion of UMCs increased between 2019 (6 per cent) and 2020 (9 per cent). Overall, UMCs make up 71 per cent of all migrating children along the ‘Eastern route’ in 2020, compared to 46 per cent in 2019.

It is common for many of these children to leave their homes without information about the journey ahead. Some are not even aware that they will be crossing a body of water or passing through conflict areas. Research by IOM indicates that more than half (59 per cent) of the first-time migrants recently interviewed in Obock did not inform their families of their decision to migrate before their departure, most commonly due to fear their family would have prevented them from going or because they did not want to worry them.

The Africa Migration Report, developed by IOM and the African Union, explains that children – with or without their families – migrate or flee within Africa for a variety of reasons, often in search of livelihoods and other social support that allows them to access their basic needs.

“Migrant children along the ‘Eastern route’ are especially vulnerable to violence, forced labour, trafficking and detention, which is further intensified for unaccompanied or separated children who are often unable to protect themselves during their risky journey,” says IOM’s Ibrahim. Mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder are also prevalent among UMCs.

States have an obligation under the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to protect children, and humanitarian actors, both international and local partners, also coordinate with the State to provide specialized protection and care. This collaboration ensures that the rights of children are upheld, namely, non-discrimination, best interest of the child, the right to life, survival, and development, right to food, shelter, health and health services, education, name and nationality, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, and the right to parental care and protection.

In Obock, Djibouti, IOM Migrant Response Centre (MRC) staff regularly welcome and offer support to unaccompanied migrant children who have returned from the Gulf. In the MRC, migrants have access to medical services, psychosocial support, referrals to other services, and are provided with information and assistance to safely return to home.

“At the MRC, the mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) services provided by IOM staff help to address the negative psychological reactions of children who have undergone traumatic experiences to help them in the recovery process,” says Ibrahim.

Each migrant (including UMCs) undergoes vulnerability screening to identify their immediate needs, counselling, and registration. A best interest assessment is conducted for unaccompanied children. When the child wants to return home voluntarily, IOM, in coordination with the Djiboutian and country of origin authorities and partners, starts the family tracing and assessment process to identify the best type of reintegration assistance upon return.

In Amara’s case, she was placed in a children’s shelter run by Caritas in Djibouti City while a ‘best interests’ panel – the first of its kind in Djibouti, convened for the most sensitive protection cases – was organized to determine an appropriate action plan.

The panel, comprising key protection actors in Djibouti – including the Ministry of Women and Family, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, United Nations Agencies, local NGOs and other protection partners, as well as the Ethiopian Embassy – unanimously decided to return Amara to Ethiopia, her country of origin. This would allow her to reunite with family and receive follow-up care.

While the panel was making its decision, IOM staff ensured Amara received mental health and psychosocial (MHPSS) support by referring her to a clinical psychologist trained to work with traumatized children. This type of care is a critical service provided to migrants, especially children, who arrive at the MRC.

In addition to one-on-one counselling, IOM staff regularly lead focus groups that allow the children to discuss the difficulties they experienced during their journeys and the fears they may have about returning home. To help ensure they remain busy throughout the day, an IOM MHPSS Assistant develops a schedule complete with activities such as martial arts and gardening.

Just over two months after her tragic ordeal, Amara left Djibouti on 24 June 2021, accompanied by the IOM protection focal person for UMCs in Djibouti, to reunite with her surviving family members in Ethiopia. Her travel was coordinated by staff from IOM Djibouti and Ethiopia who ensured that Amara would safely reach her destination. Now that she has joined her family, IOM staff in Ethiopia will continue to follow up with Amara and support her reintegration.

Thousands of migrants, including unaccompanied children like Amara, remain stranded along the ‘Eastern route’. To continue providing life-saving return and reintegration services, IOM has launched an appeal for USD 99 million, for which additional support is desperately needed. Crucially, this appeal will also support Member States to strengthen child protection mechanisms along this route.

Sadly, Amara’s story is only one of thousands of untold tragedies experienced every day by migrants along the perilous ‘Eastern route’.

Together with governments and humanitarian partners, IOM is committed to addressing the dire humanitarian, human rights, safety and security challenges faced by migrants in the region – especially unaccompanied children like Amara.

IOM’s voluntary return and reintegration support in the East and Horn of Africa is made possible thanks to the EU-IOM Joint Initiative, a three-way partnership between the European Union (EU), IOM, and 26 African countries. Since March 2017, over 7,000 migrants in the region have returned home and more than 9,000 returnees have started the reintegration process to re-establish their lives in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, as well as in Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda.

*Amara’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

This story was written by Amber Christino, Media and Communications Officer at the IOM Regional Office for the East and Horn of Africa, Email: achristino@iom.int