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Teen refugee teaches other young asylum-seekers about risks of abuse

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A peer-taught programme in Serbia is helping vulnerable unaccompanied children protect themselves from violence and exploitation as they seek safety.

By Mirjana Milenkovski in Belgrade

Arsalan* knows about the risks of violence and exploitation firsthand. Armed groups used to barge into the shop where he worked in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and threaten to kill him.

When he fled the country to seek safety abroad, he saw smugglers beat and mistreat other children fleeing alone. He was just 16 himself. Now an asylum seeker in Serbia, he draws on his experiences to teach a course for young people like himself, who have traveled alone to seek asylum.

“I try to convey this knowledge to my peers in the asylum centre in Krnjača [a neighbourhood of the capital Belgrade] ... I am certain they will find it useful,” he said.

Through 16 sessions over three months, participants from several different countries are taught about their rights, how to recognize abuse, and how to get help. The course includes sessions on trafficking, exploitation and discrimination as well as the importance of reproductive health.

“The course was useful.”

Once they complete the course, they can volunteer to become peer educators as Arsalan did. “I had no notion of gender-based violence, gender norms or LGBTI rights when I enlisted for the training last year,” said Arsalan, who is now aged 19.

“The course was useful, the examples easy to understand and our discussions [were] lively.”

Recently, some of the participants from the latest course met to reflect on what they had learned in the training and how to improve it. They agreed to make the sessions for their peers in the centres and in homes for unaccompanied children more engaging through better visual aids.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, piloted the project in 2018 with the Danish Refugee Council, the Centre for Crisis Policy and Response and the Centre for Research and Social Development -IDEAS, in response to the increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving in Serbia. Around 2,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Serbia in 2020.

This represented a sharp decrease compared to previous years, likely due in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers had been on the rise in the years before that. The vast majority came from Afghanistan, with Syrians making up the second largest group.

In past years, many viewed Serbia as a staging post and hoped to reach northern Europe but that situation is changing. The training aims to help young people process the experiences they have had on their journey so far, but also to inform them of the risks associated with onward movement, which includes exploitation and abuse at the hands of smugglers.

Peer educators like Arsalan are best suited for talking about those risks and the advantages of remaining in Serbia, said UNHCR protection officer Ljubimka Mitrović.

Typically, this type of training focuses on girls and young women, but sessions with boys are vital, not least because it helps promote their integration, said Bojana Balević, a project coordinator with the Danish Refugee Council who brings a decade of experience to the work.

The percentage of unaccompanied children who stay in Serbia after their arrival rather than moving on to other countries is on the rise. This is in part due to perceived opportunities in Serbia itself, but also due to border controls that deter onward movement.

“They can get all they need.”

Karoh, 20, an Iraqi Kurd who arrived in Serbia four years ago and was granted refugee status in 2019, has trained as a peer educator and now joins efforts to persuade new arrivals not to travel further.

“I talk to my compatriots and others in accommodation centres almost every day. I tell them that whichever border they try to cross, they will be returned to Serbia. They can stay in any of the centres and get all they need,” he said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of trafficking for young people, not least because it makes them more economically insecure”, said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs.

“Those now faced with lost livelihoods and abject poverty can be targets for traffickers that are unscrupulously exploiting and profiteering from their vulnerabilities,” Triggs added.

Today, Arsalan is awaiting a decision on his asylum application. In the meantime, he is using his Farsi and Serbian language skills to work as an interpreter at the Centre for Crisis Policy and Response.

“I would like to continue working … learn a trade and start living on my own. At the same time, I would like to join one of the local choirs and maybe even land a role in a local movie,” he said.

*The name of the boy has been changed for protection purposes