Do not be pleased you have finally made it safely to Europe, as many migrants have fallen prey to the many adversities they face once they make it to their so-called land of dreams. Stories abound of hostile environments awaiting those crossing countries. So, if they survive the journey, often made on foot or in the back of a truck, the local authorities in lawless countries on the way, like Libya, for example, do not guarantee their safe passage.
If they make it to a boat and survive the treacherous seas, their meager funds might have been depleted. Often they fall prey to people smugglers, who blackmail them to pay back or work in return for what they owe, and that alone opens the door wide to further insecurity, suffering and exposure to the criminal underworld. The person in that situation, whether adult or child, rarely sees a way out of the web of control of unscrupulous people or criminal gangs, who use vulnerable humans to achieve their goals. These are just a few examples of the adversities awaiting most irregular migrants in their search for a new life, whether they are fleeing persecution or simply seeking a better life in a safer country than their native land.
Lately, in the UK, it seems that underage migrants have been vanishing from the places of residence provided for them. Often, these are small, decrepit hotel rooms, with not enough protection or provision for children to stay safe until the authorities have had the time to process their file and find them the necessary care. The system is plagued by underfunding and shortages, just like the services provided by many states around the world.
A new investigation by The Observer newspaper makes for a harrowing read, with threats of violence, racist abuse and fear of abduction awaiting the unlucky ones. A whistleblower working for a UK Home Office contractor has revealed how dozens of young people have been kidnapped. The UK immigration minister acknowledged in parliament that, of the 4,600 such minors received in the country since July 2021, 440 have disappeared at some point and 200 of them are still unaccounted for.
But from where do you start to try and resolve the issue of youth asylum? Their sheer number in this age of scarcity and economic challenges makes vulnerable child migrants more likely to fall out of the safety net, with governments failing in their legal duty to place them in adequate care and provide legal guardians to look after them. Many are also said to have been groomed, coerced in their home countries and then trafficked to be exploited by the same traffickers or their partners once they arrive at their newly found refuge in the UK or elsewhere.
My years of reporting on asylum and illegal migration in the UK and beyond have taught me that many factors can throw governments and authorities off track in their dealings with new illegal or irregular migrants. Most of those arriving in Britain destroy the travel documents or papers that could help confirm their age and origins, and many are taught to say they are underage to guarantee a faster settlement status. Others are encouraged to claim they have been persecuted for their ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Literally all the tricks in the book have been used, but this is not to defend the failures of the authorities or their lack of preparedness in the face of an increasing trend of weaponized migration for political or criminal ends.
The UN has put the number of refugees and those forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, armed conflicts, violence or human rights violations at about 100 million. It says this is a new record, with the Ukraine war alone adding more than 10 million displaced in the last year. Wherever you turn, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America, the Middle East and beyond, instability, failed states and the search for safety and a better life have led many to try and seek a better existence, ideally in Western countries, where respect for human rights, social security and access to freedom have been the magnets.
The right of passage cannot be guaranteed to all and double standards exist, as nations in the Global North are grappling to meet the demand and keep their doors open to those who really deserve protection. The US’ new asylum application tool has been overwhelmed since going online last month due to the huge volume of applicants, while Europe is searching for measures to offload failed applicants and is considering sanctioning countries if they do not accept returnees. In Latin America, the routes used by refugees have seen a decline in footfall on the way north, but that might not last for long, as enduring conflicts and localized criminal violence continue to drive people away from their homelands. Since the dawn of history, people have moved in search of greener pastures, greater safety and a better existence, yet an age of economic scarcity has dawned all over the world after the COVID-19 pandemic, which has contracted countries’ margins and ability to accommodate newcomers. In an increasingly polarized world, where geostrategic calculations, competition and even discord are limiting the powers and actions of multilateral institutions, people everywhere are holding on to any promise of salvation, even when it comes from a less-than-legitimate source. Short of a global approach to ending conflicts and human right abuses, the flow of migrants – heading north especially – is unlikely to be stemmed anytime soon.