by Viktorija Plavcak
- Slovenia -
Many European countries, as well as Slovenia, are facing the problem of refugees and illegal runaways. Slovenia is merely a transitory country for many, but since it acts as a divide between the East and European Union states, the customs authorities boast a large number of discovered runaways, some of whom are children. A few are accompanied by their parents, but quite a large number travel unaccompanied. In European terms, these children are now called separated children.
Who are these separated children? They are children who have entered a country escorted by a non-custodial parent or stranger. In many cases they are accompanied by predatory adults entangled in the international network of trafficking, and have made a good bargain by purchasing a child from parents who were lured with false promises of education, employment, happiness, and opportunities.
There are numerous reasons why these children leave their mother country. Refugees flee due to fear of persecution or because of the clashes or political unrest in their native country. Economic migrants flee because of unbearable living conditions such as poverty and want of food, or simply because they are left without parents or have been discarded or abandoned.
Their agony is indescribable. They have been separated from their parents or have lost them. They are often undernourished or suffer inhumane conditions while traveling. Organized networks prey on these children, knowing that they will go unpunished due to the tender age of their victims and the inherent power differential between them. They are trafficked across international borders for labor exploitation and are used for domestic servitude.
In most cases, these children cannot run away since their documents have been confiscated. Many do not put up a fight because they and their families have been threatened by their exploiters. Sadly, in some countries such as Nigeria and Albania, it is evident how the family members partake in girl trafficking, with an intention of sexual exploitation.
In 2002, the American Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed estimates made by the International Immigration Organization that there are about 2 million of such children in the world. There is no accurate data on the number of them, but authorities from Western Europe have acquired information that child trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is on the increase. Many are girls between 15 and 18 years of age, and more and more of them come from Eastern European countries. About 30% of all of these children from Eastern Europe are forced into prostitution. Half of the separated children who vanish to places unknown are girls.
In 2001 approximately 13,000 separated children sought asylum. Those who have failed to apply or do not access services are not included in service utilization data. Sources cite that in 2003 there were about 50,000 separated children who had traveled through the European Union but did not seek asylum in any of the countries.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch published the confession of a Moroccan boy who fled to Spain:
“I was headed for Spain. A Spanish policeman noticed me and tried to catch me but I ran away three times. Eventually, I was outnumbered by six policemen. They threw me into a van where I got severe beating from one of them all over my body. The second policeman took me to the station where he beat me up with his baton and repeatedly kicked me while an arsenal of muttered curses fell from his lips. They were all enraged and mad. I was then taken to the Civil Safety Station where I cried out of pain. They asked me if I was in pain but I dared not say anything for fear of being beaten up again. The Civil Guard beat me even more. After that I was put in a room for three hours and was finally taken to San Antonio.”
UNHCR’s organization, Save the Children, has warned that most countries do not have insight into the complexities of the cases of separated children because there is very little information. The best existing data is on those children who formally seek asylum. Non-governmental organizations are trying to raise awareness in all countries to address this issue by being more consistent in data collection.
Separated children in Slovenia
Slovenia is still just a transitory country that these children normally leave within a few days on their way to other destinations—Western European countries such as Italy, Austria and Germany. It is expected that in the future, Slovenia will become a target country for juvenile runaways and fugitives. According to the data provided by Slovene Philantrophy, a non-governmental organization responsible for the custody of separated children in Slovenia, there were 308 separated children in 2001, of which 53 were asylum seekers. In 2004 the number statistically soared when 152 of the 192 separated children expressed interest in seeking asylum, but the number of actual applicants was smaller. The large majority were boys. They came from 14 different countries, mostly from Albania, Serbia and Monte Negro. Some of them were from Georgia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Cameroon. In 2005 there were 1,597 asylum seekers of which 83 were separated children, and in 2006, 21 separated children and 462 asylum seekers were counted.
Currently, there are two juveniles waiting to be granted asylum, but their applications are still being processed. Other separated children left the asylum shortly after filing an application and every trace of them has been lost. In 2005 two separated children (from Afghanistan and Montenegro) were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds.
So far Slovenia has granted refugee status to 8 separated children, four in 2001, two in 2004 and two in 2005. As it was emphasized in a special UNHCR report, the figures are too low for Slovenia.
In the words of Marina Uzelac of Slovene Philantrophy, one of the most violated rights of these children in Slovenia is Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, acting in the best interest of a child, and Article 37, which stipulates that a child can be locked up only in extreme cases and for the shortest time possible. There are a great many things to be considered in order to help these children. It is necessary to find skilled professionals to help them apply for asylum. Due to great responsibility and exhausting working conditions, Slovene Philantropy is facing a shortage of volunteers. The network of translators, provided by the Slovenian Ministry of the Interior, is badly organized due to a lack of financial means. This causes a great many of problems as translators have unrealistic time limitations. In many cases the caretaker and child do not speak the same language and the state is bound to provide translators during working hours only. Finally, few jurisdictions have appropriate facilities for placement.
In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, these children are placed in the Centre for Foreigners, which is a closed institution where they wait to either be deported or returned to their mother country. This kind of placement violates international conventions. Children who seek asylum are put in a special room for juveniles in the Asylum House in Ljubljana. Since this is an open institution, anybody can walk in at any time. Non-governmental institutions assume that traffickers are quite common visitors to this place and separated children are easy targets. Many of these children disappear from the Centre without any trace.
Separated children are entitled to special international protection regardless of the reasons for leaving their mother country and international conventions are there to ensure this—UN Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1989, European Council on Refugees from 1951, the Hague Convention on Child Abduction from 1996. These acts are further adapted to the valid laws and regulations in each country. In Slovenia, this domain is regulated by Asylum Act and Aliens Act. Both acts were amended in 2006, and the new versions violate the rights of separated children even more. Humanitarian organizations suspect that despite the temporary withdrawal of Article 26 of Asylum Act, the border police often reject the fugitives and drive them back where they had come from. Undoubtedly, many of these are separated children.
It is often possible to read in the news that “the border police have captured a fugitive who was hiding two children under his seat,” and they returned them across the border without establishing who they were. What we are most outraged about is the fact that the border police do not even converse with these fugitives, so the children hidden under the seat might as well have been the victims of trafficking. Slovenian authorities make no effort to check who these children are, if they need protection or help, let alone interrogate the driver.
The above case is a proof how the problem of fugitives the whole Europe is faced with is handled by the Slovenian border police who merely try to get rid of them by sending them back where they came from.
A story of a girl who “was returned” illegally
Katarina Meden, the President of Mozaik Society, in charge of daily activities for juvenile refugees, will never forget a story about an eight-year-old girl from Kosovo who ended up in Slovenia without her parents.
“The family was headed for Germany. They were traveling in two cars. In the first one were the members of the family and in the second the girl who was in the car with complete strangers. While the first car got away, the second one was stopped by the Slovenian police. The girl was suddenly left alone, without any knowledge of language.
She was taken to the centre for foreigners together with the captured fugitives where she cried and cried so much that a social worker took a pity on her and took her home for the night. Needless to say, that the social worker was later severely reprimanded for 'a human error' she made. The staff at the center soon realized that the girl could not be kept there for long. We found out about her when the police phoned and asked us if we could help. The girl was moved to Ljubljana Asylum where she stayed for a few weeks. I decided to take her home until her papers were processed.
Once again things did not go smoothly. Her father should have given a signed permission that she was allowed to stay with me, which was impossible since he was already in Germany. Finally, we found out that the girl had a relative in Slovenia who was able to help. Her papers did not come through for a few months due delays in processing paperwork, and in the meantime the girl blended in, learned Slovenian language and started attending primary school. We then decided that it was time for her to be reunited with her parents. Since this was legally impossible, we decided after a thorough consideration to get her across the border illegally. There was a great risk involved and some thanks are due to the lady who helped us. This was the only way and we are convinced it was the right thing to do despite the fact that we had to break the law.”
It is sad to know that not much has changed for separated children since then. This girl was lucky because she came across sympathetic, generous and compassionate people, others were not as fortunate. We exhibit such pride when talking about the membership in the European Union. I was looking forward to being part of the union because I believed that we would adopt better laws and regulations and the punishment for those breaking them will be harsh. Was I merely generating enthusiasm over something that only exists on paper?