There are more than 1,500 Eritrean children living without their families in refugee camps in Ethiopia. The youngest is seven years old. A neighbourhood in Mai-Aini, with a school and a pitch, has been dedicated to them.
Images: Stefania Summermatter / Editing: Christoph Balsiger
The majority of unaccompanied minors are between 14 and 17 years old. This is the age when they are drafted into the Eritrean army.
The youngest children are looked after by a nanny. Some escape from Eritrea to follow their older siblings; others cross the border by mistake, without knowing that they will probably not be able to return.
Initially, the children lived in the camp with other families – relatives or strangers. This solidarity has failed, however, with the sudden departure of the refugees to other countries.
A youth parliament has been created in the camp to speak for the needs of the smallest children. “We would like to continue studying,” these two girls say. “And embrace our family again.”
There is a school in Mai-Aini, but few subjects are taught there and the teachers are always changing, the children say. “There are also classes in dance and music.”
All but the smallest children have to take care of themselves in the camp. They cook, do laundry and collect water from the well and food from the larder.
Between four and six unaccompanied minors live in one hut. Their experiences are recorded on the walls.
Every day a group of women prepare hundreds of pieces of “injera”, a typical sourdough flatbread made of teff flour.
Unaccompanied minors live for years in camps in Ethiopia. The United Nations Refugee Agency has created a resettlement programme in the United States, but it is limited to 100 children a year.
More and more children are deciding to leave the refugee camps, bound for the Mediterranean and Europe. It’s estimated that in the first six months of 2014, of the 60,000 refugees who landed in Italy, 10,000 were unaccompanied minors, most of them Eritreans.
The number of unaccompanied children entering Switzerland is on the rise as well. In the first six months of 2014, 252 sought asylum, 149 of them Eritreans. They are typically housed in reception centres for adults and are assigned a contact person for administrative and legal matters.
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