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NGOs sound alarm over child migrants

Many of the minors arriving in Switzerland are male teenagers from Africa

(Keystone Archive)

Aid organisations say more needs to be done to improve the situation of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Switzerland.

In 2001, over 1,400 unaccompanied children - some abandoned babies - arrived in Switzerland.

Aid groups claim current Swiss provision for asylum seekers is suitable for adults, but inadequate for youngsters who have arrived in the country alone.

"I would say the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Switzerland is growing, " said Anne-Marie Deutschlander, who is Swiss Liaison Officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency. "Slowly but surely the figures are increasing."

Most unaccompanied minors are from Africa or former Yugoslavia, male, and in their mid-teens. But aid agencies have seen cases of children as young as two, abandoned at the border, or at Zurich airport.

"What generally happens is that these young boys are sent to Switzerland by their parents or carers," Deutschlander told swissinfo. "They are told to apply for asylum because they think they will get a work permit and then they can send money home to support the family.

"Of course they don't realise that asylum seekers are not normally allowed to work, and that anyway their claim is likely to be rejected."

Living in limbo

But although their requests for asylum may be turned down, people under the age of 18 are classed as children, and the Swiss authorities are not permitted to deport them.

"This is often where the problem starts," said Paola Riva Gapany, of the Sion based International Institute for the Rights of the Child. "These children are just waiting and waiting, with nothing to do here until they are 18."

Gapany and her colleagues believe Switzerland needs to do more to care for these children. At the moment, only cantons Geneva and Zurich have housing specifically designed for unaccompanied minors.

"We need more suitable accommodation for these children," Gapany told swissinfo. "Often they are housed in asylum seekers' hostels with lots of adults, and that's just not right.

"Sometimes we can find a foster family of the same nationality, but that is very rare."

Alone and vulnerable

Aid agencies are especially concerned that minors are at great risk of being sucked into crime or prostitution if the authorities do not take greater care of them.

"We see a lot of minors who are mixed up in the drugs trade," said Deutschlander. "They have no money, and then they are approached, perhaps by someone from their own country who says 'hey, do you want to earn some money, do this'.

"It's understandable that many children would jump at this," she continued, "especially if the person is speaking to them in their native language - they find that comforting."

Thomas Elber is a Zurich psychologist working with unaccompanied minors for the Swiss branch of International Social Service, an organisation set up to help migrants.

He agrees with Deutschlander that these youngsters are at risk of exploitation, and says that Switzerland's policy of not allowing asylum seekers to work compounds the problem.

"These kids come here with the idea that Europe is a paradise," Elber told swissinfo. "And they find they have no chance to do anything at all. They've got no money, no work, no education, so it seems the only choice is drug dealing for the boys and prostitution for the girls - this is a situation we absolutely must change."

Education

At the moment, unaccompanied minors are entitled to basic schooling during their time in Switzerland, but not to any further education. This is a situation that the International Institute for the Rights of the Child believes must be changed.

"Actually it costs money to keep these children just living here," explained Gapany. "We should invest some of that money in education and training. The child should be able to choose - if he wants to be a doctor, or a bricklayer, he should be able to train for that."

It sounds somewhat idealistic, but as Gapany points out, any skills the youngsters learn here will stand them in good stead when they return, and will be of benefit to their impoverished home countries.

Both Gapany and Elber would like to see a better partnership between Europe and African countries. They recently organised a seminar in Senegal in which they tried to inform local parents and teachers about the dangers of encouraging their children to come to Europe.

"We need more prevention campaigns in the countries of origin," Gapany explained. "We need to explain to them that Europe is certainly not an ideal place for their children."

Poverty

But, as Elber points out, young Africans living in grinding poverty, perhaps even in dangerous conflict zones, will find it hard to believe that the situation in Europe won't be better for them.

"What Europe must do is offer these young people some chance of coming here separate from the asylum process," he said. "We need educational exchange programmes, and even work experience programmes."

And all the aid organisations want to change the popular conviction that economic migrants, which is what these teenagers are, should be in some way punished for seeking a better life for themselves.

"At the end of the day what we should not forget is that these are children," said Deutschlander. "They are far from home, and probably unable emotionally to cope with the situation they find themselves in."

"These are all really very sad cases," she continued, "and even at 16, a child is a child and deserves our protection."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

In brief

In 2001, official records show that over 1,400 unaccompanied minors arrived in Switzerland. The unofficial figure is thought to be significantly higher.

Most unaccompanied minors are male, in their mid-teens and come from Africa or former Yugoslavia.

Unaccompanied minors whose applications for asylum are rejected cannot be deported from Switzerland until they are 18. While they wait, they cannot work and are not entitled to any form of further education or training.

Only cantons Geneva and Zurich have accommodation specifically designed for unaccompanied minors.

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