Unaccompanied and Afraid in Egypt
At 14, Abdulrahman Ali* was persistently pursued by Al-Shabaab recruiters in Mogadishu to become a child soldier. He never considered it: he ignored their text messages and rarely left his uncle’s house. He felt safe for a while living in a section of the city controlled by the government, which was fighting the Islamic State affiliate. “The city was divided into two and separated by what you can call a Green Line,” he says.
But when his father was brutally murdered by Al-Shabab in 2010, his mother — who lived in Nairobi for work —began arranging with a friend’s mother to get Ali a passport and put him on a plane to the Kenyan capital. In 2013 Ali finally reunited with his mother in Nairobi, albeit briefly. Still believing her son to be unsafe from local gang wars, she sent him and five other boys on a flight to Bahrain and then to Egypt, where he has lived for the past five years.
Migration from the Horn of Africa to Egypt is an increasingly popular route among children who are fleeing conflict or horrible conditions in their countries. Mostly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, many make the journey alone or are separated from their parents on the way, traveling along routes controlled by smugglers and traffickers and canvassed by the army and border patrol. In Egypt, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counts some 3 832 unaccompanied and separated children.
Although the children are granted asylum in Egypt (mostly in Cairo), their arrival is tinged with uncertainty and unwelcomeness. In addition to encountering racism and hostility, they also lack the necessary economic support and legal protections to adequately survive. Egypt offers no domestic legislation that specifically targets or protects unaccompanied minors or grants them rights, and only a handful of support programs exist. Just in August 2017, a UN inter-agency taskforce was created to address the gaps in child protection and coordinate assistance between all partners. Furthermore, children are burdened with ever-changing migration trends that cause their next moves to be even more precarious.
Upon settling in the country, many quickly find out that they are unhappy and begin to be consumed with thinking about the future, says Radwa Salem, a psychosocial worker for separated children. “Often, it is feelings of sadness,” she explains. “They have difficulty in explaining their experience and coping with current realities. It is generally a very traumatic experience. Very few need to see psychologists, but all of them need social support.” Provided an allowance of only 600 EGP a month, each child has to use the money to cover all living expenses, and in some cases, even pay rent.
Violence against them and bad living conditions are rife. For example, Salem says, boys are always at risk of being physically attacked or targeted for mugging. Girls work cheaply, mostly as maids. They often live in low-income communities in the crowded homes of migrants. Older children, especially males, are routinely stopped and checked by the police. If they get arrested for any reason, their legal status prevents them having certain rights such as due process and representation, and sometimes they languish in jail because the police cannot locate their parents.
“I sometimes feel unsafe here,” says Ali. He rides his sleek black and purple bicycle around his neighborhood. It is much safer than the one he moved into when he first landed in Egypt, but he is conscious of how different he looks and talks to others — a darker shade of skin than most and a knowledge of coarse-sounding formal Arabic rarely used in conversation. “I don’t stop. If someone calls out, I do not respond. Something that may seem very simple might take away your life.”
Transit country no more?
One of the last memories Ali has of Somalia is going cliff jumping off the coast of Mogadishu with a few friends. He was not at all a swimmer. When his turn was up, images of his dead body being carried off home flashed through his mind. From the 10-foot cliff, he plunged into the Indian Ocean, waves crashing over him, everything blackening, and waking up to his friends resuscitating him after having pulled his gangly body out of the water.
“That’s why I am water-phobic,” he says. Ali tells me this experience is the reason why he will never undertake the dangerous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa, which is considered the deadliest migration route to Europe. But most children are determined to leave Egypt at any cost, some even expressing a desire to return to their home countries.
Because the children only consider Egypt a transit country, many have felt stuck ever since Egyptian authorities stepped up their crackdown on illegal migration since 2016. A number of domestic laws and agreements with European countries have shaped refugee migration patterns over the past few years. These include, to name a few, an anti-human smuggling law, passed in 2016, that for the first time laid out penalties for smugglers while safeguarding migrant rights. Two years before that, a National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration was established to combat irregular migration and raise awareness about it.
The support Egypt has been receiving from the European Union has also noticeably increased, leading to visibly changing trends on the ground. For example, an agreement signed between Egypt and Germany on security cooperation including training the Egyptian police on border security and providing identification equipment has led to a slowdown of migration along the central Mediterranean route. Egypt also has bilateral agreements on migration with Italy and the UK. Moreover, under the EU Trust Fund for Africa, Egypt has received 11.5 million euros in 2016 and another 60 million euros in 2017 for managing migration and sustaining local communities.
The effect of this has been a steady increase in refugees and migrants arriving and staying in Egypt. The European Commission recorded over 217 000 registered refugees in Egypt at the beginning of this year, compared to almost 49 000 between January and November of last year. This influx has exceeded what was thought to be the historic peak of 2016.
More children are coming
While efforts to curb migration to Europe and out of Egypt are having some degree of success, the same cannot be said about measures preventing migration into Egypt. UNHCR’s Christine Beshay told Africa Portal that with displacement caused by renewed conflicts and continuous political instability in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, Iraq and Yemen, as well as irregular movements in the region, an increase of new arrivals of unaccompanied and separated children, between the ages of 15 and 17, has been observed. The agency expects more to arrive.
However, since 2014, the most commonly used route from Sudan has become more dangerous. A recent report by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms describes the perilous journey taken by refugees from Sudan to Egypt: it starts in trucks crowded with five to 15 people, which transports the refugees to the border with Egypt. During the ride, they have to sit with their heads lowered and bodies slumped over. “The smugglers do not allow them to excrete or sleep until they reach the border or a new storage area in the desert,” the report states.
The vehicle then moves between the mountainous and rocky roads at high speeds so to avoid getting caught by Sudanese border guards and Sudanese security forces, or insidious bandits who kidnap migrants and ask for ransom from their families or sell them to human organs traffickers. At certain meeting points, the refugees are moved to Egyptian-licensed cars, which take the only available route parallel to the Red Sea coastline and cross the border though mountain passes with the help of guides. Before 2014, there were several meeting points for smugglers, as well as more routes, but due to a number of reasons including increased Egyptian border security and the deployment of Armed Forces along certain roads, they have decreased.
The same report also documented a worrying pattern of authorities turning back or deporting accompanied minors caught crossing if a child has no relatives in Egypt.
Some children are lucky to find enough support.
Inside a Roman Catholic church in a suburban district south of Cairo, Sudanese and other African refugees were getting ready to break their fast. It was an unusual place to hold an iftar during the holy month of Ramadan, especially since security has tightened in churched following several bombings across the country. But here, they were welcome. Children, in particular, cut a visible presence. They helped place table coverings. Their drawings were hung up: elongated, closely cropped portraits of girls and boys they knew. Girls, dressed in white tops and straight-legged black slacks, sang, their voices rising and falling in a smooth cadence. Some practised their hip-hop routine in an inside room.
After iftar, there was a lineup of performances. Hello World Choir, made up of girls between ages 11 and 27, performed a new song. Some boys rapped and a hip-hop group danced its way through an encore. These activities and others such as education and theater are supported by an NGO called Tadamon.
Coordinator Fatma Abdelader thinks these programs prevent the children from “turning rogue, or worse”. “One day they will become youth, and it is their right to grow. It is one of the resources of this country, to raise a kid until he becomes an adult, who will give back and not be a burden,” she says.
In related news, the recent election of new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who hails from the Oromo minority, has been a source of hope for many Ethiopian refugees in Egypt who belong to this ethnic group. The Oromo have been subject to oppression and human rights violations under previous governments. For children, “this could mean that they will stop leaving home,” Salem says.
The prospect of returning home also crosses Ali’s mind. “I miss everything about Somalia. It is not safe; that’s the only thing, but apart from that, everyone speaks the same language, so you don’t feel different. You will always be happy there. Wherever you go, you will meet people you can talk to directly.”
*Abdulrahman Ali’s name has been changed for safety purposes.
(Main image: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)