An estimated 1,300 unaccompanied child refugees and migrants are at an increased risk of exploitation, violence and trafficking due to the restrictive border policies and inadequate social protection systems across the Balkans, 12 national and international nongovernmental organizations including the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children warn in a report, “Out of Sight: Exploited and Alone,” released today.

Some national systems along the route are failing to identify and adequately support these severely vulnerable children, some as young as nine, who have fled war or poverty and travelled under the radar for thousands of kilometers without parent or guardian. They are invisible to the authorities, and in some cases even when identified, they are placed in inadequate conditions, sometimes even detained. This is causing desperation and pushing many into the hands of smugglers and traffickers, who children see as their only way out.

The risks associated with smuggling and trafficking have risen significantly since borders shut and the EU-Turkey deal was implemented one year ago. These restrictive policies have meant that unaccompanied children are now forced to travel under the radar, almost entirely relying on smugglers and traffickers to aid their journey. Some children are exploited by smugglers who force them to work to raise enough money to continue their journeys north, leaving them wide open to abuse, the report finds.

Children are dealing with massive amounts of stress, danger and neglect, and while some try to put on brave faces, their drawings show chilling details of the brutality they face on journeys that were meant to get them to safety.

Jelena Besedic, Serbia Advocacy Manager for Save the Children said: “The national systems that are meant to identify and protect children traveling alone through the Balkans are struggling to cope. Children face a lack of suitable accommodation and quality and comprehensive assistance to address their specific need for support. There are almost no safe and legal routes for them to reach safety in Europe. Many are opting to steer clear of the existing governmental support systems and frequently stay out of reach of humanitarian agencies, sometimes manipulated or threatened by smugglers, and this increases their invisibility and risks of violence, abuse and exploitation.”

The lack of safe accommodation specifically designed for children means that those traveling by themselves, even when identified as children, are often placed in facilities with adults they do not know or in detention-like conditions, particularly in Bulgaria and Hungary.

Identified children are often assigned a legal guardian who is overwhelmed, not properly trained or vetted, and does not have the power or resources to fully exercise their role and responsibilities. Children explain that they do not receive complete information about their rights or their legal options.

Ashleigh Lovett, Regional Advocacy Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee said:

“Every child must have access to comprehensive services and support. We must hold all governments accountable for any shortcomings in their response to this most vulnerable group, but we must also first ensure these governments have the necessary support and resources to appropriately respond. The EU and EU member states must meet existing commitments and pledges to facilitate proper response to children’s needs, including through relocation and family reunification of unaccompanied children. All governments have a duty to put an end to child detention and to assign competent guardians to children travelling alone.

“Otherwise, children already traumatized by war and conflict at home, will be pushed into more vulnerable conditions, as they run out of safe and legal options and fail to get the protection they need, while still remaining desperate to move on.”

Case studies/photos available at this link.