Children and young adults leave Eritrea for a myriad of reasons: to avoid forced indefinite military service, escape early arranged marriages, or flee domestic and family violence. Many decide to cross the border into neighboring Ethiopia; however, this act of fleeing to Ethiopia leaves them branded as traitors, unable to then return to their home country without facing certain imprisonment or worse.
Upon arrival, they are then placed in one of several refugee camps outside of Shire, Ethiopia – a small town about 40 km from the Eritrean border. Many minors arrive without any family or friends in Ethiopia and are placed in shared accommodation with 8-10 other children and assisted by a group of social workers. The children cook, eat, play and even clean their houses together, forming a small community in the camp. They attend a nearby school and have opportunities for fun and play.
Yet despite these services, life in refugee camps is difficult for unaccompanied children. They are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and lack family support and opportunities for higher education. As refugees, they also lack basic rights that many who have never been a refugee take for granted, such as the freedom of movement. It can be difficult to cope with living indefinitely in a refugee camp, separated from family and unable to return home, and many children express hopelessness and anxiety with life in Ethiopia.
As a result, many separated and unaccompanied minors decide to leave Ethiopia. Sometimes joining other adult refugees and sometimes traveling alone, they embark on a journey along historic migratory routes from Ethiopia to Sudan, and then north or eastward toward North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, or Europe. Despite the hope of a “better life,” these routes are fraught with danger. Young people are often especially vulnerable to these dangers, including mistreatment by smugglers, physical and sexual abuse, violence and torture, and human trafficking.
At the CWS-operated Resettlement Support Center, RSC Africa, our staff travels regularly across Sub-Saharan Africa to interview refugees being considered for resettlement to the United States. Of the more than 14,000 refugees resettled from Sub-Saharan Africa last year, several hundred were children separated from their parents. While some separated children travel to the U.S. with family members or other caregivers, others enter the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program upon their arrival and are placed with foster families across the United States.
Unaccompanied minors come from all over Sub-Saharan Africa. We have resettled separated and unaccompanied Congolese children in Kenya, Somali children in Uganda, Burundian children in Tanzania, and many more. In the last year, we have worked with an unprecedented number of unaccompanied Eritrean children living in Ethiopia.
As RSC Africa’s Child Protection Specialist, I have visited Shire, Ethiopia, and the surrounding camps, and have spent time with the minors preparing for resettlement. The minors have asked many questions about life in America and the resettlement process. They are anxious to see where their life will take them, and hope that it can be a place that is safe, where they can grow up healthy and secure.
Amid the challenges of life in Ethiopia and the dangers of other migration options, resettlement serves as a mechanism to protect these vulnerable minors and provides hope for unaccompanied and separated refugee children across the world. Here at RSC Africa we are honored to be a part of their journeys, and a part of CWS’ work to protect vulnerable children worldwide.
Katherine Rehberg, Child Protection Specialist, RSC Africa