WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Young Migrants, Some Arriving Without Parents, Seek A Safe Place

Sep 12, 2015
Originally published on September 23, 2015 1:30 pm

Among the steady stream of asylum-seekers pouring into Germany every week, there are scores of children traveling on their own.

Over Labor Day weekend, 195 of them arrived in Munich, including 17-year-old Syrians Malaz and Wissam. NPR is identifying them only by their first names because they are minors dealing with difficult personal and legal situations.

Of the two boys, Malaz is the more outgoing. The hazel-eyed teen grabs Wissam's arm and with a big smile, says: "We are friends!"

Theirs is a new relationship, forged two days earlier when they met at a Munich migrant intake center located in Bayernkaserne, a German military barracks built during the time of the Nazis. The teens say they look out for one another in the male dormitory filled with strangers from many countries.

Malaz says he finished 10th grade in Damascus and that his family paid $3,000 to a smuggler to get him to Germany. He wants to learn German and go to school here, at least for a while.

"I'm not going to stay here, I think. Go to U.K.," he says. "I think. I don't know for right now."

Wissam winces at the thought of his friend leaving, and says it's very hard. He says he only has one goal: "I want to be safe, here."

Making these children feel safe is a top priority, says Monika Steinhauser, who heads Munich's Refugee Council.

"They are supposed to go to specialized homes for young people and of course we don't have enough places now because the numbers have gone up considerably," Steinhauser says.

Other refugee advocates say the increase has been three-fold in Munich over last year. The European Commission in a recent report estimated 4 percent of the migrants that arrived in Europe last year were unaccompanied minors.

At least four out of every five unaccompanied minors were boys, and most came from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, according to the report. Refugee advocates say the children's parents send them here to escape poverty or war and other violence, or to protect them from being drafted.

The European Commission report says the children's favorite destinations are Sweden and Germany, where they look for work in order to send money back to their families.

Officials and refugee advocates say that, like the adults, the children coming to apply for asylum almost never carry identity documents. Steinhauser says German authorities estimate 40 percent of the unaccompanied minors are actually adults who lie about their age to avoid deportation. In most cases, Germany won't send children back before they turn 18, even if their asylum requests are denied.

"Authorities I think are wrong in half those cases, if not more," Steinhauser says. "Because when those young people they arrive here, they have gone through very, very hard situations, so they look old when they come here."

One of the places the children go to recover is a newly opened group home in Munich run by hpkj e.V., an organization that provides education and therapy to at-risk children. Ninety boys and girls ranging in age from 6 to 17 who came to Germany over the past few months live in a building run by the organization.

One of the home's directors is Anna Lena Goedeke, who says they provide unaccompanied children a stable environment where they eat three healthy meals a day, learn German and, most importantly, heal.

"When they are here, it's too early to look deep [into their problems]," Goedeke says, but adds they are evaluated to make sure they won't hurt themselves or others.

Occasionally signs of the conflicts from countries they left behind erupt at the home, Goedeke says. For example, some of the Afghan residents who are Pashtuns won't associate with ethnic Hazara residents. Nor do Eritrean and Somali kids tend to like each other, she says.

Goedeke says for the most part, the young residents quickly settle into their new routine and are happy just to be kids again. Laughter echoes in the large playroom, where a dozen smiling boys crowd around a foosball table.

Even so, it will be a long time before these children are whole, says hpkj e.V. administrator Jutta Stiehler.

"During the night, maybe the ghosts come back, the fear and the sleeplessness," she says, adding that she fervently hopes these children will heal "in the soul and in the heart."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Among the thousands of asylum-seekers pouring into Germany every week are scores of children who are alone. Most of these unaccompanied minors are teenagers sent by their parents to escape poverty and violence. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Munich that the unaccompanied young people are often traumatized and under pressure to find work so they can send money to their families back home.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: I don't have to search long to find children who've come here to seek asylum. The first two I meet are 17-year-old Syrians, Malaz and Wissam. We are identifying them by their first names because they are minors dealing with difficult personal and legal situations. Of the two boys, Malaz is the more outgoing.

MALAZ: We are friends.

NELSON: So you came together?

MALAZ: No, I saw him here.

WISSAM: Yes.

NELSON: And how long have you been here?

WISSAM: Two days.

NELSON: Their friendship may be new, but the boys never leave each other's side at this intake center, set up in a Munich military barracks built during Nazi times. The teens are nervous living in a male dormitory with strangers from so many countries. Malaz says he finished 10th grade in Damascus and that his family paid $3,000 to a smuggler to get him to Germany. The hazel-eyed teen lights up as he shares his plans to learn German and go to school here, at least for a while.

MALAZ: I'm not going to say here, I think. Go to U.K., I think. I don't know for right now.

WISSAM: It's very hard.

NELSON: Wissam, who is less ambitious than his new friend, says he only has one goal.

WISSAM: I want to be safe here.

NELSON: You want to safe here?

WISSAM: Yes.

NELSON: Monika Steinhauser, who heads Munich's refugee council, says finding safe havens for these children is a top priority.

MONIKA STEINHAUSER: They're supposed to go to specialized homes for young people. And, of course, we don't have enough places now because the numbers have gone up considerably.

NELSON: The EU, in a recent report, estimated 4 percent of the migrants that arrived in Europe last year were unaccompanied minors. Four out of five are boys and are mostly from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. Most head to Sweden and Germany, where they try to find work so they can send money to their families back home.

Munich's youth authority says 195 unaccompanied minors arrived in a single weekend this month. Like the adults, they almost never carry identity documents. Steinhauser says German authorities estimate 40 percent of the unaccompanied minors are actually adults who lie about their age to avoid deportation. In most cases, Germany won't send kids back, even if their asylum requests are denied.

STEINHAUSER: Authorities are wrong, I think, in at least half of those cases, if not more because when those young people - they arrive here - they have gone through very, very hard situations, so they look old when they come here.

NELSON: One of the places these children recover is a newly-opened group home in Munich, run by HPKJ, an organization that provides education and therapy to at-risk children. Ninety boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 to 17, who came to Germany over the past few months, live in this building. One of the home's directors is Anna Lena Goedeke, who says they provide unaccompanied children a stable environment, where they eat three healthy meals a day, learn German and, most importantly, heal.

ANNA LENA GOEDEKE: When they are here, it's too early to look in the deep problems. We have psychologists here. They're looking if they have sleep problems or if they hurt themself, but we are not going in therapy.

NELSON: She says the young residents quickly settle into their new routine and are happy just to be kids again.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Like these smiling boys, who crowd around the group home's foosball table. Even so, it will be a long time before these children are whole again, says Jutta Stiehler, who is an administrator with the organization that runs the home.

JUTTA STIEHLER: During the night, maybe the ghosts come back - the fear and the sleeplessness.

NELSON: She says her hope is for these children to heal in their souls and in their hearts. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Munich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.