Social Issues

The plight of sub-Saharan teens on the perilous route to Europe

By María Traspaderne, Fatima Bouaziz and Mohamed Siali

Rabat/Tetouan, Morocco, Nov 20 (EFE).- Sitting on the grass in a Rabat park, Mohamed, Mokhtar and Ali (not their real names) are just three of the thousands of children who have left their homes fleeing war, abuse and poverty for countries where they hope to study, work and send money home to their families.

“When I’m sleepy, I sleep where I am. But I do it every time in one place, for three or four hours, because sleeping in the same place can attract the authorities,” Mohamed tells Efe.

He is 16 years old, has refugee status and lives on the streets of Rabat in constant fear of being arrested. The fear comes from a history of beatings and arrests on his 5,000-km route to Morocco via Chad, Libya and Algeria, which he crossed after leaving Sudan in January 2021.

His most recent experience with the police was on June 24, when he and hundreds of other migrants tried to cross the border into the Spanish enclave of Melilla. At least 23 people died.

The Moroccan security officials, he says, beat him, put him in jail for six days and transferred him to a city 900 kilometers to the south.

Mohamed is just one of the 1,087 children that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered in Morocco as refugees or asylum seekers, a figure that in 2021 rose exponentially with the influx of Sudanese fleeing the war.

“In many cases they are survivors of gender-based, sexual or physical violence. They have had a very complicated exile, crossing borders and turning to people who charged them money,” explains Sandra Flores, UNHCR’s protection officer in the North African country.

Once in Morocco, she says, they often end up on the street, especially if they are over 15 years old, which is the vast majority of them. For the youngest, there are state-run centers for minors and foster families.

In the last two years, the International Organization for Migration has attended to 4,000 migrant children who arrived in Morocco alone. The organization has only been able to accommodate around 400 of the “visible ones,” head of the IOM mission in Morocco, Laura Palatini tells Efe.

“Most are invisible” and could fall victim to human trafficking networks. That’s not counting those who are in begging groups, for which they pay about 120 euros a month. “If they don’t pay, they are left to fend for themselves,” says Palatini.

The support they need is “enormous. Shelter, food, education and something that is rarely repaired: psychological help. “It’s as basic a need as housing,” she explains.

Next to Mohamed sits Mokhtar, 17, who left Sudan when he was 15. “I ran away from home, I was very small.” He has sustained many wounds during the journey – the latest a scar on his leg from the fence between Algeria and Morocco – but most are psychological. “I suffer every day,” he says.

Next to him is Ali, 16, who also sleeps on the street. He always carries a dirty pink backpack – which holds all of his possessions – which he uses as a pillow. His mattress: some cardboard.

On one foot, Ali points to an ill-fitting bandage. He was hit by a car, but has no money to go to the hospital. Without a certificate of residence, the centers in Morocco will not treat him.

While these teens have it hard, the plight of girls – who make up a quarter of unaccompanied migrant minors – is even worse, stresses Palatini.

That is the case for Kesso. She is 15 years old, from Guinea Conakry and traveled in October 2021 with a man, she says, who was hired by her family to take her to Europe. The plane stopped in Casablanca and that was the end of her journey. She then lived in a house in Tangier with other migrants without electricity.

Kesso has been fortunate enough to find a place in a center in Tetouan run by the Moroccan Association for Child Protection and Family Awareness, where she wants to learn carpentry.

Another organization working for these children is the Fondation Orient Occident, which gives them language courses in Rabat, accommodates those it can in apartments and helps others to rent a room.

But, according to its head, Nourdin Dadoun, landlords are reluctant to accommodate sub-Saharans, all while more and more minors continue to arrive.

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