Children in Dire Straits by Nils Feller

Africa6 Copy

Children in Dire Straits by Nils Feller


Children in Dire Straits

A case study on Irregular Migration of Egyptian Unaccompanied Migrant Children

About the Author

Nils Feller is a Programme Officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and is based in Cairo, Egypt.

German by origin, Nils spent large parts of his life as a migrant himself living in different parts of South America and Europe, as well as Australia and Egypt. At IOM, Nils supports the implementation and development of projects strengthening governmental capacities to foster protection systems for vulnerable migrants in Egypt, Libya and Sudan. In addition, Nils conducts research on the issue of irregular unaccompanied migrant children and designs project interventions to address their specific needs.


Human mobility is currently reaching levels unseen since the end of the Second World War. Arrivals of migrants and refugees to Europe by sea alone surpassed 1,000,000 in 2015 – a figure that amounts to four times the total for all of 2014 – while migrant fatalities have reached levels of a humanitarian emergency with 3,771 migrants dying during maritime migration in 2015.[1] Accelerating irregular child migration is particularly concerning in this context with more than one in five migrants arriving in Europe being children.

Children under the age of 18 migrate for reasons similar to those of adults.[2] However, it is recognized that smuggled children are particularly exposed to risk factors ‒ malnutrition, maltreatment including sexual exploitation, traumatization and others ‒ that demand immediate attention by relevant authorities. In addition, children are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by smugglers especially when they travel without their parents or an adult guardian.

In Egypt, in particular, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has observed a successively increasing trend of Egyptian unaccompanied migrant children (UMC) [3] moving irregularly to Europe. Since 2011, Egypt holds the highest percentage of UMC among adult irregular migrants reaching Europe. In 2014, 2,007 (49%) of the 4,095 Egyptians arriving irregularly in Italy were unaccompanied children in comparison to only 28 per cent in 2011. This upward trend continued in 2015, when 1,711 out of 2,610 Egyptian irregular migrants were UMC (66%). In April and May 2016 alone, a total of 1,113 Egyptian UMCs arrived in Italy in comparison to only 94 during the same period in 2015.

In response to this trend, IOM conducted a vulnerability assessment of Egyptian UMC in Greece after 132 children were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea and subsequently sheltered across Greece. This article outlines the vulnerabilities associated with irregular migration of unaccompanied children based on the findings of the aforementioned vulnerability assessment. Particular focus is given to experiences and vulnerabilities of children who use the services of smugglers to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.

The case study – a snapshot

In mid-August 2015, a group of migrants departed by boat from Balteem in Egypt headed for Italy. Out of the 240 migrants on board, 132 were Egyptian UMC. Over the course of the journey, the group of migrants boarded a total of four boats of different sizes. However, upon boarding the fourth unseaworthy vessel, the migrants got into distress. As the boat started sinking an SOS signal was sent by satellite phone to nearby ships. A nearby commercial ship coming from Suez rescued the migrants and handed them over to the authorities in Greece.

Vulnerable to smugglers

In order for migrants to reach Europe outside regular migration channels they have to rely on the services of smugglers and their networks. While often mixed in everyday and professional jargon, human trafficking and smuggling of migrants are distinct crimes and each accorded with a separate protocol in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). [4] Therein, the smuggling of migrants is defined as the “procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident”.[5] Human trafficking, on the contrary, involves an element of exploitation and may or may not make use of smuggling to move individuals into foreign territory. The Palermo Protocol further accounts for the particular vulnerabilities of minors and defines child trafficking without an element of coercion as “exploitation regardless of the use of illicit means, either within or outside a country”.[6] 

The relationship between migrants and smugglers is largely consensual and similar to those of other business transactions, terminating upon exchange of service for money. A multitude of methods exist to establish contact with smuggling networks. In rural Egypt, a broker (semsar) facilitates irregular migration. This person is usually well known by the community, and prospective irregular migrants either directly establish contact with the broker or are referred by friends and relatives. In Egyptian coastal hubs, such as Alexandria or Balteem, brokers openly approach children and adults to offer trips towards Italy. In addition, brokers publicize their contact details, prices and schedules on social media platforms to reach out to potential customers.[7] At present, prices for irregular entry into Europe and Italy range from USD 3,000 to USD 5,000 and an average of approximately USD 3,500 for Egyptian children. With a saturated market for trips towards Europe, smugglers make up for the shortfall in profit by increasing the number of passengers on each boat, augmenting the risks of irregular sea migration. While adult migrants pay brokers in advance, IOM counselling interviews with UMC in Greece indicate a shift in the modus operandi of smuggling networks with regard to child migrants.

According to the findings of IOM’s UMC assessment, the majority of children interviewed in Greece (65%) reported that parents or relatives make arrangements to pay for smuggling services upon the safe arrival of the child. However, smugglers also appear to adopt alternative methods of payment, with 15 per cent of minors reporting pre-arranged work upon arrival in Italy. As part of this debt bondage arrangement, the minors agree to pay parts of their monthly salaries to repay for the use of smuggling services to Europe. Although the children are not coerced into working upon arrival in Europe, they are by definition victims of trafficking as per UNOTC.NilsChart1

Figure 1:

Breakdown of payment arrangements made by children according to IOM’s vulnerability assessment of UMC in Greece

The perilous journey to Europe

As with all humanitarian crises, most viewers become desensitized to images of human suffering especially when the events do not have any relation to one’s personal experience. The current migration crisis serves as a good example in this regard with European public discourse being marked by mistrust of migrants who travel to Europe in search of security and a better life. This is partially due to a lack of understanding of the suffering that migrants’ underwent in their countries of origin but also a result from a lack of knowledge of the painful experiences from the migration journey itself. For children and adults alike, the migration journey starts with the payment to the broker. Most commonly, migrants then receive a call to gather in a specific location from where they are moved to a safe house.

For children in particular, this is where trauma begins. Groups often spend prolonged periods of time in confined spaces with poor sanitation, without food and water, and sometimes experience violence and abuse at the hands of smugglers. Without prior knowledge, and sometimes after several days, smugglers then transport the migrants from the safe house to a small beach or port. In the majority of smuggling operations between North Africa and Europe, migrants debark at night on inflatable Zodiac boats to evade detection from law enforcement agencies. The Zodiacs then transport groups to mostly wooden trawlers to commence the journey over the open seas.

According to the testimonies of children interviewed by IOM, migrants are forced to change boats several times over the course of the sea navigation and with the boarding of each new vessel, the risks for migrants increase. Children in particular are exposed to harsh conditions at sea as minors are assigned seats on the railing of boats as they pay less for the sea voyage than adult migrants.

As a result, children are exposed to waves and cold water temperatures especially during night hours causing low body temperature and hypothermia, with significant risks for their physical health. In addition, 59 percent of the Egyptian children interviewed by IOM in Greece reported that the supply of water on board was scarce. Only small amounts of edible foods were made available by smugglers and instead children were served inedible and rotten meals.

When boats in distress are rescued at sea, risks of traumatization are also particularly concerning for children. According to some accounts, smugglers allegedly administered sedatives to migrants during night hours through tea served on board. One child however realized this and poured the tea away. During that night, the hull of the boat began leaking and as the boat filled with water, some of his peers were on the verge of drowning. The child used his remaining body strength to pull his peers out of the water as they were unable to move their bodies and struggle for survival. Although the boat was eventually rescued after two days in distress, anecdotes such as this illustrate the unthinkable experiences endure by children during these traumatizing journeys.

Other children were unable to contextualize that smugglers themselves were under the influence of drugs as they described them as animal-like creatures. Many reported that smugglers were particularly abusive to migrants who protested against the appalling conditions on board as they locked migrants inside the board fridge for punishment. In addition, children themselves were exposed to the will and unscrupulous treatment of smugglers with over 60 per cent of children also reported to have experienced verbal and/or physical abuse.


Figure 2: 

Breakdown of hardship faced by UMCs during irregular migration journey according to IOM vulnerability assessment of UMC in Greece

Requirements for child protection

As a result of the arduous journeys across the Mediterranean, migrants suffer from often diverse and complex traumas. Upon arrival in the destination country, migrant children experience substantial contrasts between the situation in their countries of origin and adjusting to life at the country of destination in between, the often traumatic experiences during the journey across the Mediterranean, as well. The needs that derive from this situation warrant immediate attention upon arrival in an integrated and multidisciplinary manner.

In order to protect children from continued trauma and to ensure their integration upon arrival, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) accords unaccompanied migrant children special protection and assistance. According to Article 24 of the CRC, a child has the “right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health”.[8]

Therefore, States must swiftly assess and address the particular vulnerabilities of children resulting from different degrees of trauma, disruption and violence. Psychosocial support is vital in this regard to ensure the early recovery of the UMC upon arrival and return, as well as their (re)integration. For this purpose, reception capacities must be enhanced across countries with high receiving rates of irregular child migrants while establishing referral mechanisms to provide essential protection services, including psychosocial assistance and shelter.

Importantly, referral procedures must include the provision of durable solutions, including Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR), to ensure that a child’s desire to return home is swiftly addressed in the best interest of the child. In line with CRC Article 3, durable solutions must be implemented in full consideration of best interest determination procedures and in coordination with relevant government authorities.[9] For this purpose, and in the case of unaccompanied children, a guardian and legal representative must be swiftly appointed to ensure respect for the best interest of the child. In parallel, relevant authorities need to be capacitated to ensure highest attainable standards in case management and best interest determination.

Whatever the state of global migration flows, children always require special protection. Ultimately, however, prevention of irregular migration serves as the best form of protection. Such interventions need to address the economic, social and cultural variables that interlink as driving forces for irregular migration of children. In the case of Egypt, large scale investments in the education and employment sector are required in governorates with high sending rates of irregular child migrants. This requires a substantial effort on behalf of the Egyptian Government, but also of partner governments in Europe as well as the private sector to share the responsibility of providing children with a better future.

[1] Arrival figures refer to maritime arrivals only in 2015. Please see IOM’s Missing Migrants project for more information (IOM, “IOM Counts 3,771 Migrant Fatalities in Mediterranean in 2015”, 5 January 2016.

Available from

[2] Migrants are driven towards Europe by a mix of factors including lack of economic opportunities and deteriorating intra- and inter-state stability across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa region.

[3] The term “unaccompanied migrant children” is defined as “[p]ersons under the age of majority in a country other than that of their nationality who are not accompanied by a parent, guardian, or other adult, who by law or custom is responsible for them” (Perruchoud and Redpath-Cross (eds.), 2011).

[4] Reitano and Tinti, 2015.

[5] UN General Assembly, Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 15 November 2000. Available from

[6] According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000), child trafficking is defined as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of children for the purpose of exploitation” regardless of whether the child has given consent or even if none of the following illicit means have been employed: “threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person”.

[7] P. Kingsley, “People smugglers using Facebook to lure migrants into ‘Italy trips’, The Guardian, 8 May 2015.

Available from

[8] CRC/GC/2005/6 c. 46, p. 15.

[9] CRC/GC/2005/6 c. 20, p. 9.

This report was prepared by Nils Feller and is based on a publication launched by the International Organization for Migration. Opinions expressed in the article are those of the author. The full publication can be retrieved from:


Kingsley, P.

2015 People smugglers using Facebook to lure migrants into ‘Italy trips’.

The Guardian, 8 May

Available from

Perruchoud, R. and J. Redpath-Cross (eds.)

2011 Glossary on Migration, International Migration Law No 25. IOM, Geneva.

Reitano, T. and P. Tinti

2015  Survive and advance: economics of smuggling refugees and migrants into Europe. Institute for Security Studies Paper, 289:1‒31.

United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child

2005  General Comment No. 6: Treatment of Unaccompanied and Separated Children Outside their Country of Origin, 1 September, CRC/GC/2005/6.

Available from

United Nations General Assembly

2000a  Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 15 November.

Available from

2000b  Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 15 November.

Available from