BERLIN — Oday was 16 when he made the plan to save his family.
The teenager was living with his parents and two sisters in a war-torn suburb of Damascus, where each trip out of the house risked stray bullets and bombs as they braved the winter, in December of last year, short on food and heat. Oday told his parents he would smuggle himself to Europe and apply for asylum — hoping that whatever government received him would take pity on the fact that he was a minor and agree to let his family join him there. He knew it was an extremely dangerous idea, especially for a boy traveling alone. But he told himself: “Sometimes people have to sacrifice for their family.”
It’s a grim calculation made by many young Syrians and their families as they grasp for a way to escape a brutal and unending war that has killed more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, and driven more than 4 million from the country. Overlooked in the chaos of the refugee surge to Europe is the fact that the past year has seen a large increase in unaccompanied minors making the journey, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a consortium of the world’s leading economies. Smugglers based in Turkey — the main entry point to Europe for Syrians — say they regularly place children traveling without their parents on refugee boats bound for Greece.
The reason is often economic desperation — the boat trip alone costs between $1,000 and $2,000, and many families can afford to send just one person at a time. (After Oday made his decision last winter, his father, a gym teacher, spent months trying to piece together the cash.)
Refugees also believe that minors will be prioritized by sympathetic authorities when they apply for asylum in Europe — and that if they receive it, the process of family reunification, stipulated in EU regulations, will likewise be prioritized, even though there is no basis for special treatment in the law. As Oday saw it, if he survived the illegal trip by sea, he could win his family the chance to come to Europe legally, by simply buying a ticket and getting on a plane.
But the journey — as Oday would find out — is often far more difficult for young refugees than they expect. “Children going through this process on their own is really risky,” said Jean-Christophe Dumont, the head of the OECD’s international migration division. “They can be abused. They can be mistreated. And they risk their life.”
Slim and soft-spoken, Oday, who turned 17 this summer, arrived in Germany in early July after a journey he is still surprised to have survived. The 2,300 miles between his Damascus home and the Berlin children’s shelter where he lives today seemed even farther as he traveled them. “When you’re living it you feel that it’s much longer than it actually is,” he said, drinking a Coke at a café near the shelter. He asked to go by his first name only to protect his family still living in Damascus. “I suffered a lot on the way.”
Oday’s family — part of Syria’s large population of Palestinian refugees — had lived in the Yarmouk district of Damascus until it was overtaken by ISIS, forcing them to flee to a government-held town. Waiting there as his father worked to save money for the Europe trip, Oday watched nervously as his 17th birthday approached, bringing him one year closer to 18. It was the age at which the government would force him into military service — and he’d also cease to be a minor in the eyes of European governments.
Spurred on by a close call with an errant artillery shell in the street one day, and increasing harassment from government soldiers, he finally decided to flee in March, with what money the family had. He was smuggled from the neighborhood and then made a harrowing 200-mile trip to the border with Turkey, where he found himself running uphill through the mud in the middle of the night, making a terrified dash into the country as border guards gave chase.
Still short on cash for the rest of the journey, he traveled to Istanbul, where a friend got him a job at a sweatshop. He recounted working 13-hour days cutting fabric from clothing, then sleeping over at the factory each night, for minimal pay. After two months, he linked up with an uncle in southern Turkey. Together, at around 3 a.m. on a night in mid-June, they stole off from the Turkish coast in a small boat filled with other refugees. Oday felt a wave of relief when they landed safely on a Greek island, but the real trouble still waited ahead.
One people smuggler based in Turkey, who works under the pseudonym Mohamed Issa, estimated that he had sent dozens of unaccompanied minors on his boats. Two additional smugglers also said it was something they did regularly. Usually young refugees travel with a relative or a family friend, though sometimes teens like Oday brave the journey alone. Issa, himself a refugee from Syria, had sent his own 10-year-old son to the Netherlands in the care of a friend. “There is no future for him here,” he said. “But in Europe it’s different. He will choose his future.”
EU directives make stipulations for family reunification when a refugee receives asylum. And because of the deadly chaos in Syria, its citizens can make such a good case for asylum that refugees and migrants from other countries sometimes pose as Syrians. The laws don’t mandate that children receive special treatment — though local officials can choose to make helping them a priority. Refugees and smugglers in Turkey believe this will usually be the case. “A lot of families did it before,” said a 35-year-old Syrian whose 10-year-old brother was smuggled to Germany this summer in the care of another sibling.
He said his parents were trapped in Syria, too old to make the journey. “The only way to send them to Europe is to smuggle my brother,” he said, “and after [he receives asylum] he can invite my parents to follow him.”
A recent OECD report said that 24,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the EU last year, the majority of them Syrians and Afghans. That number is expected to be far higher in 2015. Dumont, the OECD’s migration director, said the surge in minors has been difficult for European countries to address. Minors come with special needs in areas like housing and education, and they often need specialized psychological care. As authorities struggle to find the resources, child refugees risk languishing. And parents often don’t join them as planned, Dumont said — leaving them essentially orphaned in their new homes.
“It’s not like they’re going to be protected by the other refugees,” Dumont said. “So in terms of receiving and protecting these kids it’s very challenging. Families should understand that this is super dangerous for their kids — and what they go through is going to affect their entire lives.”
Kai Hanke, the head of programs at the German Children’s Fund, an NGO that lobbies on behalf of minors, said the authorities do appear to make cases like Oday's a priority. But they are also scrambling to keep up with the demand. There were 10,404 unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Germany last year, he said, up from 6,584 in 2013. He expects that number to reach 30,000 this year. “The expansion of the number has been so great that nobody can even tell you what it might be,” he said. “The only thing we know is we don’t have the resources to fit the needs of the children.”
Unaccompanied minors raise an issue that many politicians are hesitant to address, Hanke said — which is that conflicts like Syria’s show no sign of resolving, and many refugees are likely in Germany to stay. “We have to deal with this situation with perspective, not like it will somehow go away,” he said. “We need to help them with living a life that is appropriate for a child: Go to school, find friends, find something to build a future on. Be what you want to be.”
He added: “This is something our societies can provide with family structures, and we accompany our children every step of the way. And now we have these children traveling all the world with no one to help them.”
The most harrowing leg of Oday’s journey came on the ground in Europe, as he made the difficult trek through a maze of foreign countries. Traveling through Greece with his uncle, they were chased by police from a train, and then they spent hours walking to the border with Macedonia, scurrying through the dark to avoid arrest. From there the trip wound through Serbia and to Budapest — and along the way Oday found himself spending nights in the woods, wading through rivers, and stuffed into a train car so packed with other refugees he thought he’d suffocate, as the police used clubs to beat back those who escaped the crush.
In Budapest, their money running low, his uncle took what cash remained and left him on his own — forcing the shocked teenager to spend nights sleeping in yards and gardens. Frantic calls on cells borrowed from strangers finally linked him up with another relative, who sent money for a ticket to Berlin. He arrived in the city on July 4. “For the first month I couldn’t believe I was here,” he said.
Asked the main difference between Berlin and Damascus, he replied: “I wake up and don’t hear any bombs.”
As he tried to start a new life in Germany his mind was still focused on his family at home. He was eager for a German language course that started this past Monday — he said that speaking the language would allow him to guide his family through the resettlement process when they came, as he hoped they would. From there he plans to go to school, start a career, and make enough money to support them in Germany. “The most important part is that we get together again,” he said. “Hopefully someday I will get a job and work and try to make them forget what they went through in Syria.”