When I arrived on Saturday to the Macedonian town of Gevgelija near the border with Greece, I witnessed children with utter desperation and fear in their eyes. Thousands of families on the move from conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa had pushed through a police cordon where they had been waiting to enter Macedonia. This resulted in a stampede as exhausted and frightened people, including children, raced towards the city centre.
Amid the confusion, children were separated from their families and left to wander down the nearby railway tracks. My colleague and I, worried for their safety, set out to find these children and bring them to Unicef’s newly established child-friendly space until they could be reunited with their parents and caregivers. It was a terrifying ordeal for them, but all were later able to re-join their families.
Yet, for most of these children, this incident was just one more hardship in their long and perilous journeys in search of safety after having been displaced by conflict in their home countries. Some 2,000-3,000 people are now crossing daily from Greece into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after making the dangerous trip across the Aegean sea.
The number of women and children fleeing violence along this route has tripled in the last three months. Women and children now account for nearly one third of arrivals. An estimated 12% of the women are pregnant.
Many families have been on the move with their children for months, enduring searing hot days, arriving with only the clothes and shoes they are wearing. They are physically exhausted and in desperate need of a place to rest. Many are suffering dehydration, blisters, colds, diarrhoea, and sunburn. The youngest children in particular often arrive dehydrated or feverish, having slept out in the open for weeks. Many are barefoot, their shoes by destroyed after so much walking.
Most families are from Syria, while others have travelled from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries experiencing conflict. All just want to live in peace, free from the threat of violence, displacement, and death.
Refugee children are particularly vulnerable. They often fall through gaps in laws, policies, and practices in the current common EU protection framework. Child refugees face limited access to justice, education, and healthcare. They can be subjected to detention and deportation, collective expulsions, and border control practices that endanger their lives as they enter the EU.
Every child, whether they’re a refugee or not, is entitled to the rights and protections set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. All children — regardless of their or their parents’ legal status — must have equitable access to quality education, health care (including mental health), social protection and justice.
Unicef is calling on the European Union to seize this opportunity to apply its laws and deeply held values to truly champion the rights of refugee children and families and be an example to all around the world. We join with the International Organisation for Migration, the UN Refugee Agency, and other UN agencies in urging a fairer distribution of responsibility across the European Union for saving lives and protecting those in need; and to combat racist and xenophobic rhetoric vilifying refugees wherever they may land.
Unicef is calling for investment in tackling the root causes of this complex crisis, including a renewed political commitment to resolving conflict, increased funding for emergency relief work and ongoing sustainable development in countries ravaged by poverty and inequality.
Meanwhile, Unicef teams on the ground are working around the clock to ensure that every child is safe, protected and cared for.
Last week, here in Macedonia, Unicef established a child-friendly space with art, play, and educational materials where children have a rare opportunity to remember what it’s like to be a child.
Most of the children I have spoken with do not want to talk about their experiences with war. They are more interested in sharing their hopes for the future. Every child dreams of going back to school. Just the other day, I watched as a group of children from several different countries played together by pretending they were in a classroom. Even though they did not all speak the same language, they organised themselves into pretend teachers and students — sharing in the daydream of just being a ‘normal kid’.
Yet there is so much more to do to meet the growing humanitarian needs here. There is not enough shelter to accommodate the number of people passing through and many are forced to sit outside for hours in the scorching sun. More sanitation facilities are needed and there is no running water — I’ve seen parents washing their children with bottled water.
With our partners, who are already distributing food, water and blankets, Unicef is mobilising resources to procure and establish more temporary child-friendly spaces and water bladders to accommodate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
I hope that one day soon the children I have met here will get what they want most — a normal life where they will be able to sit in a real classroom instead of an imaginary one.
To support Unicef’s work, please visit www.unicef.ie.