Victoria Borisch, The Unmentionables Director and Social Media Manager.
Imagine hearing the bombs outside. Imagine having to flee and leave your whole life behind in the middle of the night. Imagine that your family only has enough money to pay the smugglers to take one person across the sea. Imagine that person is you. Imagine your fear of being alone on a crowded boat of strangers, terror hitting you with every wave because you don’t know how to swim. Imagine being rescued by the coast guard and brought to relative safety, but you are now more vulnerable than ever. Image all this, and now imagine that you are only 13 years old.
Sitting in my office in downtown Budapest in 2014 researching the movement of unaccompanied minors in Europe for my internship with Terre des hommes, I never imagined how the situation would soon escalate in the region. According to Eurostat, over 96,000 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the European Union in 2015 and an additional 56,000 in 2016.
These children have endured trauma that most of us can never imagine. Many of them will not know whether their families are still alive, or have witnessed unspeakable atrocities. In some places, younger generations have lived their entire lives surrounded by fear and war. Even once they supposedly reach safety, they are still one of the most vulnerable groups of people in refugee camps. Unaccompanied minors face a much higher risk for exploitation and human trafficking. This is often made worse by the loss of documentation, as they aren’t registered in a system anywhere and can easily disappear. Without a personal support system, these children will need additional help to get them through what may be the toughest time of their lives.
There are several great organizations working to protect the rights of unaccompanied minors making sure that they get the additional support they need. Many of these focus on the basics, such as food and shelter, or more specialized needs, such as psychological support and relocation services. All of these things are vital to ensuring that unaccompanied minors are safe, but the little things are important as well.
If these children arrive by boat, the only clothes they have may likely be what they are wearing. The small act of providing them with clean, dry underwear can help protect them against infections and provide a small amount of comfort. In addition to helping preserve human dignity, underwear can also help protect against sexual assault. Organizations such as Inner Wheel, have found that underwear and bras can actually have a protective role in emergency situations as it demonstrates that someone is looking out for their needs and would miss them if they disappeared. A little piece of fabric can go a long way and empower those who need it most.
Access to intimate health education may also be very limited for children in this situation. Getting your first period without having anyone to tell you about the changes your body is going through can be terrifying for a young girl. Likewise, young boys are at higher risk for sexual exploitation and survival sex, without having the information or products needed to protect themselves. The Unmentionables is dedicated to making sure that refugees not only have products that are vital to their intimate health, but are also informed about where they can access these products and how to use them.
Many of these children were sent by parents who dream of a better life for them. The struggles ahead are great, and as conditions continue to deteriorate in the refugee camps, the need for support from the outside is greater than ever.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. All of us have a collective responsibility to help provide dignity through hygiene to refugee children in need, especially unaccompanied minors.