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Unaccompanied minor migrants: impossible to understand if not experienced up close

I am Simona, a 24-year-old girl born in Trieste and raised in a small village overlooking the sea in Puglia. Because of my studies, I moved to the university of Forlì first and Padova later.

In 2016 I started my Bachelor’s in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs, fully convinced that one day diplomacy would have become my bread and butter. So why a Master in Human Rights now? It was a lecture about Western Sahara and Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria which suddenly made me picture my future: on the field, close to people, to their needs and thoughts and not on a chair in an office, far from those I should be working for.

Simona at the Asylum Centre of Bogovadja, Serbia, 15 April 2021

And here I am now, doing my internship for the non-profit organization Caritas Valjevo, in the Asylum Centre of Bogovadja, Serbia. The centre houses only unaccompanied minors, mainly coming from Afghanistan, dreaming of a better future in what they consider to be the land of rights and freedoms: Europe. The role of the Caritas Team in the camp is to organise whichever activity these people need to help them calm their mind and ease the heavy burden they carry on their shoulders.

Before coming to Bogovadja, I had a clear picture of how a refugee/asylum seekers camp could look like: tents, lack of hygiene, people in sorrow and in some cases desperate because of what they face while on the route. Bogovadja is different: everyone has accommodation in a building, it is surrounded by nature and people always smile despite the hardships they are experiencing. I have found absolutely astonishing the way they shared their stories: pushbacks, beatings by Romanian, Croatian and Hungarian police at the borders, scanner detection while hiding in trucks, nights spent in the middle of nothing without food and proper clothes to face the freezing winter in the Balkans… All of this without a hint of sadness, without a single sign of discouragement but instead only jokes and laughs topped with a “me try Game again” full of hope. I thought that maybe to their eyes this looks exactly like a game where Europe is the finish line and the passport is the golden trophy.

Workshop at the Asylum Centre of Bogovadja, Serbia, 8 April 2021

But how much do they struggle to receive their trophy? How hard must be for a child to experience in first person pushbacks, violence by smugglers, beatings by police, shipwrecks and death at sea, sexual abuse freezing nights sleeping in what they call “the jungle” waiting to cross borders? I think I will never forget the words a guy from Pakistan, let’s call him “B”, used to describe his experience at the border: “I have never felt two things: the cold of last night while sleeping in the jungle, and the pain after police over and over again beating me”. It was the first time I saw sorrow and tears in a guy’s eyes, but not surrender. Never surrender. I was mad at every institution, at the EU and the way it is “ensuring border security” while humiliating and annihilating youth and its hopes for a better future, as if the reasons pushing people to leave their country were not enough.

I was already fully aware of the challenges awaiting migrants on the Balkan route and of how dirty the EU's hands are in relation to the treatment it openly decides to adopt towards minors and adults trying to cross borders to reach the “land of safety”. However, being on the field made me change the perspective from which I was looking at the situation, shifting the focus on supporting the people I have the chance to meet and motivating them to pursue their goals and never give up, rather than critically and analytically thinking about what institutions must do.

It was disheartening to clearly understand that human rights are not for everyone. Despite wonderful theories about universalism, practice is deeply different: if you are travelling by plane with a passport in your pocket, human rights are there for you; if the only tools you have for travelling are your own feet and a backpack full of hopes and wishes, the protection and fulfilment of your human rights can be bypassed, as if your rights were “less rights” than others. Never before had I felt so uncomfortable in front of the question: “how did you come here? Plane?” because of the implication it has in terms of rights. This internship totally shaped my future: with people, among people, for people whose rights must be claimed loud and louder.

Written by Simona Guarini

Edited by Alex Frattin

Pictures courtesy of the Caritas Team


Simona Guarini is a 2nd year HRG student passionate about migrants and refugees' rights, history and african culture. Follow Simona’s story on Instagram @simonaaguarini and Facebook @Simona Guarini.


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