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Germany

All on their own: minors seeking refuge in Germany

More than 60,000 minors have fled warzones to arrive in Germany. After facing loneliness, exploitation and violence along the way, they frequently have to take care of themselves on arrival.

"The forest in Serbia was the absolute worst part of my flight," says 16-year-old Fahad. He remembers with dread the nearly impassable undergrowth, thick with trees and bush. "Forget about trying to get anywhere at night," says the young Syrian, who made his way from Damascus to Berlin last year.

On the road for nearly a month, he covered 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) as he crossed first the Aegean Sea and then made his way through seven countries. The memory of the time spent along the route through the Balkans is ingrained in Fahad's mind. For days, he fought hunger, exhaustion, and anxiety, struggling with the fear of being robbed by criminals or arrested by the police.

More than 60,000 unaccompanied minors like Fahad have arrived in Germany seeking protection during the recent refugee influx. The reasons behind their flight to Europe and why they go it alone are many, says Niels Espenhorst of the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees.

Asylsuchende in Serbien

Fahad trekked through a Serbian forest for hours

Some were sent by their families to escape conscription enforced by the army or militias. Others were separated from their families along the way. Often children leave home because members of their family have joined a militia and there is a danger that they will be drawn into the fighting.

Escaping terror

Fahad's reason is different. In April 2015 he was arrested in Damascus for not carrying identity papers. The police brought him to an underground jail cell in which dozens of men and women were already being held.

"Everyone who speaks ill of the government regime, on Facebook or elsewhere, was sent there," says Fahad. "They simply disappear. Not one of them appears before a judge."

What exactly happened in the prison is not something Fahad will talk about. Only that he was tortured. After two weeks, a friend was able to smuggle $300 (270 euros) into the jail, hidden inside a packet of food. Fahad used the money to bribe his way out.


LaGeSo Flüchtlinge Warteraum Berlin Deutschland

Berlin's LaGeSo authority is notoriously slow

That's when his mind was made up: he had to leave, escape despite all the danger. "We see on YouTube and Facebook the pictures of the people who drown in the Mediterranean. Either I stay in Syria with no future or I die on the refugee trail. That is still better," he says, and so he broke off contact with his family and organized his flight to Europe.

The first leg of the journey he managed to complete via airplane, from Damascus to the Turkish coastal city of Izmir. Although he was safe there, Turkey was no option for the young Syrian. His goal of finishing high school and enrolling in university is something that would not have been possible in Turkey, he says. And education is his top priority.

A question of money

Along with numerous other refugees, Fahad made his way to Europe in a rubber dinghy. The smuggler's ticket to the Greek island of Chios cost 1,000 euros. There the group was registered by Greek authorities before they boarded a ferry to Athens. At this point, Fahad had 2,000 euros still in his pocket - some his own savings, some of it borrowed from friends.

Not everyone has such luck. Those who have less money on them can quickly fall victim to people traffickers - something that the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees says they see time and again. Prostitution is one means for earning money for the onward journey. Yet even when they arrive where they want to go, their sorrows haven't ended. "We can assume that these things also play a role in Germany," Espenhorst confirms.

Fahad took a taxi alone to the Macedonian border; he couldn't trust anyone to accompany him. "I didn't want to make any friends to whom I might have to loan money," he says. From Macedonia, he continued on foot, a light backpack filled with water and potato chips to get him through the forests. Every few hours, he allowed himself some of his provisions until he got to Hungary.

In Germany, fending for himself

Nearly a month after he departed Damascus, Fahad finally set foot on German soil when a smuggler dropped him off in Passau. In the meantime, the young man has landed in Berlin, in a home for unaccompanied refugee minors. His first few weeks in the German capital were spent sleeping in a park across from the LaGeSo, the nickname for Berlin's Health and Social Services Office, which serves as a registration point for the refugees. After speaking to several officials, Fahad was put up in a hostel. Once again, he was left to his own devices.

Griechenland verlassenes Flüchtlingsboot auf Kos Archiv

The journey by dinghy is an especially dangerous leg of the trip

In Berlin, it appears to take quite a bit of time before unaccompanied minors are appropriately taken care of. At present, nearly 2,000 youths are still waiting on their first meeting with the Social Services Office for Minors - without health care, a guardian or the possibility of attending school.

Getting refugee children educated from day one is one of the most important factors in their integration, says Espenhorst. It's not only about informing them of the possibilities and hearing their wishes. "For a child who has grown up in war, it's necessary just to show them what possibilities there are in life."

Fahad recognized his chances quite early. He's now preparing for his school leaving exams, driven by the desire to be given the right to stay in Germany. "My future is the only motivation I have," says Fahad. He wants to be able to pay for himself.

His goal: "To one day have people look at me and ask, 'Who is that?' I want to be somebody."

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