An Untold Story: The Need to Address Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Refugee Boys
BY EMILY AUSUBEL
At the young age of 12, Mohammad’s family sold him to an older man to serve as a bacha, or boy child entertainer. In this role, he would have to dance, sing, and sometimes provide sex for the man who owned him. Mohammad escaped quickly and embarked on the 3,500-mile journey from Afghanistan to Europe, where he ended up in an asylum center in the Balkans. He was able to evade the life of a bacha, but other refugees quickly discovered his past. Groups of as many as 20 adult men gang raped Mohammad each night for several days. The local government and humanitarian agencies finally moved him to a shelter for unaccompanied refugee children for extra protection—a necessary intervention that ultimately came too late. Mohammad experienced extreme and prolonged psychological distress in the aftermath of both fleeing his home and experiencing this abuse.
Mohammad’s story is particularly horrific but unfortunately not unique. Each year, thousands of unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) flee their countries due mostly to war, terrorist threats, armed recruitment, and poverty, making them vulnerable to such abuse. A large portion of the UASC in Europe come from one country: Afghanistan. In the past several years, these children have been fleeing the Taliban and ISIS as well as a crumbling economy with high rates of unemployment. This article details the vulnerabilities unaccompanied boys face with regard to sexual abuse and exploitation, addresses why there has been relatively little focus on this issue, explores current humanitarian and government responses, and provides recommendations for these actors to improve their efforts. Though the research that underpins this article focuses on the experiences of UASC from Afghanistan traveling through the Balkan region to Western Europe, their experiences also apply to boys from other countries in the region.
Between 2008 and 2016, approximately 198,500 UASC sought asylum in Europe, almost half of whom arrived in 2015 alone. Even in 2018, thousands of UASC, particularly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, continued to flee to Europe. The vast majority of UASC are boys (about 90 percent) aged 14–17, though some are as young as 8 years old. Many families and sometimes entire villages go into crippling debt to pay for these children’s journeys, and they place inordinate pressure on these boys to reach Europe quickly, find work, and send money back home. These boys are incredibly resilient, courageous, and self-reliant. However, these pressures compound the vulnerabilities they already face throughout their journey, pushing them into risky situations.
Ultimately, there is limited reliable data on sexual abuse and exploitation of boy refugees. Survivors of sexual abuse anywhere are hesitant to report their experience, but this is especially true of boys and men, who feel particularly ashamed and emasculated by the abuse. Refugees also generally refrain from reporting violence, afraid to delay their already fraught journey or because they mistrust the police., Many also fear re-victimization or reprisals for reporting. UNICEF explains how “the paucity of data documenting the experiences of sexual violence among boys has contributed to the erroneous perception that they are relatively immune from this form of violence.” However, recent research indicates that a considerable proportion of refugee boys face sexual abuse and exploitation. One report from Serbia states that “more than half of [sexual and gender-based violence] incidents reported to authorities were committed against Afghan boys.” This exploitation and abuse seems particularly common in Greek refugee camps. One 2017 CARE report states that “all the young refugees interviewed . . . testify that they have been directly approached or know friends who have been asked by men for sexual favors.” An aid worker in Greece said, “all the journalists ask us if we are hearing a lot about rape of refugees . . . but mostly, we hear about transactional sex and boys who turn to prostitution.” Syrian boys interviewed by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported daily sexual violence, mostly from older boys, which prompted many to drop out of school.
These children are vulnerable from the moment they leave their homes. Most refugees have to trust smugglers, who are their only chance at escaping, to keep them safe along their journey, which is even riskier for a child without a parent or older relative to protect them. While many smugglers do not exploit refugees, some UASC tell stories of their smugglers kidnapping them and extorting their families for more money. Smugglers might even sell these children to sex or labor traffickers if it is more profitable. Estimates from Europol indicate that 20 percent of smugglers are also connected with human trafficking rings., Europol also reported in 2016 that, “at least ten thousand unaccompanied minor refugees have been reported missing after reaching Europe, and many of them are believed to have fallen victim to trafficking and sexual exploitation.”
Furthermore, if their parents cannot support them or smugglers increase prices, UASC have to make money themselves. In one case, an unaccompanied boy told his harrowing story of riding the first leg of his journey in the trunk of a car. Once he arrived in Turkey, he decided to work to pay more to sit up front for the next leg. In some countries, such as Greece and Turkey, refugees can sometimes find work in sectors like construction or farming, but many European countries prohibit working without proper documentation, which most refugees lack. Men and boys in informal work “reported the refusal of some employers to pay wages until sexual favors were performed.” Boys who cannot find any other work often make money through transactional sex, usually with local clientele. There are many stories of these situations occurring just outside of refugee camps in Greece, where local men recruit young boys in parks, at first with the promise of jobs that do not involve sexual encounters, such as dancing. However, these boys are often then pressured to provide sexual acts in local bars, clubs, or brothels, and “threats of deportation, arrest, and physical violence keep these victims silent.”,
Young boys also experience high levels of sexual violence in refugee camps and asylum centers. While most governments and humanitarian organizations now recommend or mandate housing UASC in separate sleeping areas from adult men, these children may still be mixed with adults. Boys report abuse by other refugees—mostly adult men—as well as government officials running the camps, humanitarian aid workers, and people from surrounding host communities. In Serbia, multiple aid workers voiced their frustration that the main center housing UASC was not fully surrounded by a security fence or wall, explaining that men would sneak into the asylum centers at night to abuse boys. In some countries like Serbia, there are shelters for UASC deemed to be particularly vulnerable in the standard asylum camps and centers, including those at heightened risk of sexual victimization. Yet, some boys report that other adolescent boys assault them, indicating that even in separated housing, these boys are not necessarily protected.
The psychological impacts of this violence can be pernicious and extremely impactful on these children. Aid workers in Serbia who have spent time with boy survivors describe extensive cases of self-harm, dissociative panic attacks, and constant anxiety. Adrian Nikačević, the former manager of the Jesuit Refugee Services shelter for UASC in Serbia, described how this trauma manifested in the children he worked with: “It takes them three to six weeks or even a whole year to realize that they are safe. At the moment that they realize they are safe is when all the psychological issues surface, everything they’ve been holding back.”
Interventions to protect refugee boys from abuse must be contextualized in a larger conversation around why the anti-violence community has not focused on sexual violence against boys in general. Prioritizing women and girls in the fight against sexual violence is logical: the UN statistic that one in three women will experience sexual or physical assault in her lifetime rightly places a spotlight on the epidemic proportions of violence against women. Among refugees, these numbers are even starker. One study conducted by Atina, a Serbian anti-trafficking and women’s rights organization, found that 65 percent of interviewed refugee women had experienced physical violence; 24 percent reported experiencing sexual violence. While comparative global estimates for sexual violence against men and boys do not exist, the estimated rate of sexual abuse of boys in the United States is one in six. Other regional estimates for child sexual abuse of boys indicate wide ranges, from 7 to 8 percent in Canada and the United States to 4 to 35 percent in Asia. These imprecise estimates might also contribute to the fragmented international response toward sexual violence against boys.
While international focus on violence against women and girls is paramount and must continue, it also establishes a limited notion of who is and is not a victim, leaving little room to recognize survivors outside of the victim archetype: namely, LGBTQ+ survivors and men and boys. In conflict, sexual violence against men is often categorized as torture, as much of this violence occurs in prisons and detention facilities. In many cases, sexual violence against boys is reported as bullying, especially in school settings. Additionally, in Europe, many Arab or Muslim men are stereotyped as potential terrorists, and young men in general are seen as more likely to be criminals. Older adolescent boys may be subsumed in these stereotypes and categorized as adults by border patrol or refugee intake officers in countries without age-verification processes. These stereotypes can drive heightened violence against boys and men by border patrol and police and exclude boys from key humanitarian services. UASC are thus made more desperate to take part in dangerous or exploitative situations to survive.
In recent years, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have started to expand their programs on sexual violence prevention and response, writing new protocols and best practice guidelines on how to support male survivors of violence. For example, United Nations agencies supporting refugees have released documents detailing the situation of sexual violence against boys and men and providing recommendations, approaches, and tools that governments and humanitarian organizations can use to respond. UNHCR has presented guidelines for identifying male victims of sexual violence and redesigning programs to support them specifically. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), UNHCR, and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have developed protocols for providing medical care to male survivors.  The Women’s Refugee Commission recently announced “a three-year project on sexual violence against boys and men in the context of conflict and forced migration.”
Building on this momentum, both humanitarian organizations and governments in primary refugee host countries should continue protecting refugee boys against sexual violence. Overall, humanitarian agencies should build capacity of government and local NGO actors to embed refugee children within existing social service programs. What follows are several specific initiatives that these actors should consider pursuing.
First, these children continue to need safe housing options, and as standard practice, no unaccompanied child should be housed with adult men in asylum centers. One innovative approach to address housing of UASC comes from Save the Children, which has developed a training program for foster families in Serbia so that they have the resources and cultural competency to foster refugee children. METAdrasi is implementing a similar program in Greece. Hosting refugee children in foster families is generally recommended over housing children in orphanages or shelters. Not only does fostering provide a family environment for the child but also it can be up to ten times more cost effective. This would be an especially appropriate model to expand to the host countries where these children have been granted asylum, as well as other transit countries, where migrants are staying as long as one or two years. It should be stressed that the promotion of fostering UASC should not be confused with adoption of these children, which is broadly not a recommended practice.
Second, humanitarian organizations and host governments could provide small living stipends for UASC to cover daily living costs. This intervention is championed by a range of humanitarian organizations, including International Rescue Committee. IRC recommends that UASC older than 14 years be given pre-paid cards restricted to purchasing essential items together with financial literacy trainings.  Save the Children argues that cash transfers can help prevent children from engaging in transactional sex if the support is consistent over a long period of time and is combined with vocational skills-building activities that prepare children for other livelihood opportunities.
Third, sexual violence prevention initiatives that engage men and boys in refugee contexts should include material on the prevention of sexual violence against boys. There is an increasing literature and professional practice on engaging men and boys “to abandon harmful stereotypes, embrace respectful, healthy relationships, and support the human rights of all people, everywhere.” These are important initiatives to combat violence against women and girls and to promote gender equality more broadly. Within these programs, discussions around child sexual exploitation should include discussion on violence against boys.
Fourth, government and humanitarian staff that support these children need to be trained in trauma-informed care, and programs need to be developed to support boys through the trauma of sexual violence. Government agencies may not currently have tools, resources, or expertise to support boy survivors appropriately. For example, as of June 2017, the island of Lesvos, which has more asylum seekers than any other Greek island, “had limited or no specialized facilities and services for children with disabilities, children with chronic diseases, survivors of sexual violence, victims of trafficking, or those suffering a drug addiction.” Humanitarian organizations liaising directly with government agencies responsible for migrants and refugees should include in their capacity-building efforts best-practice models for care of male survivors of sexual violence. This is particularly important in countries where government agencies have taken on large portions of refugee response, including care of UASC.
Finally, more research needs to be done on this issue and on violence against refugees more broadly. Most research on sexual violence against refugee boys focuses on the Eastern Mediterranean Route (EMR), from the Middle East and Asia to Europe through the Balkans. Yet, African migrants traveling through the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR) are also extremely vulnerable to exploitation. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, 77 percent of adolescents and youth along the CMR report having been exploited, compared to 17 percent on the EMR. Those data, however, do not include situations of sexual exploitation. Thus, there is ample room for a deeper look at this phenomenon among African migrant boys so that organizations and governments in that region can also develop effective responses to best support UASC. These analyses should be conducted along all major migrant routes worldwide.
Ultimately, humanitarian organizations and governments in refugee host countries that are working to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse must expand and improve upon their response for refugee boys, like Mohammad, who are in need of safe housing, education, financial support, psychosocial care, and protection. Every child deserves a life free from violence.
Emily Ausubel is a second-year master in public policy student focusing her studies on human rights, humanitarian affairs, and gender. She has a background working in global health and is passionate about combating sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation, especially in humanitarian contexts.
Edited by: Prachi Naik
Photo by: Wikipedia
 Names in this article, including Mohammad’s, have been changed, and specific identifying information has been removed to protect children. Research for the article and the personal stories within it come from interviews that the author conducted with humanitarian staff while doing research in the Balkans in summer 2018.
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