On August 10, the world learned of the tragic death of five-year-old Maria on the Greek-Turkish border. The little Syrian girl was part of a group of 39 refugees, who had crossed from Turkey to Greece to seek asylum, but who were pushed back by the Greek and Turkish authorities on a habitable islet in the middle of the Evros river, which flows along the border.
Maria died after being stung by a scorpion, two days after the group got stranded there.
Although the activists contacted the Greek police, Frontex and UNHCR in Greece to rescue the group, their calls were presented as “fake news” and ignored. Another nine-year-old girl was also stung by a scorpion and was in critical condition.
A few weeks later, a four-year-old girl died on a refugee boat that had tried to reach Italy but broke down and drifted towards Malta. Despite alerts about a ship in distress, European authorities did not respond for six days.
These are not just isolated cases of refugee children dying at a European border, fleeing war, authoritarianism, natural disasters linked to climate change, poverty or a combination of these factors. In 2015, the world was shocked by photos of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after a boat carrying him and dozens of other refugees sank. In 2017, international media reported the story of Madina Husein, a six-year-old Afghan girl, who was run over by a train after she and her family were pushed back by Croatian authorities in Serbia.
Alongside these few cases known to the public, the Missing Migrants Project, launched by the International Organization for Migration, reports that more than 1,000 children died or disappeared during their migratory journeys to Europe between 2014 and 2022. These children died or got lost at European borders. – stretching from the English Channel to the Balkans and the Mediterranean – and on the borders of Europe’s key partners in migration control, Turkey and Libya. Children who survive their migration journey to EU countries are often injured or traumatized crossing borders.
While researching border violence, I have come across many families who have seen their children injured or killed. Their stories are similar to Maria’s. They have all taken place at the borders where illegal pushbacks by local authorities and Frontex are a common practice, which deprives people of the right to seek asylum.
Nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) east of where Maria died is the Iran-Turkey border, which refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran are trying to cross to get to Europe. Even asylum seekers from Turkey’s neighbors Iraq and Syria are opting for this dangerous route, as the Syrian-Turkish and Iraqi-Turkish borders have become more difficult to cross.
To prevent migration to its borders, the EU provided 110 million euros ($110 million) to Turkey, which was used to build a concrete wall and install additional surveillance equipment at the Iran-Iran border. Turkish. At the same time, pushbacks by Turkish border authorities have become the main form of migration deterrence.
During my research at this border in 2021, I met several people who said they had been pushed back by Turkish security forces into Iranian territory. Four men from Afghanistan told me that after being pushed back, they got lost in the mountainous area near the border; while walking over the rough terrain, they came across members of an Afghan family, including a baby about a year old, lying dead in the snow: “They must have frozen to death,” one told me. men.
In other cases, refugees, including children, have been injured or died while being transported by smugglers through Turkish territory. “I was here when 70 people drowned in Van Lake, including a six-month-old Afghan baby,” an Afghan refugee I met in the Turkish town of Van told me. “We were all crying and buried the little body in the local cemetery.” I have also heard stories of children who died when the police opened fire on the vehicles they were traveling in or when they crashed.
About 1,300 kilometers northeast of the Evros River, where Maria died, is the Croatian-Bosnian border. I volunteered there with the Border Violence Monitoring Network in 2018 and 2019. Among the hundreds of people I met reporting pushbacks was an Iranian family, which included a three-year-old girl. Her dad rolled up his T-shirt to show his bruised back and said, “[During the push-back from Croatia to Bosnia, Croatian] the police kept yelling at us to hurry across the river. I was holding my daughter in my arms and they kept beating me while I was holding her. I slipped and fell, and my baby hurt his back.
Deaths and injuries of refugee children are generally characterized by state officials as accidents that occurred as a result of the refugees crossing difficult terrain and attacks by wild animals, or because of their relationships with smugglers. State authorities also like to blame and prosecute parents for the deaths of their children – a practice that has been supported even by officials of international aid agencies.
“The same mothers [grieving for the loss of their children] had no problem encouraging or funding their children on dangerous journeys to Europe. As in Senegal, symbolically prosecuting parents for putting their children at risk could trigger serious attitudinal shifts on death journeys,” Vincent Cochetel, a UNHCR special envoy, recently tweeted.
By embracing this narrative, governments and EU officials seek to absolve themselves of responsibility for the deaths of refugee children. But the fault lies largely with them.
Children are placed in these dangerous situations because of EU migration policies and border controls that aim to reduce refugee arrivals in the Union. Families with young children would not have to embark on risky journeys, alone or with smugglers, if they were not denied legal and safe border crossings and immediate access to asylum procedures. Children would not be stranded on islands and in mountains or fall into rivers or seas if authorities in EU states and their non-EU partners did not turn them back or deny rescue missions.
In other words, children are dying at borders because of violent policies, including surveillance and pushbacks, deliberately deployed to prevent them from exercising their right to asylum.
This means that child deaths are not accidents but the result of EU ‘non-arrival strategies’ which aim to prevent refugees from exercising their rights under international law. At the same time, the closed border crossing underpins racial violence, as border walls and pushbacks primarily target non-white refugee groups fleeing former European colonies.
The humanitarian corridors that the EU opened earlier this year for Ukrainian refugees – who are considered white and European and therefore “desirable” – demonstrate that it is possible for child (and adult) refugees to cross the borders of safe and legal way to apply for asylum in the EU.
Children are undoubtedly the most vulnerable refugee population. Every refugee child, regardless of race, religion or social origin, should be allowed to cross borders safely to access protection. European leaders should abandon violent policies of border closures and develop safe and legal routes in collaboration with their main partners.
Instead of prosecuting parents who have lost their children on dangerous migration journeys, governments should hold accountable members of their security forces who commit unlawful pushbacks and use violence against refugees. Likewise, Europe should move away from the racist logic of border control shaped by its colonial past. Unless these changes are made, we will continue to read media reports of tragic child deaths at borders.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.