Alone and Afraid
The heartbreaking stories of unaccompanied refugee children
Amongst the 22.5 million refugees in the world, half of them are children. More and more children are fleeing from conflict torn countries on their own. Others are becoming orphaned, lost or separated from their families while searching for safe refuge.
UNHCR is often the first to spot these children as they come across borders or arrive alone in refugee camps. Our protection officers listen to their stories and ensure that they have safe accommodation, trained staff to care for them, nutritious food, health checks, counselling, education and ongoing care. We share information across the region and around the globe to help trace missing relatives and arrange for family reunion.
Children are incredibly resilient. And every child deserves a happy childhood. By learning, playing and exploring their skills, they can find ways to cope, drawing strength from their families and communities. Through psychosocial support activities and education, we help children rebuild their lives.
Let’s look at Yasin, Khayria and Emmanuel’s stories.
Yasin (from Myanmar)
“I want to study and become an engineer. Even just talking about it makes me happy.”
Ten-year-old Yasin and his family boarded a smugglers’ boat in Myanmar, hoping to escape from ongoing violence and persecution.
But things took a dark turn when the smugglers abandoned the dilapidated ship to its fate. Yasin and his family plunged into the open sea beside the sinking vessel, and tried desperately to grab hold of one another.
Yasin held tightly to some planks of wood, but his parents and five-year-old sister were unable to swim and quickly sank beneath the waves. Of his little brother llias and sister Gultaz there was no trace.
After being rescued, Yasin told his story to UNHCR staff. They showed him photos of two small children – Ilias and Gultaz – in a shelter just a few hours away. He stared at the screen in disbelief, then burst into tears.
With the prospect of reuniting with his siblings and starting school, Yasin is hopeful once again.
Khayria (from Yemen)
“I am so scared of being alone, of not knowing what happened to my family in Yemen,” she said.
Khayria was doing household chores when the bombs began to fall on her town in Yemen.
She ran outside and joined the panicked masses, desperately searching for her mother and seven siblings but she couldn’t find them.
After three days of bombardment, Khayria fled to Somalia by herself. Upon her arrival, thugs stole everything she had.
When UNHCR found her, she had been moving from one refugee household to another, though none could afford to let her stay. UNHCR provided Khayria with her own room in a safe shelter, food, medicine, counselling and schooling.
“My body and eyes are tired of crying. I am very young, but I fear this war may have destroyed my life for good.”
Emmanuel and his sisters (from South Sudan)
“I feel like crying,” Emmanuel says, “but as I’m a man I cannot cry.”
It was Christmas Day when shots rang out in Emmanuel’s village in South Sudan.
“The day the war arrived in our village, our father was not with us, so we could not know where we can go,” he said. “They were looting people’s properties, killing, raping, burning houses. They were taking small boys like us to go and fight. All this I witnessed with my eyes.”
He gathered his little sisters and ran, eventually finding refuge in the Congolese town of Dungu. UNHCR registered the children on arrival and found them shelter in the house owned by a local family.
Now 16, Emmanuel is caring for his six younger siblings including a one-year-old baby. His mother was killed in the fighting, and he doesn’t know if his father is alive. The children have little chance of ever returning home.
In 2016, unaccompanied or separated children (mainly Afghans, and Syrians) lodged some 75,000 asylum applications in 70 countries, although this figure is assumed to be an underestimate. Germany received the highest number of these applications, up to 35,900.
UNHCR works with national authorities, other international and local organisations to assist, protect and find solutions for displaced children.
Please help UNHCR protect and care for unaccompanied refugee children.