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Crossing a continent to find peace and tolerance


Crossing a continent to find peace and tolerance

As child soldiers in West Africa, Idrissa and Mohammed were forced to fight and witness atrocities unimaginable to grown men. Both managed to escape their captors and to embark on long journeys in search of protection and safety, which they finally found in Spain.
10 August 2005
Togolese refugees preparing food with their Ghanaian hosts in the Aflao region.

MADRID, Spain, August 10 (UNHCR) - Every year, thousands of people risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats in search of better lives in Europe. Among them are men, women and children who fled conflict in their homeland and need a safe place to call home.

Idrissa* was barely a teenager when the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone left his relatives dead and forced him to escape from the capital, Freetown, in 1999. At 14, he was forcibly recruited by the rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front. After spending three months mired in the conflict, he was able to escape to neighbouring Guinea.

When he returned to Sierra Leone, he found living conditions difficult because of his militant past. "Everybody was looking at me with suspicious eyes as I was still carrying a gun with me. I felt different, always under judgement, not belonging anymore to my people," he explains. To avoid the daily harassment, he embarked on another journey, first to Guinea and then to The Gambia.

However, the continued lack of security and protection led Idrissa to take an important decision to leave Africa for Europe. "Taking a boat and leaving behind my past, my few surviving relatives and my friends, was very hard. I couldn't stop crying throughout the trip and my hopes for a better future fizzled out kilometre after kilometre," he recalls.

Like Idrissa, Mohammed's* future seemed bleak amid the civil strife in Guinea. At the age of nine, he was shot in his left arm, a scar he still bears today. Soon after, his parents were killed in an attack on their village in Forécariah, south-western Guinea. He was taken away and forced to become a child soldier.

Upon his escape, he started on a journey with his brother that lasted more than two years and spanned countries like Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria. He lost his brother in a desert storm in Niger, and continued the journey alone.

Life on the road was turbulent. Mohammed remembers that in Morocco, an old man picked him up from the street and treated his feet, which were completely swollen and infected after the long trek. Later he joined a group that wanted to cross into Spanish territory through the Bel Younes forest, near Ceuta, the small Spanish enclave in North Africa. They were caught by Moroccan police while trying to scale the high wire fence between Morocco and Ceuta.

Although just a few kilometres across the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain seemed like a world away for desperate boys like Mohammed and Idrissa. Those who manage to make it across often arrive in bad shape, physically and mentally exhausted from the journey.

Under Spanish law, the illegal entry of an asylum seeker is not penalised if the person concerned can prove to the authorities that he or she meets the criteria to be recognised as a refugee. As such, the asylum seeker must provide concrete and conclusive facts showing well-founded fears of persecution before he or she can be admitted to the asylum process. Interviews are conducted by either the Spanish Office of Asylum and Refugees or the police authorities, and decisions must be taken within four days on whether or not the asylum claims are admissible to the regular refugee status determination process.

UNHCR is informed of all asylum applications and has free access to the asylum seeker and their files. The agency's staff are always ready to assist new arrivals like Idrissa and Mohammed who may be traumatised, disoriented and unsure of their rights and procedures to claim asylum.

"We play a vital role by giving our opinion on the admissibility of the claims filed at border points or within the territory of Spain," said UNHCR's representative in Spain, Carlos Boggio. This is especially important when people whose admissibility is denied at the border decide to lodge an appeal at the National High Court.

"According to the law, in cases where UNHCR's opinion is to admit the asylum seeker into the asylum procedure and the Ministry of Interior disagrees, the claimant will be allowed entry into the territory by the Court, pending a final decision on the admissibility by the same body," Boggio explained.

People seeking asylum from within Spanish territory - and not at border points as described above - have a longer time frame of 60 days before their claims are judged to be admissible to the asylum process or not. In the meantime, they are issued with a temporary identity document by the relevant government authorities.

In August 2004, Idrissa, the Sierra Leonean former child solider, applied for asylum in Spain and after several interviews with the Spanish Office of Asylum and Refugees and UNHCR, was granted a complementary form of protection in June this year. Now 20, his top priority is to resume his secondary education, which was repeatedly interrupted by the conflict back home. But even as he looks forward to his new life, he says he will never forget the horrific days in the frontline.

His Guinean counterpart, Mohammed, submitted his asylum request to the Spanish embassy in Rabat, Morocco, in April this year. He was recognised as a refugee in July and is now living at a centre for unaccompanied minors in Madrid.

Despite the many obstacles along the way, he never gave up his quest for safety because "I wanted to go back to school and continue my football training," he says. Now 14, Mohammed doesn't know where his surviving family is or if his home in Guinea is still standing. The only thing he knows for sure is that a new city, a new school and new friends are waiting for him in Spain. "I have to start from scratch but at least it's a safe place. This gives me my strength."

* Not their real names

By Francesca Fontanini
UNHCR Madrid