Children Migrating to Europe Experience Horrific Rates of Violence, Abuse, and Trauma: Report

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (Sept. 12, 2022)—Child migrants are being systematically abused by police, people smugglers, and other adults while traveling through the Balkans across Europe, with the majority witnessing or subjected to sexual abuse, according to a report released by Save the Children today.  

The report reveals a critical lack of protection for child migrants across Europe, with children reporting violence is now an integral and an almost inevitable part of their migration experience. About one in three of the children now believe that no one can help them on their journey, and some believe they are no longer able to help themselves.

Basit,* a 16-year-old boy, told researchers:

“We were apprehended by the police. They told us to sit down, and we all sat down; then they selected two people in the group and beat them... Then they told us, come on, let’s go, towards some road. We started moving, one of them stood to the side with a rod, told us to go in a single file, and as people passed him by, he hit them.”

Adults in their immediate environment who have the power to help, such as smugglers and police officers, were found to be those who most often committed acts of violence against the children.

Ahmad,* a 16-year-old boy, told researchers:

“The police will say: ‘are you really 15?’ and then slap me twice. Then they say: ‘You are lying, you are not 15, you are 20.’”

The children involved in the research said they had to travel in overloaded cars, sleep in the woods where they are at risk from wild animal attacks, and stay in squats where they are threatened with abuse.

Sarina,* a 19-year-old girl, told researchers:

“While traveling on a boat in the dark, when the police must not see or hear us, one of the children started crying in the mother’s arms. The smuggler took the child from the mother’s arms and threw him overboard to silence the child or to protect himself. The mother started arguing with him, tried to scream, and then the smuggler pushed her overboard as well and nobody knows where they are now. It is a true story nobody knows about.”

The report reveals child migrants are at enormous risk of sexual violence, with boys traveling alone particularly vulnerable, and that children are being exploited at work during the journey and at their destination, including being recruited by smugglers for criminal and sex work. Almost two-thirds of children interviewed listed one or more incidents where they recognized or witnessed sexual abuse of a child.

A striking number of professionals in the focus groups and children, especially those who were traveling unaccompanied, gave examples of self-harm, suicide attempts, and abuse of alcohol and other drugs as passive strategies for coping with stress and difficulty. Some children sought protection by becoming involved in criminal and sexual activities with smugglers and other adults.

The new report, “Wherever We Go, Someone Does Us Harm,” is one of only a few in-depth, comprehensive studies of violence against migrant children in Europe. The qualitative research was created in partnership between Save the Children’s Balkans Migration and Displacement Hub—an initiative working within Save the Children North West Balkans office to raise visibility of children on the move—and the University of Sarajevo. It analyzes the different forms of violence that children experience, as well as the factors that contribute to this violence.

Bogdan Krasic, Balkans Migration and Displacement Hub Program Director, said:

“These findings are striking because they show the violence in these children’s lives is so present it has become normalized. Children are exposed to all types of violence, at all times—in their countries of origin, along the journey, in the countries of transit.

“A migration experience that includes multiple, prolonged exposure to violence may have incomprehensible harmful effects on the development of children. This could undermine their capacity to get to know the destination countries and to integrate effectively, and undermine their ability to contribute to the cultural, social, and political life of the destination countries.”

Ylva Sperling, Save the Children Europe director, said:

“The lack of protection at European borders has terrible consequences for children. Europe's overwhelming emphasis on deterring arrivals means children are subjected to shocking violence by police and border guards; violence which is carried out with impunity.

“Children on the move in search of safety in Europe—who have a right to seek international protection—are often forced to rely on smugglers as their only hope to cross borders, and these smugglers abuse them as well. The EU and governments must take immediate action. They should provide refugee and migrant children with access to safe, regular, and legal migration routes so that they no longer have to face the ordeals documented in this report.”

One in four children interviewed for the research said it was important to them that their viewpoints and perspectives be taken into consideration and all interviewed children showed their need to be heard.

Their recommendations range from improvements to reception centers, to what civil society organizations can do to help prevent violence at the border. Many children said they wanted politicians in their home countries and abroad to work towards peace, so that children would not have to leave home in the first place. Concrete suggestions for policy makers from children include preventing child deportation and ‘deterrence’ from crossing the border, as these practices are humiliating, multiply threats, and create new risks.

When discussing what they appreciate and need, children emphasized their desire to be cared for and welcomed on their journey and in destination countries. They often feel unwelcome or discriminated against, but they would love to feel accepted and respected by the community they are in. Talking about services, they listed psychological support, access to education, physical activities, and entertainment as priorities.

Save the Children supports children on the move across Europe by both providing often lifesaving assistance to children such as registrations, shelter, psychosocial support, education, and advocacy support, including at high-levels, for durable solutions, improvements of systems of protection, and better laws and procedures for refugee and migrant children. The Balkans Migration and Displacement Hub acts as one of Save the Children’s knowledge and research centers for children on the move, monitoring child mixed migrations in the Balkans and researching key trends and issues that concern migrant children, their rights and wellbeing.

*Names changed to protect identities.



  • Children make up about one-third of all refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. A significant percentage of these children fleeing conflicts and insecurities in the countries of South, Central and Western Asia come through the Balkans route, which is part of the Eastern Mediterranean route towards Western and Northern Europe. The countries on the Balkans route, including Greece, Bulgaria, and Croatia, which are members of the EU, are mainly seen as transit countries by refugees and migrants, as they try to continue on their way towards the more developed countries of Western Europe.
  • The research was conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. It is based on in-depth interviews with 48 children aged between 13 and 19 years old, including 30 unaccompanied boys, and 8 boys and 10 girls traveling with their families or close relatives. Interviews were carried out by field researchers, supported by interpreters and cultural mediators, according to an ethical protocol that ensured children's voices were heard in a safe and respectful way. This report also draws on focus group discussions with 27 professionals in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, mostly field workers who had extensive experience working with refugee and migrant children, and an extensive literature review.

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