Unaccompanied boys meeting in the reception centre's yard. Photo: Regis Defernaux, Save the Children
When teenage boys Malik*, Ahmed* and Mohamed* left their homes and families, hoping to find a safer, better life in Europe, they couldn't really imagine the challenges that awaited them on the journey. Days and days of exhausting walking, extreme weather conditions, lack of food and water, the dangerous game of crossing borders and interactions with smugglers and border guards, very often filled with violence - it's all in the experience of refugee and migrant boys who travel alone, without a parent or an adult guardian who could watch over them. But while the boys had to rely on themselves for the most part of their strenuous journey, in a camp in Bihac, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they found temporary shelter, they also found a group to which they can belong to, and a safe place where they could speak about their needs and support others by speaking on their behalf
In the camp, the boys joined the Boys’ Parliament, a group founded to represent the voices of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children staying there. “It is very interesting; it looks like politics. I think it's good for our guys. It could be one of the solutions to make the environment safeand make plans,“ explains 16-years-old Malik* from Afghanistan, who has been a regular participant and, by translating for his peers, a valuable facilitator of the group’s work.
“With this, we feel that someone cares about us,” says Malik*.
The Boys’ Parliament is made of representatives elected by all the unaccompanied boys staying in the camp. The Parliament holds its meetings every other week, to identify needs and problems and discuss possible solutions and actions which could improve the lives of unaccompanied and separated boys in the camp. Save the Children staff, together with members of staff from other NGOs and agencies working in the camp, attend the meetings to hear from the boys about their needs. Save the Children child protection officers and case workers also ensure that everything said in the meetings is recorded on paper and presented in actionable points.
“The purpose of the Parliament is to make everyone's opinion heard. Some minors do not dare to speak in public, but they can tell their representatives what to address on their behalf. It makes me happy that, as a representative of minors from Pakistan, I can express not only my opinions, but also the opinions of my friends,” says Ahmed*. Upon his arrival in the camp, this 16-year-old boy went through a difficult period, struggling with suicidal thoughts and resorting to self-harm. With the support from the Save the Children staff and his peers, he started recovering and participating in the educational and recreational activities and the work of the Boys’ Parliament.
The boys use the parliament as a platform to address the quality of the services in the centre, mostly accommodation issues – heating, hygiene, covid-19 isolation accommodation, meals, but also other resources and activities available to them. As a result of the petitions formulated during the meetings, the accommodation containers were winterized in time by installing additional heaters, blankets and winter clothes were secured, various appliances – a washing machine, a kitchen stove, a boiler- were fixed or replaced. The hygiene in the toilets and the areas where the boys gather was significantly improved. Also, some crucial protection and security issues, such as alcohol consumption among the boys, the treatment by the staff working in the centre, inadequate behaviour towards the girls staying in the camp, were successfully addressed.
Boys’ Parliament was firstly initiated in Bira, a former factory in the Bosnian north-western Una-Sana Canton turned to an accommodation centre for up to 2,000 children and adults. “The main idea behind Boys’ Parliament was to enable children to advocate for their needs and rights in this, often harsh, environment, with many shortcomings in basic services. At that time, we had over 400 unaccompanied children in Bira only. Providing them an opportunity and space to raise their voices, without fear, was a necessity. To prepare them, we talked about democracy, human rights, parliament and elections. The meetings significantly improved the communication with the boys, helped us to understand them, accommodate house rules to their needs, and communicate the rules to them in a way that will ensure that the rules are respected,” says Sabiha Kapetanovic, Save the Children Child Protection Programme Coordinator, who developed the Boys’ Parliament model from the very beginning.
After camp Bira was closed, the model was replicated, and further developed, in other three centres where Save the Children works with unaccompanied children. The child protection teams also coordinate the creation of a bulletin in which the opinions and experiences of unaccompanied boys are presented through their stories and interviews, creative writing, art and reports about the activities and the workshops.
“We are proud of the boys and their work, particularly because they themselves initiated a set-up of regular meetings between the representatives and other boys in the camp, in which the representatives present the topics that were discussed during the previous Boys’ Parliament session and collect the information about needs and opinions from others, which are then presented at the next session,” explain Emir Fazlovic and Dalila Midzic, Save the Children’s coordinators supporting the work of the Boys’ Parliament. “These meetings are followed-up by our child protection staff, case workers and legal guardians, and these meetings are, for us, a great opportunity to get better insight into the lives of children we are working to support.”
“This is a new experience for me,” says Mohamed* who acts as a representative of the Afghan community. “It is interesting to hear opinions; everybody can express their thoughts. And when they ask for my opinion I feel very good,” explains the boy who turned 18 recently but will remain in the camp and keep his place in the Parliament, since his work in supporting his community was praised by the other boys.
It’s not only the “big issues” that get solved by the parliament – it’s also the smaller things, but important for the quality of everyday life, that were provided to the boys, such as a hair dryer, nail cutter, electric shavers. As a result of the consultations, Save the Children is currently in a process of procuring guitars for musical workshops and a sewing machine, which will be used for classes provided by one of the boys who is skilled in sewing.
The boys take the work of the Parliament very seriously. They come prepared to every meeting with precise lists of requests and take part in the discussions by using valid argumentation.
In the refugee accommodation centres across Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the key countries on the Balkans Route hosting around 9,000 refugees and migrants, there are around 400 identified unaccompanied and separated children. The real number of children is probably much higher since the country, similar to many other countries on the route, still struggles with identification procedures and other key protection services for children on the move, including children travelling alone. The supporting networks the children create along the way strengthen their resilience in facing the tremendously challenging and, very often, life-endangering situations in which they find themselves, and enable children to reclaim their joy by doing something for themselves and the community.
“It’s very good to help someone and it makes me feel good… it makes my soul feel happy,” says Malik*.