Keeping child refugees separated from their families is cruel

In the fourth installment of our blog series on ‘Childhood and Migration,’ our member Philip Veerman (Netherlands) discusses his experiences as a health psychologist working with Eritrean child refugees in the Netherlands

Published: 10 July 2024


You have probably never heard of Ana Gulu. It is a village in the province Gash-Barka in the South-Western part of Eritrea (the country often called “the North Korea of Africa”). My patient, whom I will call Abraham for reasons of privacy, resided in this village until he was fourteen years of age. Abraham lived there with his uncle and aunt.  His father passed away when he was three, and his mother when Abraham was four years old. No doubt that for Abraham his uncle and aunt are the two people with whom he made strong psychological ties and a strong attachment. He drew for me how his uncle and aunt, his younger biological brother, his stepbrothers and stepsisters were all sitting around a big plate with injera, a flat bubbly bread made from teff flower. He wrote in big letters next to the drawing (in Dutch) “my family, I miss you”.

His uncle had sheep and goats. Often Abraham was herding the sheep and goats. One morning he saw from afar that soldiers were entering the village and bringing adolescents to an army truck, forcibly conscripting young people into the Eritrean army. It has been well documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea that being forcefully conscripted into the Eritrean army can last for many years and servitude practices are routine. That morning Abraham hid, and the next day he fled to Sudan. There, traffickers spotted him and kept him hostage until his uncle had sold goats and a few golden necklaces of his aunt’s belongings and transferred the money to the traffickers. It is a miracle how this dependent, vulnerable young man survived on the back of a lorry through the desert in Libya and on a small boat to Italy. After all his travels, he ended up in the Netherlands and the guardianship organization for unaccompanied minors, known as NIDOS, placed him in a sheltered housing facility for adolescents and young adults in The Hague, which is run by the Youth Intervention Team.

The staff of this protected living place consulted me because Abraham was in a depression: could not sleep, could not concentrate in class (where he tried to learn Dutch) and had suicidal thoughts. Together with the psychiatrist of the Young Adult Team we concluded that giving anti-depressants and sleep medication would be symptom relief, but no solution for his problems. He obtained refugee status, but his fight for family reunification, to get his uncle, aunt, and siblings to the Netherlands, was a challenge. And that’s when I decided to get involved in his legal case, not usual for a psychologist, though unfortunately not with the desired result. I started to meet with his lawyer and tried to organize interventions for family reunification. It was worth trying because if we succeeded in bringing his family, his ailments would almost certainly disappear.

Addis Ababa

Abraham’s request for family reunification was rejected. The main problem was that in Anagulu the civil registry was not like in the Netherlands. For instance, the head of the village Anagulu had given Abraham a handwritten note (with a stamp from the village administration) that his parents had died, but no date of birth for them was written on the note. Abraham told me that he spent a few years in school and that they did not sit on chairs, but on stones. His village’s civil administration was not able to meet the standards of European family and immigration authorities.

The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) told the uncle/foster father of Abraham that to consider their request for family reunification, he and Abraham’s biological brother had to be interviewed at a Dutch Embassy. Since the Dutch do not have an Embassy in Eritrea, Abraham’s family would need to go to Addis Ababa or Khartoum. So, they sold the goats and sheep and left (without Eritrean permission) to Addis Ababa. There, they waited a full year. Ethiopia was at war, and the Embassy rarely received people. The wise words of Albert Solnit, a psychoanalyst at the Yale Child Study Center, stressing the importance of the child’s sense of time came to my mind: “What for an adult is just a year is for a child a century”. After I had written to the Ambassador in Addis, Abraham’s foster father and biological brother were received by the Embassy. They were guided to a room where they opened a computer linked to a civil servant of the IND immigration authorities in the Netherlands. This civil servant found some inconsistencies around whether the biological mother and father of Abraham had Eritrean identification cards at the time when they died. Unfortunately, the request for family reunification was rejected because “it was not proven that Abraham’s parents had indeed passed away”. The different Dutch courts followed this line and would not consider statements from people from the little village of Anagulu, now living in the Netherlands, even though and we had tracked them down, and all stated they knew Abraham’s family and confirmed that the parents had passed away.

When the highest court in such matters, the Council of State, rejected the appeal, I had to inform Abraham of this sad decision. A very hard task. His uncle and aunt are now stuck in Addis Ababa and the Eritrean army has given their home to others. Economic interests of the State were more important than paragraph 1 of Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (“in all actions concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be as primary consideration”). It was clearly in his best interests if his family had been reunited in the Netherlands, but bringing these family members to the Netherlands and providing housing and resettlement support is costly. Now we have an emotionally wounded young man alone in The Hague, feeling guilty that his family is stuck in Addis and can never go back to Eritrea. Sad and cruel.