When Refugee Children Disappear

About 60,000 underage refugees have arrived in Germany this year without their parents. An alarming number are disappearing from custody. Experts warn they are vulnerable to both human traffickers and Islamists.

These children are safe inside a refugee reception center in Berlin.
These children are safe inside a refugee reception center in Berlin.
Christian Eckl

REGENSBURG â€"In Germany, when children disappear, alarm bells start to ring: Facebook fills with pleas for people to keep their eyes open for the missing kid, loved ones share photographs, entire communities rally around the search.

But these cases are for German kids, or children of immigrants who have been in the country for a long time. Nobody on Facebook mentions the missing children of refugees â€" whether they came to the country with their parents or on their own.

The lack of attention comes despite the fact that cases of missing refugee children, mostly from youth centers where they are housed, are on such a steep rise that authorities can't seem to cope. The southern German city of Regensburg alone counts 85 missing children, and 50 more in the surrounding area. People wonder what has happened to these 135 children who have come to Germany without their parents, and then simply dropped off the radar?

Karl Mooser, head of the city's youth welfare service, says he and his colleagues traditionally have taken care of children at risk within their own families, already a difficult and costly undertaking. But since the beginning of the year, they have been overwhelmed supervising a reception center for underage refugees traveling alone, where 42 teen boys are now living. The young men there are disillusioned, and the youth welfare service is understaffed, which is one of the reasons that there have been several brawls there in the last few weeks.

Statistics don't match

Many refugees simply get lost. The youngest of the youths that Mooser has seen disappear recently was only 9 years old. "From the 50 cases we have reported to the police, we have received only one feedback from their side about what has happened to the child, concerning a boy who had been picked up in France."

There are no official numbers for how many children simply disappear. In some cases, their parents in Syria or Afghanistan have named a different destination than where they were actually staying. At least 60,000 have arrived in Germany this year. According to the German Federal Criminal Office, only 299 underage refugees have been reported missing as of Oct. 1. But how is that even possible if 135 are missing in the Regensburg area alone?

The problem is lack of communication among youth welfare services. "If a young, unaccompanied refugee disappears in one part of the country and reappears in another, it's not very likely that the initial youth welfare service gets that information," Mooser explains.

Before, at least in large cities such as Hamburg or Munich, underage refugees were rather safe, watched over by appropriate administrations and with structures to take care of them. Today, even in large cities, the number of missing people is on the rise.

Easy prey for Islamists

There are different reasons why children might run away. Some are given a specific destination by their parents and leave reception centers in search of them. But those who start to wander around in Germany on their own are in danger of falling into the hands of criminal elements.

Foggy day in Regensburg â€" Photo: Mripp

Boys in particular are prone to becoming prostitutes. Youth welfare workers also suspect human trafficking is a reason for the mysterious disappearance of young refugees.

They are also easy prey for Islamists. In this context, it seems scandalous that top Bavarian government official Ilse Aigner wants to lower standards concerning unaccompanied refugees.

Officials at the German Federal Criminal Office claim that most of the children reported missing actually resurface after a short time. But does that apply to refugee children? Apparently not. "Most of the time, the missing children's location has remained unknown," a police spokesman from Regensburg says of the 135 cases.

Authorities often simply stop looking for these kids because of the chaotic situation. In Passau, for instance, one in three underage refugees has gone missing. At first, the missing children were being reported to the federal police. But that's no longer happening because the police don't have the personnel to follow up each case.

Refugees of all ages can risk dying an anonymous death trying to make it to Europe; for the youngest and most vulnerable, both the risks and anonymity don't necessarily end once they arrive.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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