Girls employed various survival and coping responses while on the move, but many of these strategies came with their own risks. One common approach was to try to stay “invisible” or under the radar, adopting different tactics to avoid drawing attention from police, armed groups, fellow travelers, or other potentially dangerous individuals. Some girls even altered their clothing and appearance as a means of camouflage. For example, one girl mentioned that she exchanged her regular clothes for an Islamic dress and veil while in Libya to avoid being recognized as a foreigner.
Ouidad, a 17-year-old traveling from Morocco to Spain, initially disguised herself as a boy, presumably to blend in. However, during the boat crossing, the heat became unbearable, prompting her to remove some layers and reveal her true gender. Interestingly, she noted that after her fellow passengers realized she was a girl, they treated her with gentleness and care, while being rough with each other.
Travelling without documentation was another way some girls tried to protect themselves. Several girls interviewed in Tunisia reported that, when travelling by land, documents could become a source of coercion and abuse as smugglers would take their documents and blackmail them. They reported that, in some cases, they would dispose of their documents during the journey or leave them at home and have someone send them to them once they arrived.
While the above-mentioned coping responses did provide some measure of protection, for many girls, it also presented challenges to accessing services. For example, girls who appeared older but lacked documentation were frequently denied services available to minors. Lack of documentation also led to arrest and detention.
Travelling light – whether by choice or by necessity – was also very common, at great cost to girls’ personal hygiene and comfort. Many struggled with menstrual hygiene management: while a few girls had access to sanitary napkins, others used bits of cloth from clothing or rags for their periods, the latter being a more common strategy when girls travelled across the desert.
One Moroccan girl preparing to depart by boat for Spain, had little control over the exact timing of the journey, but attempted to time her travel so that it would not coincide with her period. Wiam, a 17-year-old girl also from Morocco, had sanitary napkins for the boat journey, however, while living on the streets in Spain (before accessing the child protection system) she salvaged food, clothing, and rags for her period from rubbish on the street. For some girls, from Guinea and the Gambia for example, using rags had been their usual mode of menstrual management even prior to migrating.
Travel companions and social support networks were a critical source of protection and moral support. Few girls travelled alone; most set off with family members, friends, or other trusted travel companions or met some along the way. Amara relied on her peers – girls around her age and older – to survive when she ran out of water in the desert.
Many girls said they felt safe because they were travelling with siblings, parents, aunts, or uncles. A handful of respondents described travelling with older adults, in particular men, for physical protection.
Several girls highlighted new friendships and even romantic relationships along their journeys. These newly forged relationships generally held even greater importance for girls travelling unaccompanied.
Communicating with family members and friends was a lifeline. Many girls reached out to friends and family for moral and financial support and to get advice on where to go next. Yet, many also found it hard to keep in touch with family during their transit or upon arrival. Some girls travelled without a phone or lost it along the way; others struggled with poor reception or had no number they could call to reach their loved ones.
On the other hand, families could have a difficult time relating to their girls’ migration experiences, as mentioned by centre staff in a Spanish residence for minors. For instance, one Moroccan teenager who had moved to Spain for crucial medical treatment described conversations with her family back home.
A dozen girls reported being arrested or detained by police at some point in their migration journey, generally for not having appropriate visas or travel documentation, or for attempting to cross a border irregularly, with some having to bribe or negotiate their freedom. Several girls, after being intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, were sent to detention centres and faced abuse and torture:
“They beat my head against the wall in Libya. They asked for money and I don’t have a family, so they treated me badly. Other times they put a plastic bag in your face. They wanted to hurt you.” (Noella, from Ivory Coast, Italy, age 16).
More boys than girls spoke of experiencing police violence; this was reported to occur in several countries in West and North Africa and Europe. This was often associated with racism and anti-migrant sentiment and was particularly prevalent at both sea and land borders. Some girls, however – particularly in Spain – mentioned the Spanish police as a resource or source of help.
Many girls encountered men requesting or demanding sexual relations in exchange for food, freedom, money, shelter, or protection: “You can decide to live with a man, thinking he will take care of you.” (Jemima, Morocco).
Some girls reported working and/or begging during their journeys. Several girls reported performing domestic work in Dakar or Casablanca households, waitressing, and doing odd jobs. Other ways girls obtained money for the journey included selling an inheritance of livestock, financial support from family members, begging, and negotiating.
from: “Girls on the move in North Africa” (SAVE THE CHILDREN)