Missing unaccompanied migrant children

In 2015, almost 90 000 asylum seekers in the European Union were unaccompanied children under 18, about nine times more than the amount of children arriving three years before. This number does not include unaccompanied children who did not apply for asylum, and inconsistent data management prevents us from knowing exactly how many children arrive in Europe.

About half of these children run away from asylum centres or shelters within two days of their arrival. Europol estimates that at least 10 000 children have gone missing from these shelters, but national reports suggest that figures could be much higher (see figures in blue box below). Sometimes these children leave because they get discouraged by the length of asylum processes or family reunification procedures, or for fear of being sent back home or to the country where they first arrived. Sometimes they feel compelled to leave because the conditions offered to them are inappropriate, and they hope for a happier and safer future somewhere else. In many cases they are also forced to leave because they are or have become victims of trafficking, including labour and sexual exploitation, forced begging and drug smuggling.

Despite the enormous risks to which unaccompanied migrant children are exposed, their disappearance is usually underreported. Missing unaccompanied migrant children made up only 2% of the caseload reported by 116 000 hotlines in 2015. According to the 2013 European Commission study Missing children in the European Union Mapping, Data Collection and Statistics[1], only a minority of countries report having legal or procedural regulations on missing migrant children. Some even have a fixed no-action period before any investigation into the disappearance is done or considered.

Operational recommendations

1.   Better accommodation and reception: efforts should be undertaken to provide accommodation in smaller family units. The quality of accommodation should be similar within the European Union. Where relevant, children should be placed in secured accommodation to detach them from their traffickers. Children should never be put behind bars.

2.   Standardisation of practices for the assessment of risks, in particular in the context of children who are or have been a victim of human trafficking, and appropriate training on these practices. A more systematic and efficient risk assessment could allow to prioritise (scarce) resources to the cases of those children who face the most urgent risk for their safety.

3.   Formalisation of the cooperation between professionals involved in the situation of a missing unaccompanied child, as it allows for a clear division of tasks and definition of procedures, a substantial improvement of the cooperation and faster and more appropriate reactions when needed.

4.   Improved training for professionals, including:

·     modules on risk assessment to target care and protection depending on the individual needs of the child, with a specific focus on early identification of victims of trafficking and abuse

·     training on good practices to prevent disappearance (e.g. child friendly communication, building of trust with the child, etc).

5.    Better information for children: children should be empowered to participate in all decisions related to their situation and to recognise if they have been victims of trafficking or abuse.


6.    Identifying and implementing durable solutions for unaccompanied children: based on a thorough assessment of the best interests of the child and her or his rights to safety, protection and development.

7.    More efficient international cooperation in the application of protection and Dublin procedures:
·      Applications for international protection of unaccompanied children should be treated with priority
·      Requests for family reunification involving unaccompanied children should be prioritised too. Family reunification procedures should be explained clearly to the child in all their steps. A revision of the definition of family should be considered. 
·      Children should be able to apply for asylum in the country where they are, without being transferred to other countries which they transited, and
·      Guardians (professional or volunteers, but in both cases well-trained) should be appointed immediately upon arrival of the child.

8.   Better cross border cooperation in responding to disappearances, by enhancing the capacity of existing networks with expertise and experience in the protection of vulnerable children 

Policy recommendations

1. The European Commission principles on integrated child protection systems should be at the heart of the comprehensive strategy on children in migration expected from the Commission later this year.

2. The EP voted in favour of the right for a child to apply for asylum in the country where he or she is, without being transferred back to the first country of arrival. The system expected to replace the current Dublin Regulation should maintain this principle, as unnecessary transfers under the Dublin Regulation add trauma for an already vulnerable child, and often constitute a push factor to go missing.

3. The SIS System should be adapted to distinguish between the different groups of missing children. The SIS II should also provide searchable fingerprints in SIS II - provided that data protection and security safeguards for the IT-system are in place.

4. Member States should highlight the good practices developed at local level and foster their implementation consistently within the country.


  • During February 2016, in Hungary children disappeared at an estimated rate of 90-95%, after spending one to three days in reception institutions. In Slovenia, about 80% of children went missing. In Sweden, about 7-10 children are reported missing each week. In Austria, 100 children went missing from one reception centre.
  • On January 1 2016, the German Federal Criminal Police (BKA) said that 4749 unaccompanied children are considered to be missing in Germany. 431 among them are younger than 13-years-old, 4,287 between 14 and 17-years-old and 31 aged 18. In May 2016, the total number raised to about 9,000. On July 1, 2015 the number of missing unaccompanied refugees was 1,637[1].
  • In Italy, the CONNECT project reported that, in 2013, 24% of registered unaccompanied children went missing from reception centres and that many more go missing before registration. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that in 2014, 3,707 unaccompanied children of the 14,243 who were registered after arriving via boat went missing from reception centres.[1] The Ministry of Welfare reported that in 2015, 62% of all unaccompanied children who had arrived between January and May went missing.[1]
  • In Sweden, more than 800 children have disappeared in the last five years. In 2014, Sweridge Radio reported 374 unaccompanied children went missing and only 59 have been tracked down.[1] The situation seems even more worrying in 2015 when the coastal town of Trelleborg reported that 1,000 children from the 1,900 unaccompanied children who arrived in September had disappeared.[1]
The project Safeguarding Unaccompanied Migrant Minors from going Missing by Identifying Best Practices and Training Actors on Interagency Cooperation (SUMMIT), launched in October 2014, is co-funded by the EU under the Pilot Project “Analysis of reception, protection and integration policies for unaccompanied minors in the EU”. 

SUMMIT addresses how the issue of the disappearance of an unaccompanied child is tackled in different Member States and promotes successful strategies and behaviours related to the prevention and response to these disappearances. The project specifically looked at combining the experience of both the actors which primarily deal with the care of unaccompanied children and those which focus on disappearances of children, including law enforcement and hotlines for missing children, and from that combination examine how to cooperate better and on what issues.

Find the research, toolkits and best practice videos produced as a culmination of the project here.