Europol confirms the disappearance of 10,000 migrant children in Europe

According to Europol at least 10,000 refugee children are unaccounted for after arriving in Europe with many feared to be exploited and abused for sexual or labour purposes.

Missing Children Europe has been witness to the alarming numbers of migrant children who go missing shortly after arriving on EU shores. The numbers of children crossing into Europe in 2015 has doubled since the year before. In addition, many organisations have reported that the chaotic situation at the EU-Balkans’ border has caused a high number of children to be separated from their families.

Research suggests that up to 50% of the unaccompanied children accommodated go missing from certain reception centres in the EU, and in many cases, information about the child’s whereabouts remains unknown. Data collected from a dedicated network of hotlines for missing children[1] which operate in 29 countries through the 116 000 telephone number, reveals that unaccompanied migrant children as young as 8 years old go missing.

Unaccompanied children who go missing may be children who have applied for asylum or hoping to apply for asylum in another EU Member State where they have family or where they believe that they could have a better future. Some may not have applied for asylum at all, either because they lack appropriate information, they are discouraged by the length and complexity of the process, or because they are aware of having little chance of receiving protection by legal means. In some cases, children may decide to pursue their own migration plan outside regular procedures, relying on help and information from peers, family members or smugglers. Some children are hidden from the protection system by criminal networks looking to exploit them for profit.

As reported by Europol[2], there is a “tremendous amount of crossover” between smugglers smuggling refugees across borders and gangs ensnaring people for forced sexual and labour exploitation.

Victims for exploitation are “especially those of a young age, young women, the unaccompanied”, stated Europol.

Despite the enormous risks to which unaccompanied migrant children are exposed, their disappearance is usually underreported. For many of these children, the journey into exploitation and suffering does not end once they arrive on EU shores.

Missing Children Europe coordinates the SUMMIT[3] project to specifically address the challenge of the disappearance of migrant children. SUMMIT identifies how the issue of the disappearance of an unaccompanied migrant child is tackled in 7 EU Member States and promotes successful strategies and behaviours related to the prevention and response to disappearances. The project also addresses the transnational dimension of these disappearances, especially challenges related to information sharing and child tracing.

The study interviewed law enforcement, carers, reception centres operators, guardians and hotlines for missing children in Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, UK, Ireland and Belgium. Some revealing observations from the project have been:

·   Almost all survey participants with experience in working with unaccompanied children have experienced the disappearance of a child under their care. This suggests that the phenomenon is very common and confirms the percentages on missing unaccompanied children retrieved from several studies and reports since 2010.

·  Despite the high number of disappearances, it is very difficult to identify police officers or, law enforcement agents, who have experience in cases of disappearances of unaccompanied migrant children.

·   In the majority of cases missing unaccompanied children are not found.

·   The great majority of the respondents (excluding hotlines) have never attended a specific training on how to risk assess if a child will go missing, procedures related to missing children, how to prevent unaccompanied children from going missing etc.

·   Prompt reporting of missing unaccompanied migrant child cases to the police is challenging because of long reporting procedures and lack of human resources in reception centres.

·   The disappearance of an unaccompanied migrant child is not prioritised and is not given the same urgency and care that would be provided for citizens. 

·  Often law enforcement and carers assume that a missing unaccompanied child left the reception centre or the foster family out of his or her own free will. It is necessary to assess the possibility that the child may be a victim of trafficking, labour or sexual exploitation and other crimes.

·   Law enforcement officers expressed frustration to the limited amount of information available on the missing child, which would be the reason for a limited follow up of the case.

Research, training, cooperation and attitudes of the professionals working with these children play a huge role is better protecting these children. Missing Children Europe’s SUMMIT project is the first step in scoping the threats and opportunities to protect these children. The whole report to better inform and advise these professionals will be launched in March.

For more on the SUMMIT project, check out the website page here. You can also find a background paper with an overview of the issue of the disappearance of migrant children here and recommendations on what EU leaders can do to tackle the issue here.

[1] For more information see Missing Children Europe’s website.

[3] Safeguarding Unaccompanied Migrant Minors from going Missing by Identifying Best Practices and Training Actors on Interagency Cooperation (SUMMIT)