The fate of missing unaccompanied children: Launch of the SUMMIT report on safeguarding children

A new report published today demonstrates that improved training on the prevention and response to child disappearance is needed for those working with the thousands of children who arrive in Europe alone.

More than 89,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the European Union in 2015[1], which represents a dramatic increase from to the 23,000 unaccompanied children arriving in 2014.

According to Europol[2], 10,000 of these children have disappeared within hours of being registered and only a handful have been found since. However, national reports seem to suggest that the number of missing unaccompanied children could be much higher, and that many children go missing before being registered by authorities.

Findings from an in-depth study on the issue were developed in the framework of the project “Safeguarding Unaccompanied Migrant Minors from going Missing by Identifying Best Practices and Training Actors on Interagency Cooperation” (SUMMIT), co-funded by the European Union. The report reflects insight from the actors who deal primarily with the reception of unaccompanied children and those who focus on the disappearance of children. It examines practices in seven EU countries - the UK, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland and Greece.

It serves as a necessary mapping exercise of good practices, along with a manual for grassroots professionals to be published in the next weeks, to promote discussions and expert trainings between these actors across Member States.

In the study, the authors call for improved cooperation between law enforcement, social workers in shelters and reception centres, guardians, hotlines for missing children and other parties to better prevent and respond to the disappearance of unaccompanied children.

Authorities and frontline workers participating in the research reported widespread frustration on how the disappearance of unaccompanied children is handled in the countries studied. A lack of efficient procedures in managing cases of missing unaccompanied children as well as the lack of clarity on the responsibilities of each service involved was also reported as a main concern. Even where practices are generally good, it is a lack of resources or motivation of professionals involved that could delay or prevent an appropriate response to the case.

Among the most common challenges encountered, professionals complained about inconsistent data collection methods in the country and within Europe, making exchange of relevant information difficult and ineffective.

Many professionals admitted that it is often assumed that children leave voluntarily and that a proper risk assessment is rarely conducted, leaving children exposed to exploitation and trafficking.

“Children arriving in Europe to escape war, poverty and prosecution in their country, face real risks of falling victim to trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and economic exploitation, including forced donation of organs, forced drug smuggling and begging. A worrying number of these children are never found", said Maud de Boer Buquicchio, UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and President of Missing Children Europe, the organisation coordinating the SUMMIT project.

“The key aim of our work is to reduce the number of children who go missing. We have examined how different countries and agencies handle the issue. With clear strategies, including standardised forms for recording and sharing details of children and better defined roles across different agencies, we can make a difference.”

Dr. Karen Shalev Greene, director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth and co-author, said: “Migrant children arriving in Europe are entitled to the same level of protection as any other child. However their disappearance is treated with less importance than the disappearance a child who is an EU citizen. We need to change this indifference.”

A training event to present these findings and best practices will be held in April to allow for the dissemination of this knowledge and resources at a grass roots level. We need to step up efforts now before a generation of vulnerable children are lost forever.

The report was written by Dr Karen Shalev Greene, Senior Lecturer with the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth and Director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, and Federica Toscano, Project Officer at Missing Children Europe. SUMMIT Project partners contributed to the publication, in particular the organisations Child Circle, NIDOS (NL), Defence for children-ECPAT (NL), TUSLA (IR) and KMOP (EL).

[1] Data was collected from public websites and governmental sources.

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