#WorldRefugeeday: An important opportunity to protect unaccompanied children at risk of going missing

The European Commission recently published a proposal for a reviewed regulation to identify the Member State responsible for the asylum application of an asylum seeker, referred to as the “Dublin Regulation”. A review has been called by civil society and EU governments for a long time. In October 2015, the German Chancellor publicly recognised that this system places an unsustainable burden on the Member States at the borders of the European Union, and that “the Dublin process, in its current form, is obsolete”. In 2015, many EU countries decided to suspend Dublin transfers to Italy and Greece, due to the critical situation faced by these countries.

Unfortunately, the proposal of the Commission does not provide for an alternative solution. Instead, it preserves the “obsolete” Dublin system for the allocation of responsibility, and supplements it with additional obligations that do not take into account that those who are at risk, and those will suffer the most as a consequence of these changes, are likely to be unaccompanied children.

The review’s impact on the system of Dublin regarding unaccompanied children

According to the Commission’s proposal on the Dublin Reform, an unaccompanied child will be obliged to apply for asylum in the first Member State where he or she entered irregularly. The proposal foresees that in the case of the absence of family members or relatives, the country where the first asylum application was lodged shall be responsible for the examination of an asylum application of the unaccompanied minor (Article 8 (4) and Article 10 of the proposal).

The proposed revision confirms the current criteria and fully contradicts not only the previous review proposed by the European Commission in June 2014, but also the vote of the European Parliament in favour of this proposal. It also reverses the judgement in M.A. and others, where the European Court of Justice declared that, whenan unaccompanied minor with no family member legally present in the territory of a Member State has lodged an asylum application in more than one Member State, the Member State responsible for examining it will be that in which the minor is present after having lodged an application there. After this judgement, the Commission and Parliament agreed that it was necessary to move the political discussion forward, ensuring that the best interest of the child prevails in every case and no unnecessary transfer is conducted, despitenwhere he/she first lodged the application or transited from. Negotiations have been very difficult and since reaching an agreement was seen to be impossible, the Commission decided to withdraw this proposal.

According to the new proposal, transfers back to the first country of application/arrival, which will have the obligation to take back the child, will still be avoidable if this is not in the best interest of the child, as assessed by “qualified” staff. However, from a practical perspective, it is foreseeable that the necessary assessment prior to a transfer will lead to non-uniform application of this rule as Member States have significantly diverging approaches to the protection of the rights of the child in asylum procedures and to what they consider as qualified staff to work with unaccompanied children.

While we welcome the reviewed definition of family, which in the new proposal includes the sibling or siblings of an applicant and family relations which were formed after leaving the country of origin, the decision to reinforce the current system of automatic transfer to the first country is a clear step back in the protection of unaccompanied children in Europe.

What can we do to protect the most vulnerable in this major humanitarian crisis?

One of the main reasons children go missing after arriving in countries at European borders is because the support systems are strained to bursting. The continuing influx of new arrivals will not make the situation any easier. Many unaccompanied children are sheltered in structures that are not appropriate and potentially dangerous for their health and safety. Accommodation is not available to all children in need, and this has led to the use of detention facilities to shelter children in an increasing number of cases and for an indefinite amount of time. The asylum systems of these countries are facing a huge backlog. If obliged to drastically reduce this backlog, there is a high risk that the analysis of an asylum request will be conducted more superficially and without the necessary guarantees (e.g. the presence of the translator and the guardian, a thorough personal interview).

Children also go missing in EU countries that are not at the EU border out of fear of being sent back to the country where they arrived. We know that many of these children would prefer to live out of sight, rather than to face this risk. In Sweden, the rate of disappearance substantially decreased when Dublin transfers to Greece were suspended, which demonstrates once more the impact of these transfers on disappearances. The proposed system will not build trust in the authorities, but will reinforce the decision of a vulnerable child to refer to those who promise an alternative, which often times leads to exploitation.

Missing Children Europe calls for institutions and Member States to build on what we have learned from the evidence collected over the last months and years. The current system is failing to protect and empower unaccompanied children, exposes children to danger and strengthens criminal organisations.

Missing Children Europe's key recommendations

1. The European Commission principles on integrated child protection systems should be at the heart of any review proposed by the Commission.

2. The European Parliament 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 constitutes a push factor to go missing.

3. Better accommodation and receptionefforts 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. No children should be placed in detention facilities.

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

5. 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.).

6. 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.

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 where they transited.
  • Guardians (well-trained professionals or volunteers) should be appointed immediately upon arrival of the child.

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