Where are they? The need for better tracking of unaccompanied migrant children in the EU
On the 24th of June, Missing Children Europe participated at the hearing “Putting migrant children’s rights at the heart of EU migration policies”, organised by MEP Caterina Chinnici and MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, co-chairs of the European Parliament Intergroup on children rights. The aim of the event was to discuss current challenges related to the situation of migrant children within and outside the European Union together with MEP Roberta Metsola and MEP Cecile Kyenge, the co-rapporteurs on the issue in the Mediterranean.
Missing Children Europe was given the opportunity to present the issue of missing unaccompanied migrant children who disappear after reaching the EU, together with UNICEF, Save the Children and PICUM. Federica Toscano, focal point on missing unaccompanied migrant children for Missing Children Europe, gave a speech presenting data and recommendations in relation to the issue of the disappearance of unaccompanied migrant children. Find her contribution below:
Every year, thousands of children arrive unaccompanied in the EU through the Mediterranean and other routes. Some are intentionally separated from their families by traffickers or smugglers that will later try to profit from their high level of vulnerability. In 2014, the number of unaccompanied children who applied for asylum almost doubled compared to the previous year, reaching 23,000. 2,240 of them were aged less than 14 years old, which has also doubled since last year. However, not all unaccompanied children are asylum seekers, and inconsistent data management prevents us from knowing the full extent of the presence of unaccompanied children in the EU.
What we do know, is that estimates suggest that up to 50% of unaccompanied migrant children vanish yearly from reception centers in Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland. We know that in Italy 3.707 registered unaccompanied migrant children went missing in 2014, and many more before registration. We also know that the situation is not better in the so-called “destination countries”: In the UK, 60% of the unaccompanied children accommodated in social care centers in 2010 were estimated to have gone missing and were not found again according to the British Asylum Screening Unit. In Sweden, 374 children disappeared last year and only 59 have been tracked down.
Notwithstanding these very worrying numbers, the Commission study Missing children in the European Union tells us that in 2013 only about 5000 cases were actually reported, which demonstrates a huge problem of underreporting. The same study reveals that in some countries missing unaccompanied migrant children receive a lower priority than other missing children cases and that there is a fixed ‘no action’ period before the start of local police investigations. Only four EU countries appear to have legal or procedural regulations on missing migrant children. This is against the basic principle that Member States should uphold the rights of every child irrespectively of the migration status, especially because of the additional levels of vulnerability of these children.
Although the high numbers of missing unaccompanied migrant children has been a worrying issue for many years, until today no efficient operational strategy has been developed to tackle the problem. This is why we believe it is important to include this issue in your report. The added value that a coordinated activity of European institutions can bring to respond efficiently to these disappearances is undeniable.
Missing Children Europe and its partners are currently analysing the preliminary results of the SUMMIT project, an EU co-funded project that looks into interagency cooperation in the prevention and response to the disappearance of unaccompanied migrant children. The disappearance of a child is always the result of a failed system of protection, and any effective response must therefore take this broader context as well as the multiplicity of actors into account Preliminary results inform us that too little efforts are made by authorities to trace unaccompanied children on the move, to ensure their safety and the continuity of their protection. The lack of a common approach and methodology to the identification of the child is also an obstacle to efficient cooperation. There is a clear need to enhance coordination at European level in operational terms but also in relation to information storage and sharing, from the moment when children arrive in Europe. This is where EU Institutions can play an important role.
Better tracking of unaccompanied children on the move is important for two more reasons. First, to better allocate resources invested in reception, namely to avoid duplication of medical examinations, age assessments, vulnerability assessments, personal interviews etc., which are often also traumatic experiences for children.
Secondly, to achieve better results in the fight against trafficking and smuggling networks within the European Union. Improved coordination will reveal how and where organised crime cells work in different countries, contributing to weakening and hopefully dismantling these networks.
It is important to acknowledge that in the Agenda on Migration, the Commission announced the very important decision to develop “a comprehensive strategy to follow up on the Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors to cover missing and unaccompanied children”. It is very important that all EU institutions work together to make sure that this strategy is developed without delay to protect the rights of these and other categories of migrant children. In our opinion, this strategy should prioritise operational developments to improve the assessment of the needs of unaccompanied migrant children at risk of going missing, as well as cross border cooperation in cases of disappearances.
We remain available for further discussion and cooperation on this matter.