What European leaders must do to prevent migrant children from disappearing

Thousands of children arrive unaccompanied in the EU every year. Some arrive by boat through the Mediterranean and others by land. Some are intentionally separated from their families by traffickers or smugglers, looking to profit from their vulnerability.

In 2014, the number of unaccompanied children who applied for asylum almost doubled compared to the previous year, reaching a total of 23,000 children according to Eurostat. 2,240 of them were less than 14 years old. Many other unaccompanied children don’t apply for asylum, and inconsistent data management means that we continue to remain ill-informed of the real numbers of unaccompanied children in the EU. What we do know, is that an estimated 50% of the unaccompanied migrant children arriving in Europe go missing from certain reception centres within the first 48 hours after their arrival. Many of these children are never found again.

Data collected from hotlines for missing children, operated in 29 countries through the 116 000 telephone number, reveals that unaccompanied migrant children go missing from age 8 up to 17 years. For these children, their journey into exploitation and suffering does not end once they arrive on EU shores. Within European borders, some become victims of labour and sexual exploitation. Other children move alone from country to country hidden in trucks or trains, without a safe place to sleep at night, usually helped by smugglers, because they are discouraged by the length of intricate legal procedures that would be necessary to realise their migration plan safely.

Despite the enormous risks to which unaccompanied migrant children are exposed, the problem is usually underreported. Even when reported, the disappearance of migrant children receives a lower priority from authorities and law enforcement compared to the disappearances of non-migrant children. This means that even though Member States have a legal obligation to uphold the rights of every child regardless of migratory status, disappearances of unaccompanied migrant children are treated differently than other missing children cases. This is not only a failure towards children in need of protection, but it is also favours the growth of smuggling and trafficking networks in Europe.

At a moment when Europe needs to urgently review its migration policies, Missing Children Europe calls on the European Union and all EU Member States to invest resources in initiatives and activities aimed at improving prevention and responses to the disappearances of unaccompanied migrant children.

What is Missing Children Europe doing for missing unaccompanied migrant children?

Missing Children Europe’s mission is to enable the development of effective and holistic child protection systems to prevent disappearances, support missing children and their families, and, to protect children from any risk of violence and abuse that may lead to or result from going missing.

Missing unaccompanied migrant children are one of the main priorities in the work of Missing Children Europe.

Advocacy efforts have been undertaken to make sure that these children remain visible and to enhance the quality of protection standards across Europe. To this end Missing Children Europe promotes an enhanced use of existing tools for cross border cooperation in missing person cases (for example SIS II, 116 000 hotlines, Interpol alerts etc.) in cases of the disappearances of unaccompanied migrant children.

We are also working on capacity building of the professionals who work with the reception of migrant children in Europe, law enforcement and hotlines for missing children. Together with the partners of the EU co-funded project SUMMIT, Missing Children Europe is developing a handbook presenting demonstrated good practices on how to improve prevention and response to the disappearances of unaccompanied children, based on research undertaken in 7 countries. The handbook is targeted at all professionals involved in these cases. Training material for professionals is also being developed, in response to the general lack of training in this matter.

Recommendations from Missing Children Europe

The comprehensive strategy to cover missing and unaccompanied children announced by the recently adopted European Commission in the Agenda on Migration[1] should be included in the third implementation package. This strategy should prioritise operational developments to improve the assessment of the needs of all children at risk of going missing, as well as cross border cooperation in cases of disappearances, with a special focus on the needs of unaccompanied migrant children. 

There is a clear need to enhance coordination at European level in police operations aiming at combating trafficking of children, especially considering the cross border nature of many cases.

A European approach and methodology to the identification of unaccompanied migrant children, from the moment the child arrives in Europe, should be developed, together with systems for information storage and sharing. This will be important to ensure efficient cooperation between national authorities in ensuring the safety of the child on the move and the continuity of this protection.

European Institutions should ensure that unaccompanied migrant children can apply for international protection in the country they are in, unless this is clearly not in their best interest. The best interest of the child should always prevail on the basis of an individual examination of the case. This provision should be included in the Dublin Regulation[2] without delay, in order to prevent children from going missing for fear of a Dublin transfer back to the country or situation they were fleeing.

Existing tools created to respond to child disappearances, like 116 000 hotlines for missing children, should be empowered to better support law enforcement and asylum authorities in this matter. Hotlines’ expertise in missing cases would be especially useful to build bridges between the different actors involved in the protection of unaccompanied migrant children and in cross border missing cases. 

[1] The European Agenda on Migration is a Communication from the European Commission proposing short/medium term actions that the European Union should take to improve the current migration management. The Commission has already tabled two groups of legislative and non-legislative proposals (“Implementation Packages”) addressing measures and initiatives foreseen in the Agenda.

[2] The Dublin Regulation establishes which Member State is responsible for the examination of the asylum application. Art. 8(4) of this Regulation addresses the responsibility of examining the asylum application of an unaccompanied minor with no family, siblings or relatives on EU territory. The content of this provision has been subjected to difficult negotiations between European Commission, Parliament and Council for several months already. Although both Commission and Parliament agree that the Member State responsible should be the one where the minor has lodged his or her most recent application, the Council disagrees with the principle, considering that the Member State responsible should be the first one where an application was lodged, unless this is against the best interest of the child involved.

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