“Missed” unaccompanied refugee children in Europe
“Missed” minors are part of the more than 69,000 unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the EU in 2015, according to Eurostat. Some others were separated from their families on the way to the destination country. Despite the fragmentary information, reports show that disappearance of refugee children placed in shelters by national authorities in Europe has taken place for years.
A 2009 study published by Terre des Hommes already stated that "up to half of the unaccompanied migrant children vanish yearly from reception centers in Belgium, France, Spain and Switzerland, mainly in the first 48 hours after their admission in the centers.” More recently, on February 2016, EUROPOL reported that for the past two years more than 10,000 children seeking protection in Europe had disappeared from refugee centers where they were placed by authorities (5,000 in Italy and 1,000 in Sweden).
The problem is also of public concern in other countries: 60% of the unaccompanied migrant children accommodated in UK social care centres go missing and are never found, according to the British Asylum Screening Unit. In Greece, already in 2014, 20% of unaccompanied minors disappeared from reception centres within 24 hours of their placement.
The phenomenon of missed minor refugees represents a challenge for authorities because it usually happens during the first days after the arrival to the center. In a 2010 report on Unaccompanied Minors in the Migration Process, Frontex compiled information provided by Dutch and Swiss authorities on Nigerian human trafficking rings that usually traffic 15-17 year-old girls by airplane. Upon their entry to the EU, they immediately applied for asylum, and once in the accommodation centres for minors, they called a contact person on the spot who abducted them from the centre.
This organised criminal system might explain in some cases why unaccompanied minors disappear: they are sent purposely to apply for asylum in order not to be stopped at the border. In other cases, the unaccompanied minor is trafficked after his/her entry. Those who have been separated from their families in the way might well escape from centers to look for them. But a decisive factor in explaining their “running away” is that big part of minors are 14 to 17 years old boys, able to assess their own situation and get their own perception about their future under the authorities’ protection. Frequently, they are placed in institutions normally designed for the youngest minors, and get the perception that reception centres are the stage previous to return. These youngsters do not see the protection system as providing an answer to their long-term interests. Moreover, distrust towards authorities is reinforced by their traumatic experiences in countries of origin and transit.
What to do?
Minors should be treated predominantly following child protection standards instead of irregular immigration criteria. In this respect, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all EU Member States, highlights the relevance of special protection and assistance by States “when [a] child [is] temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment” (Art. 20.1). Not less, this UN Convention imposes upon States Parties the obligation “to trace the parents or other members of the family of any refugee child in order to obtain information necessary for reunification with his or her family” (Art. 22.2).
Unfortunately, speed in active searching for missed refugee minors is not the same as it is in procedures to detect ordinary child disappearance. Preventing disappearance requires direct contact with the child and an understanding of his personal needs and expectations from the beginning. Facilities and services should also be in accordance to their age (most of them are male youngsters and not infants). Finally, involvement of “friendly” institutions (including Churches and religious communities) in public reception centers would create a more trustful atmosphere.
José Luis Bazán