Their names and faces are not plastered on street lights or bus stops. In most cases the police have not attempted to find them. They simply arrive in Europe and disappear.
In 2016, more than 63,300 unaccompanied minors (UAM) entered the E.U., half of them Syrian and Afghan refugees, according to data from the European NGO network Missing Children. The same year, the E.U.’s law enforcement agency Europol said that at least 10,000 UAM had disappeared in Europe.
Yet Europol admits it does not know if these disappearances are real or the result of bureaucratic chaos between E.U. member countries. Even so, they warn that missing children, especially refugees, are the perfect target for human trafficking, prostitution and forced begging rings, or coercion into slave labor.
Brian Donald, the chief of staff at Europol, warns of the existence of a pan-European criminal network that targets underage refugees. But, he says, “Not all have been exploited by criminal gangs. Lots have been able to find their families, even though we do not know where they are, what they are doing or who they are meeting.”
What’s In a Number?
Data collected by the porCausa foundation shows that the number of missing migrant children in the three E.U. countries that publicly release figures surpasses Europol’s 10,000 estimate for all 28 member states. Italy documented 5,434 missing unaccompanied children up to August 2015, while Sweden registered 1,829 missing from 2013 to 2016, and Germany counted 4,749 up to January 1, 2016.
Europol spokeswoman Tine Hollevoet acknowledges that the much-quoted 10,000 figure is an “underestimation” made with the data provided by E.U. countries. “There is neither a database, nor has a correct methodology been applied,” she says.
Then why would an international organization release such an inaccurate estimation? The Europol spokeswoman says the intention was to “send a warning message to the international community about the danger so that they act accordingly.”
There is no E.U. coordination mechanism capable of solving this problem at present. Current data collection methods allow for numerous errors. One of them is “double counting,” or registering children both before and after they cross a border. For example, a child might be registered as unaccompanied when they get to Greece from Turkey, and registered again if they continue north through Macedonia and Serbia and re-enter the E.U.’s Schengen area in Hungary. Because different governments do not share information, a child might also be registered as unaccompanied in Spain and then join their family in France and be counted as accompanied, without the register in Spain being updated.
Double counting is not the only example of lack of E.U. coordination. The definition of a minor also changes from state to state, as do policies towards unaccompanied migrant children.
Europol says there is “concern that vulnerable, unaccompanied minors arriving in the E.U. could become targets of exploitation,” according to an internal document declassified at porCausa’s request. The law enforcement body, which tracks trafficking suspects, says it has seen people involved in human trafficking increasingly connected to forced begging groups and labor exploitation.
In some cases, Europol says smugglers have used children to crew or steer migrant boats on the Mediterranean, a journey that killed over 5,000 people last year.
Proposals for Reform
The European Parliament is considering reform of the registration system for unaccompanied minors to stop duplication, including reducing the legal age for taking fingerprints, from 14 years old to six. Europol has also suggested registering unaccompanied children in the Schengen Information System (SIS) so all countries have access to the same data.
Meanwhile, the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) proposes that every unaccompanied child should be assigned a guardian within 24 hours of reaching Europe who would be responsible for keeping track of the child’s location.
The Barcelona-based Noves Vies, a nonprofit association working to protect unaccompanied minors, backs this proposal. “The unaccompanied minor’s guardian would be like a public defender that would be assigned automatically,” explains Albert Parés, the association’s president.
“The first thing is to include unaccompanied minors in an automatic system of protection that requires that the administration looks after their rights,” Parés says. To prevent exploitation of the guardian system by anyone claiming to be the minor’s relative, they must be able to prove a relationship, he says.
In Spain, the registration and protection of unaccompanied children has been devolved to local governments. Some children arrive without identification, or authorities suspect their documents are forged, so medical tests are used to determine their age. This practice has been questioned by the Spanish Ombudsman and several international organizations.
Parés says that while more resources are needed to protect unaccompanied children, the real question is whether Europe has the will to take action on behalf of the interests of the child. “Unaccompanied minors are people who are vulnerable on a social and legal level,” he says. “In the case of refugees, we are talking about human rights, and there shouldn’t be a budgetary limit.”
This article was previously published in Spanish on Vózpopuli. Virginia Rodriguez, Isabel Linares, David Pastor, Ana González Páramo and Elena Cabrera from the porCausa Foundation contributed research, and Samuel Tremlett translated the article.