The issue

Who are children in migration?

'Children in migration' are third country national children who migrate from their country of origin to and within the territory of the EU in search of survival, security, improved standards of living, education, economic opportunities, protection from exploitation and abuse, family reunification or a combination of these factors. They may travel with their family or independently or with an extended family or a nonfamily member, or they may have been separated from their families. In 2016, one in four people seeking asylum in the EU were children . More than half of them are under the age of 14.

Unaccompanied children are children who are in Europe and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so, and that may have been separated from both parents and other relatives.

In 2015, almost 96 500 asylum seekers in the European Union were unaccompanied children under 18, and more than 63 000 in 2016. Up to 50% of them went missing from asylum centres or shelters within two days of their arrival.


Why do they go missing?

Children sometimes leave because they get discouraged by the unreasonably length of asylum processes or family reunification procedures, or out of fear of being sent back home or to the country where they first arrived in. Sometimes they feel compelled to leave because the conditions of shelter and well-being given to them are inadequate, and they hope for a happier and safer future somewhere else. In many cases they are also forced to leave because they were or have become victims of trafficking, including labour and sexual exploitation, forced begging and drug smuggling. Considering the lack of reporting of cases of missing unaccompanied children, the problems related to data collection and the lack of an appropriate follow up on the disappearances, any assumption and underestimation is extremely dangerous for the children involved.

What are the risks they are exposed to?

When children move across cities and borders outside the protection system, they risk to face situations of violence, starvation, homelessness and be exposed to serious risks for their mental and physical health. They also risk to end up in a situation of exploitation. The European Commission A Report on the progress made in the fight against trafficking in human beings worryingly states that child trafficking increased sharply in the last years of migration movements to Europe. The Europol report on Human Smuggling says that children are targeted by traffickers and that unaccompanied children specifically are increasingly coerced into criminal activities and exploitation. In addition, 20% of the smugglers identified by Europol were also linked to trafficking in human beings in 2015. This cross-over between smuggling and trafficking represents a huge risk for all children, including those who go missing hoping to reach family or other acquaintances in another country.

What can be done?

All children should be treated as children first, irrespectively of their migration status. All children are entitled to the full protection of their rights.

Children should be better informed and empowered to participate in all the decisions that affect them and to recognise if they have been victims of trafficking or abuse.

The AMINA programme aims to provide them with easy to access and child friendly information on the rights they are entitled to and on the opportunities and services they can access in different countries in the EU through the development of an app. By providing information to these children in their own language, the app will help them make the best decisions for themselves, without having to rely on untrustworthy sources or harmful individuals.

Creating clear procedures for cooperation between professionals working with unaccompanied migrant children in a situation where they could or have gone missing, improved training for professionals and better cross-border cooperation are crucial to provide adequate and effective responses to the issue of missing migrant children and (re)trafficked children.

Missing Children Europe and its partners have already identified best practices and practical guidelines on how to better cooperate in prevention, response and aftercare of missing unaccompanied children. The next step consists of concretely working towards achieving and standardising these promising practices.

Alongside these projects, efforts need to be made to create a more positive narrative around children in migration. Understanding, concern and empathy from European citizens will help achieve sustainable and durable solutions for unaccompanied children. In Europe, growing anxiety on the impact of globalisation and immigration on populations’ safety, security, cultural identify and jobs has been used by several political movements in order to win elections. This has led to decision makers taking or promoting initiatives that further harm and exploit children. It is therefore important that we work together to engage with these concerns, and use available evidence to counter narratives of polarisation and fear.

These measures/proposed solutions will prove ineffective, and at the very least insufficient, if they are not properly accompanied by legal and policy improvements for children in migration, both at the national and European level. Until recently, there was no European policy framework that ensured a coherent and comprehensive approach to the respect of children’s rights and protection needs in Europe. In April 2017, the Commission eventually issued a communication profiling a comprehensive approach to protect children in migration, taking into account the EU agenda on Migration, the conclusions of the Forum on the rights of the child and the outcome of the Lost in Migration conference (organised by Missing Children Europe) as a starting point. Voices of child rights organisations were finally heard, but much needs to be done in ensuring these words are changed to action. Missing Children Europe and its partners will continue joining forces to monitor its implementation. Analyses and recommendations will be produced on issues that remain of critical importance, such as child protection across borders, including in cases of re-trafficking; quality care and alternatives to detention; the impacts of the EU asylum legislation reform; and the best interest of the child.