Refugee Children Left Vulnerable in Europe

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
(C) Heba Aly/IRIN

Children now account for over one third of refugees and migrants crossing the Eastern Mediterranean, reports UNICEF; and taken together, women and children account for nearly 60% of those on the move in Europe, a sharp increase from summer 2015 when men constituted 73% of migrant flows and children less than 10%. Perhaps more than anything, it has been the images of drowned refugee children – foremost among them three-year-old Alan Kurdi – that have outraged international observers and galvanized public opinion around refugee protection and resettlement in a number of Western countries, most notably with Germany. Indeed, as the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has grown rapidly over the past year, so have the proportion of vulnerable children, many unaccompanied, making the journey.

“The implications of this surge in the proportion of children and women on the move are enormous – it means more are at risk at sea, especially now in the winter, and more need protection on land,” says Marie Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe. With more and more people arriving in Europe, the collective failure of the European Union (EU) to receive and protect refugees and asylum seekers is taking a heavy toll on those that need it most: children.

Gaps in the protection of unaccompanied minors in practice

While these protections for displaced children remain in place, the magnitude of the current refugee crisis has put a significant strain on EU institutions and Member States, and prompted a number of revisions to EU asylum regulations, combined with the suspension of many of these policies in practice. For the most part, internal political divisions within the EU have stymied attempts at a more comprehensive overhaul of the European asylum system, leaving significant protection gaps for vulnerable children, as highlighted by the aforementioned reports of child migrant deaths, exploitation and abuse. This “is really a failure of child protection systems across the region”, said UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe last week, “Procedures need to be a lot faster and children need to be part of that process so they don’t fall through the cracks and they do not fall prey to smugglers and traffickers.” UNICEF’s Marie Pierre Poirier concurs: “Welfare, protection and health systems need to be strengthened at every step of the way.”

Part of the problem facing displaced children in Europe stems from the broader breakdown of implementation of common European policies to protect the lives and rights of refugees and asylum seekers. As UNHCR notes in its guidelines on the protection and care of refugee children, children are particularly vulnerable (susceptible to disease, malnutrition and physical injury), dependent (on the support of adults), and still developing (physically and psychologically). EU asylum regulations consider these vulnerabilities and provide particular protections tailored to displaced children. In terms of refugee protection, children are generally entitled to the same rights and protections as adults. Minors – and unaccompanied minors in particular – are also afforded a number of special protections by virtue of their particularly vulnerable status. EU asylum law considers an “unaccompanied minor” to be a third-country national or stateless person below the age of 18 years “who arrives on the territory of the Member States unaccompanied by an adult responsible for him or her” including “a minor who is left unaccompanied after he or she has entered the territory of the Member States.” When considering asylum requests by unaccompanied minors, EU law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) – which is binding on all EU Member States – requires that states consider the best interests of the child. EU border guards are required to pay special attention to minors arriving at territorial borders, and to ensure that they have the same access to asylum procedures as adults.

In order to qualify for refugee status, unaccompanied minors must meet the same international definition as adults, which defines refugees as persons who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Under EU law, once an unaccompanied minor is granted refugee status (or subsidiary protection), they are to be informed of their rights and obligations stemming from that status, and given access to education, social welfare and healthcare. They are also assigned a legal guardian, who may be an adult relative, foster family or reception center specialized in accommodating minors. EU states are required to trace the families of minors seeking international refugee protection, unless tracing could endanger the safety of those families. After obtaining refugee status, unaccompanied minors have the right to family reunification in the host country. The detention of minors is only permitted as a last resort and under limited circumstances under EU law, and is prohibited outright in some Member States.

In order to receive the special protections that they are entitled under international law, however, it flows logically that unaccompanied minors must also be identified and registered as such. With Greece’s asylum system overburdened by the sharp increase in arrivals, and many of the officials conducting registration untrained in assessing age or vulnerability, Tania Karas reports that many minors are not identified as such and are counted as adults. Minors often self-report their ages as over 18, or claim to be part of other families. The result is that, “Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors are not being identified in Greece,” says Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum of Refugees in Athens. The numbers give some indication of gaps:

of more than 856,000 migrants and refugees who arrived last year in Greece, just 2,248 were registered as unaccompanied minors […]. This figure – clearly a tiny percentage of the actual number – was lower than the 2,390 unaccompanied minors Greece registered in 2014, a year that saw only about 45,400 arrivals. By contrast, Macedonia, the next country along the Balkan route to northern Europe, admitted 18,123 unaccompanied minors in the second half of 2015, according to the interior ministry. Sweden, the most popular destination for unaccompanied minors, registered 35,369 requests for asylum by such children last year, while Germany registered 14,439, according to their respective migration agencies.

The gap in proper identification and registration of children at points of entry into Europe, and along transit routes, is making it even less likely they will receive adequate care and protection, as the following section illustrates.

Vulnerable children on land and at sea

As more and more refugee and migrant children find themselves on the move – whether alone or with families – they are increasingly bearing the burden of a broken system. In their countries of origin, children are exposed to violence targeting civilian communities, and the education and healthcare facilities that serve them. In host countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, many refugee children remain out of school and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. And in transit to Europe, UNHCR, UNICEF and IOM estimate that at least 340 minors have drowned while attempting to cross the eastern Mediterranean since September 2015, amounting to an average of two children drowning per day. Once on land in Greece, women and children make up the majority of refugees currently stuck in the country by border closings.

While arrival on land is often a moment of elation for refugees after dangerous Mediterranean crossings, children have remained particularly vulnerable to exploitation once inside Europe. Europol reported last month that at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees and migrants have gone missing after arriving and registering at points of entry in Europe, with many feared to be victims of exploitation by organized crime groups linked to smuggling networks. European police have warn of a “tremendous amount of crossover” between criminal networks smuggling refugees across international borders, and those exploiting vulnerable refugees, including many unaccompanied children, for sex work or forced labor. Indeed, the recent wave of migration to Europe has been an economic boon for criminal groups.

By failing to provide adequate protection for child refugees and asylum seekers in the short term – in accordance with their own laws and policies – European states are exposing children to serious harm in the long term. A much more comprehensive approach is needed to protect vulnerable refugees in general, and children in particular. Displaced children need immediate protection and long-term care, including protection from violence, detention, exploitation and abuse, and efforts to restore family links, access to education, healthcare and other services to promote child well-being and development, and legal status determination. As displacement continues across the Mediterranean and in many other regions of the globe, states must redouble efforts to keep displaced children from falling through the cracks. Improving child protection is not only crucial to their own development, but also to the development and resiliency of families and communities after conflict and crises.

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