The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has called for urgent measures to protect unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Europe from the serious risks of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
Unicef was responding to new figures showing that a record 96 500 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children applied for asylum across Europe in 2015.
“Unaccompanied children are falling between the cracks,” said Marie Pierre Poirier, Unicef special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.
“Many simply run away from reception centres to join their extended families while they wait, or because they have not had a full hearing to determine their best interests or have not had their rights explained to them,” she said.
Unicef said that, according to Interpol estimates, one in nine unaccompanied refugee and migrant children is unaccounted for or missing, and that the figures are believed to be far higher.
In Slovenia, for example, more than 80 per cent of unaccompanied children went missing from reception centres, while in Sweden up to 10 children are reported missing each week.
Earlier in 2016, about 4700 unaccompanied children were recorded as missing in Germany, the agency said.
Unicef’s call comes as European Union member states begin negotiations aimed at creating a fairer and more sustainable system for dealing with migrants and refugees.
Unicef said that any decision affecting children should be based on the best interests of the child, and called for this principle to be strengthened in the Dublin Regulation currently under discussion.
The agency emphasised the importance of speeding up decisions involving a child, pointing out that children currently have to wait up to 11 months between registration and transfer to a country that has agreed to accept them. The agency said the waiting period should be no longer than 90 days, and there should be immediate appointment of a guardian and accelerated family reunification. Such measures are key to protecting unaccompanied children and preventing them from going missing, Unicef said.
The 96 500 unaccompanied children who applied for asylum in Europe in 2015 represent about 20 per cent of the total number of children who sought asylum.
Most were teenage boys from Afghanistan, while Syrians were the second-largest group. A significant number were under 14 years of age, and travelling alone without the protection of adult family members or guardians, the agency said.
Unicef said that in some countries, unaccompanied children made up more than half of all children who arrived in 2015. In Sweden, lone adolescents accounted for 50 per cent of all child refugees, while in Italy 12 300 unaccompanied children arrived and a further 4000 were with their families.
A total of 1815 of the asylum applicants in Bulgaria in 2015 were unaccompanied minors. Unaccompanied minors made up just more than a third of all asylum applicants below the age of 18 in Bulgaria last year.
(Photo: Refugee children at the border between the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia. Unicef/Tomislav Georgiev)