BRUSSELS — In 2015, more than a million men, women and children migrated to Europe. In 2015 and 2016, children constituted 31 and 35 percent of the refugees entering Europe. Many lost their lives on the way, but another dreadful aspect of the refugee crisis remains somewhat hidden. An extensive number of unaccompanied minors (children under 18) are seeking refuge in Europe.
While some are escaping forced military recruitment by radical groups, others are fleeing persecution and exploitation. Many travel thousands of miles to reunite with family, while others are tragically separated from family during the journey. In each case, these children are alone, lost and scared. Approximately 198,500 unaccompanied minors have requested asylum in Europe since 2008. About 39 percent of these have traversed the 3,000 miles from Afghanistan, while thousands more have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Somalia, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq.
Despite the European Union’s (EU) strict laws for the protection of child refugees, too many cases fall within one of these three violations of the international protection rights of children under the EU directive.
- Missing Children
Besides those seeking asylum, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors are lost in Europe. Uneven implementation of asylum laws has caused imbalance and overburdening of states like Greece, Italy and Sweden, resulting in ineffective accommodation strategies. These lapses are catastrophic for children and raise legal and ethical concerns.
Children are missing in almost all European states. Finland and Germany admitted to at least 2,500 and 5,835 missing children, hundreds being under 14 years of age. Sweden lacks a dedicated department to care for migrant children and the police seldom look for missing children. In 2016, Europol reported approximately 10,000 missing children in Europe, but the number is much higher according to Interpol and various NGOs.
These children tend to evade government authorities when their asylum requests are rejected. Despite grim prospects in Europe, they cannot accept the brutal reality of returning to their home countries. According to the Italian Prime Minister, Sandra Zampa, nobody is willing to take responsibility for them.
- Living Conditions
Many children face sexual and economic exploitation in Europe. According to a U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, unaccompanied minors are often sexually exploited to earn their way into Europe five euros at a time, while many continue to be harassed by traffickers in camps. Being sexually abused was the biggest source of fear among Afghan boys. The report included testimonials of children from seven camps, revealing rampant sexual abuse.
Due to strict border control and lack of sound guidance, children desperate to escape continued exploitation seek help from those persecuting them. Traffickers demand entry fees of up to EUR 500 to cross into the U.K., and the children are often coerced into committing crimes to earn their way. About 20 young girls were found working as prostitutes at the recently dismantled Calais “Jungle” camp in France, while some were found selling heroin. Scattered refugee communities including children are now living nearby without food or support.
Unaccompanied minors are also living in dreadful conditions in other parts of Europe like Greece, where children are detained in protective custody. Frightened children are living in cells infested with rats, without mattresses or adequate sanitation and often share space with adults, increasing their risk of exploitation.
Children are being deported back to the countries they risked their lives to flee. In the last ten years, the U.K. has deported more than 2,700 children, more than 2,000 of whom were sent back to Afghanistan. Even as 2015 saw the greatest number of civilian causalities in Afghanistan, a blanket ban to prevent deportations was lifted by the U.K. in 2016. Despite the Afghan government’s appeals to halt deportations due to increasing Taliban and Islamic State-perpetrated instability, the court ruled against the injunction, endangering hundreds of asylum seekers.
Children have also been returned to other countries in a state of crisis including Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In 2016, under the threat of losing aid, the Afghan government signed an agreement with the EU allowing the deportation of an unlimited amount of children with rejected asylum requests from the EU. Many Afghan asylum seekers who did not migrate from Afghanistan will be exiled to a war-torn country that is not their home. These minors struggling to find their place in the world are prime targets for recruitment by the Taliban and the Islamic state. Large-scale deportations of unaccompanied minors jeopardizes their future and international security.
The U.N. Refugee Agency has called on all nations involved to uphold the humanitarian principles in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unfortunately, instead of exhibiting solidarity and compassion by taking responsibility and facilitating equal sharing, EU states are competing for least responsibility by making their national asylum policies more restrictive.
The president of UNICEF Caryl Stern said, “To save their life and send them away… I can’t even imagine having to make that choice.” Overburdened by the influx of migrants, states are making the inconceivable choice of abandoning these unaccompanied minors. They are just children who need protection and affection instead of being deported, detained or allowed to become victims of exploitation.
– Preeti Yadav