Unaccompanied child refugees : " These children aren’t seen as children "

Source : The Guardian

Date : 13 juin 2016

« Human smugglers increasingly combine smuggling with exploitation and their victims are often children,” says Federica Toscano. “At chaotic border situations, it happens that smugglers deliberately separate refugee children from their parents to exploit them.’’

“We also hear that families at the border between Greece and Macedonia have been forced to ‘pay’ smugglers with one of their children,” continues Toscano. “Smugglers have come to realise they can make much more profit by taking advantage of vulnerable people. And the most vulnerable people are children.”

Toscano is well-placed to know. She works for Missing Children Europe, a network of thirty European NGOs that are active in the field of missing and sexually exploited children. Since its foundation in 2001, MCE has focussed on different groups of missing children (pdf). Half of the cases of children that disappear in Europe are runaways : those who run away from home or institutions after a history of violence or abuse. More than a third are abducted by parents.

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But the most recent category is unaccompanied child refugees.
“This group only makes up 2% of cases, which is a low percentage,” says Delphine Moralis, the secretary general of MCE, “but that doesn’t say anything about the magnitude of the problem. These children are seldom reported as missing. That’s why we find it so important to focus on this problem too.’’

Earlier this year Europol stated that at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have gone missing in Europe.
A recent EU report warned that these children have become targets for criminal gangs, who exploit them in the sex industry or force them to beg, steal or smuggle drugs.

But MCE believe the true number to be far higher than 10,000. Toscano says that “in Italy alone 5,000 refugee children have gone missing. And Germany reported that in 2015 almost 6,000 of these children have disappeared.’’

The organisation has been aware of the problem for some time. “As far back as 2005 a Belgian study showed that one fourth of unaccompanied children seeking asylum went missing within the first 48 hours upon arrival. So it’s no news to us.”

But for a whole range of reasons, many of these disappearances go unreported. “First of all, there’s no sense of urgency,” explains Toscano. “When a child refugee goes missing, the general assumption is that he or she has a plan, and that the child is resilient. The police and social services don’t feel the same sense of urgency as when the child is from their own country. They are not aware of the risks these children run, that they might fall victim to exploitation. So nothing is really done.’’

How is it possible that all this is going on in Europe and nobody seems to know where these children are ?
The lack of formal procedures when these children disappear is another problem. “Much depends on the goodwill of the single professional involved,” says Toscano. “There is no common system to collect information about missing children in Europe. There are good practices, but they’re very local. So the traffickers just go to another area.’’

MCE was founded fifteen years ago in 2001, when it became clear that European cooperation on this issue was seriously lacking. “I was working for a Belgian NGO at the time when two Belgian girls went missing,” says Moralis. “On the third day of their disappearance a judge called us and said : ‘We have no idea where these children are, they could be anywhere in Europe, we really need your help now.’ There was no other way to tackle the problem but by contacting one by one all the 309 European organisations working in this field. That’s when we realised it was necessary to create a network of contact points for missing children.”

The organisation facilitates training of professionals to respond better to the disappearance of child refugees. It also exerts pressure on European institutions to provide clear rules and legislation to protect these children.
This year, MCE has published a handbook on good practises to help prevent and respond to unaccompanied children going missing.

“We try to be as practical as possible,” says Toscano. “You can do so much to prevent a child from disappearing. Just a simple example : when a child arrives in a shelter and is given food, he may think he has to pay for it. When he has no money, he will try to escape as soon as possible. Workers should take time to explain everything to the child ... Sometimes these children don’t even realise it when they are exploited. Their traffickers tell them all kinds of lies to make them extra vulnerable. They say : watch out for authorities, they will lock you up.’’

They also closely monitor development throughout Europe. Toscano has been collecting information on missing children in Europe through the EU co-funded SUMMIT project (pdf). This included a study into interagency cooperation around unaccompanied migrant children done through surveys and interviews with hotlines for missing children, professionals at refugee reception centres, guardians and law enforcement in the UK, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Belgium and Ireland.

As a result they are hearing from the frontlines. “We know that there are networks of child traffickers that operate in different countries,” says Toscano. “For example, when a refugee child has been exploited in Eritrea and claims asylum in the Netherlands, there will be another criminal gang waiting to exploit him there. Traffickers have excellent lines of communication. When a child has a history of trafficking, the risk that he will be trafficked again is very high.”

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According to Moralis, the closing of borders means that lots of refugees are stuck in bad conditions : “This makes them more vulnerable and creates more opportunities for criminals. How is it possible that all this is going on in Europe and nobody seems to know where these children are ?”

“Our main aim is to raise awareness that these children are children,” says Toscano. “It’s very simple. You’d think that everyone would be aware of this, but it is certainly not the case. Not for authorities, not for members of the civil society, nor for the general public. These children usually aren’t seen as children, but as people who just come here and use resources that we want to use for something else.’’ »

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