An unfolding humanitarian emergency crisis: The situation of unaccompanied migrant minors in Eastern Europe

Children are the most vulnerable migrants, and ensuring their protection at all stages of migration from the moment they leave their country must be the priority of the migration policy agenda. We all need to make sure that children who need protection actually receive it.
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An unfolding humanitarian emergency crisis: The situation of unaccompanied migrant minors in Eastern Europe

17/05/2017 - Por: Anna Sassu

The upward trend in sea arrivals will most likely remain unchanged in 2017, in both size and composition, as the influx of refugees will likely not subside in light of the ongoing conflicts in various regions. The fragile protection and integration prospects in first countries of asylum and transit, if return options do not materialize and living conditions in neighboring countries become more and more challenging, will continue to push refugees and migrants to cross the Mediterranean towards Europe.

The migrant influx has had and still has a major impact on the European Union and individual European countries. Member States, and the EU as a whole, have failed to come up with a cohesive and comprehensive response that respects human rights and protects the rights of individual migrants in accordance with European Council legislation. A direct impact of the lack of clear European policy with regards to the migration flow has led to a chaotic environment in which recently, a certain number of migrants were allowed to move onwards while others got stuck in Greece, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Serbia, often deprived of all the basics. The current situation may result in people deciding to move onwards using their own capacities and ability to complete their journey.

Italy and Greece became the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing war, violence, and persecution. In the hope of finding safety, these distressed migrants risked beating, abuse, rape, detention and death. During the course of the year, millions of migrants entered the Greek and Italian territories with the intention of traveling through the adjacent Balkan countries towards Northern and Western Europe. A series of regional political developments in Europe, including the sealing of borders with Greece by key Balkan countries, severely impaired the transit of people on the move. As a result, Greece transitioned from a short-term transit country to a long-term host country. This transformation posed a direct and severe threat to the well-being of the migrant population and drove the country into a dire humanitarian situation.

Overview of the Situation of Unaccompanied Migrants Minors in Europe

Over the past two years, a growing number of children in migration have arrived in the EU, many of them without their families. According to UNICEF, there are 50 million children in migration worldwide. In the last couple of years, the number of children in migration arriving in the European Union has increased exponentially, with 30 percent of asylum applicants in the European Union being children. In 2015, more than 96,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the EU, and even more were recorded the following year.

Children in migration are particularly vulnerable. They are exposed to the risks of becoming victims of violence, physical or sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Many of them go missing or are separated from their families during their long and dangerous journey. They decide to leave their home because of conflicts, forced displacements, inequalities or limited economic opportunities and therefore they require specific and appropriate protection.

Protecting all children arriving in Europe, regardless of their status and at all stages of migration, is about upholding EU fundamental values of respect for human rights and dignity, openness and solidarity. It is also about enforcing European Union law, and respecting the Charter of Fundamental Rights and international law, including the UN Convention on the rights of the child.

Practical Consequences and Significant Challenges Faced by Children in Migration

Today it is estimated that at least a third of the thousands still arriving in Europe and irregularly crossing the borders of Greece, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Croatia are children, including unaccompanied migrant minors. Unaccompanied children often flee violence, they may travel with their families, or begin a new life elsewhere to provide for their families back home. Every day we see these children traveling with smugglers, exposed to the risks of physical or sexual abuse or exploitation, able to cross many European borders without being registered by the authorities or being incorrectly registered as adults. Throughout the region, there are still significant gaps and growing concerns over the lack of identification, adequate interpreters or alternative care solutions, inappropriate age assessments and, the risk of being detained.

It has been estimated that there are insufficient and unreliable data or information management on unaccompanied migrant minors within the region. Many children on the move try to complete their journey without being detected or formally registered in each or any of the countries along the way. Data collection and coordination is largely inconsistent and incomplete throughout the Balkans. Overall, this lack of reliable data makes planning and establishing measures to ensure adequate support for these children incredibly difficult. The Action plan for unaccompanied minors (2010–2014) underlined that: “The situation of unaccompanied minors cannot be properly assessed, nor appropriate solutions found, without a clear evaluation based on comprehensive, reliable and comparable data.” It is therefore important to improve data collection by national authorities and to enhance international cooperation to this end, including through capacity building, financial support and technical assistance.

Another problem that the children are facing is the lack of options for safe accommodation and comprehensive services in line with each child’s best interests. Unaccompanied minors face a very high risk of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence or other abuse and some fall into the hands of traffickers. Those arriving in a new country with smugglers are often in immediate need of medical assistance, food, clothing and rest. They require psychological support, particularly as many have run out of money and are growing increasingly desperate. Countries across the region have struggled with ensuring adequate humanitarian assistance, reception conditions and support to children on the move. In most countries along the route, transit and asylum centers are overcrowded. Children and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are accommodated together with adults, raising protection concerns.

An additional gap lies in the lack of access to legal pathways and lack of cross-border case management to improve continuity of care and protection. Children that have managed to remain undetected and those that have been identified but for a variety of reasons have chosen to hide and continue their journey, are increasingly taking dangerous routes to reunify with their family or reach their family destination. There are many gaps in protection services available to these children along the way, due partly to the lack of systems in place to track and support them.

Children along the way are exposed to exploitation, violence and trafficking including as a result of smuggling and violent pushbacks. Being unable to join their family in the EU in a reasonable timeframe, facing overcrowded and substandard reception centers, combined with the lack of legal alternatives and information, children are compelled to take the risk of traveling with smugglers. They are exposed to exploitation, abuse and trafficking. Unaccompanied minors along the route or in countries of destination report having walked for days and being victims of violence by smugglers or police during their journey. There are frequent testimonies of unlawful pushbacks from one country to another along the route, in some cases using violence, including by authorities in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, FYROM and Bulgaria.

Conclusion

Human rights should be respected regardless of a person’s migratory status, and international law clearly prohibits collective expulsion of aliens, as it denies the right to an individual assessment for each case. It is fundamental that national and international stakeholders come together to ensure adequate prevention measures, as well as to create safe and legal migration routes for children on the move in acute need of protection.

Children are the most vulnerable migrants, and ensuring their protection at all stages of migration from the moment they leave their country must be the priority of the migration policy agenda. We all need to make sure that children who need protection actually receive it. It is therefore our moral duty, and legal responsibility to protect them in order to integrate them in our societies.