According to UNHCR, more than 60 million people worldwide are refugees. Half of them are children. These children are a particularly vulnerable group and at risk of violence, abuse, exploitation, trauma and even death. They are in need of specific protection measures, something all European countries have agreed to by ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
During 2015, the number of children coming to Europe to seek international protection increased massively – in 2014, 144,550 children applied for asylum in EU member states, while in 2015 – although there are still major gaps in the information provided by Eurostat – at least 337,000 children were registered as asylum seekers, which amounts to 29% of all asylum seekers. The most significant increase started in June 2015, when refugees changed their main irregular route to Europe from between Northern Africa and Italy to a route from Turkey to Greece. According to UNHCR, in June 16% of all migrants crossing the Mediterranean were children, while by December the number of children arriving by this route was 35%.
Children on the move face many safety risks and concerns and when Europe is not proving able to handle the influx of migrants from a child rights perspective, these risks become even more severe. The European Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) therefore decided to develop this report, to establish an overview of the current safety risks for children on the move in Europe and of the degree to which they have access to their rights, both while travelling to and through Europe and upon arrival in their country of destination.
Due to the lack of legal opportunities to enter the EU to apply for asylum, almost all children use irregular routes, facilitated by smugglers, to reach Europe. Some arrive via different land routes from Eastern European states to neighbouring EU member states, but most cross the Mediterranean on small boats, mainly from Turkey to Greece, but also from Northern Africa to Italy.
The sea journey is dangerous for children – about 30% of migrants drowning are children. During the winter, children arrive wet and cold, and many are at risk of hypothermia, causing different illnesses, including pneumonia. Volunteers working at the shores in Greece are now reporting children dying of hypothermia upon arrival. Babies and small children are particularly vulnerable.
On the route through Europe children face several risks – some children are separated from their parents during the journey, mainly at chaotic border controls, some children are at risk of sexual abuse and violence at the different transit centres. The transit and reception centres on the Western Balkans route are of a poor standard, lacking basic sanitation facilities and are not properly winterized. Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable and face an increased risk of becoming victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Many unaccompanied children do not want to disclose to the authorities that they are children, due to fear of being put in locked child protection facilities, unable to continue their journey to northern Europe. Many children, both unaccompanied children and children travelling with their families, are being extorted by smugglers, including threats against family members still in the country of origin or in refugee camps. Due to Western Balkans countries closing their borders for other nationalities than Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, children are now being left stranded in Greece, trying to find alternative routes to get to northern Europe.
Unfortunately, the risks for children on the move do not stop when they reach the country of destination. Some states do not have a system for legal guardianship for unaccompanied children, leaving these children without secure adult protection. In other countries the appointment of a legal guardian takes too long. There are reports from various countries of violent actions by locals targeting refugee children, but also of violence between child refugees. The low proportion of girls arriving makes them a particularly vulnerable group. Many countries also report on children going missing from the reception centres, becoming at risk of being victims of trafficking or exploitation. Many countries allow children to be placed in detention, sometimes for several months, in facilities that are rarely designed to be child-friendly.
Another concern for children in destination countries is the housing situation, which has deteriorated in many states due to the increase of refugees in 2015. Upon arrival, children are placed in emergency shelters, designed to accommodate refugee children for just a few days. However, in most countries children stay in these facilities for weeks or even months, without the possibility of receiving education, having any form of privacy or taking part in leisure activities. Almost all states fulfil basic needs like proper food and clothing. While access to physical health care appears to be covered, children are less likely to receive psychological care should they need it.
The right to information and the right to be heard are not sufficiently protected. These rights are important for the fulfilment of practically every other right children on the move should enjoy. A child that is left in the dark about what will happen to him or her next will not be able to prosper or make informed choices. Of equal importance is for adults around the child to listen to what he/she says and wants, which helps to prevent children from going missing from the system. Securing these rights is therefore vital for the protection of and assistance to children on the move.
An analysis of the European response to the increased influx of migrants reveals that Europe is failing to address these issues. While border control and other measures to restrict immigration are at the top of the agenda for both the EU as well as individual countries, actions to protect children are not taken. The EU Agenda for Migration, guiding the EU institutions and Member States in handling the influx, mentions only a single action regarding children, which is placed in a footnote. Also, from a child rights perspective, the actions taken by individual states are worrying, in particular the restrictions possibilities for family reunification that many states have announced.
Although the main legal instruments within the European asylum and migration system include references to the UNCRC and child-specific regulations, child rights, in particular the best interest of the child, are not being implemented. Some children are also almost invisible in EU policies, including children arriving with their family, children not applying for asylum and stateless children.
To ensure children on the move and the risks they face are put on the European agenda and that specific actions targeting these children are taken to ensure their rights are respected, ENOC urgently calls on the European Commission to develop a comprehensive EU action plan for all migrant children.