At least 18,000 unaccompanied migrant children have disappeared after arriving in European countries such as Greece, Italy and Germany.
An investigation by The Guardian and the Cross Border Journalism Collective Lost in europe found that 18,292 unaccompanied migrant children disappeared in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020, which is equivalent to almost 17 children per day.
In 2020 alone, 5,768 children disappeared in 13 European countries.
Most of the children disappeared in the last three years came to Europe from Morocco, but Algeria, Eritrea, Guinea and Afghanistan were also among the main countries of origin. According to the available data, 90% were male and approximately one in six were under 15 years of age.
The research, which collected data on missing unaccompanied minors from all 27 EU countries, as well as Norway, Moldova, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, found that the information provided was often inconsistent or incomplete, meaning that the number actual missing children could be much higher.
Spain, Belgium and Finland provided figures only up to the end of 2019. Denmark, France and the United Kingdom did not provide any data on unaccompanied missing children.
The research results raise serious questions about the extent to which European countries can or want to protect unaccompanied migrant children.
Federica Toscano, Head of Advocacy and Migration at Missing children Europe, a non-profit organization that connects grassroots agencies across Europe, said the data was “extremely important” in understanding the scale of the problem in Europe. “The large number of missing children is a symptom of a child protection system that is not working,” he said.
He said unaccompanied children are among the migrants most vulnerable to violence, exploitation and trafficking. “Criminal organizations increasingly target migrant children,” Toscano said, “especially the unaccompanied and many of them become victims of labor and sexual exploitation, forced begging and trafficking.”
In March 2019, The Guardian and Lost in Europe discovered that at least 60 Vietnamese children had disappeared from Dutch shelters. Dutch authorities suspected that they had been trafficked to Britain to work on cannabis farms and nail salons.
Herman Bolhaar, the Dutch national rapporteur on human trafficking, said the investigation showed the urgent need for cooperation at the European level to address why thousands of unaccompanied migrant children have disappeared without a trace. “We cannot lose sight of these children,” he said. “They deserve our protection.”
While nearly all the countries in the investigation have detailed procedures to deal with the disappearance of unaccompanied minors, they do not always work well in practice, according to one 2020 Report of the European Migration Network, part of the European Union. Problems include lack of follow-up when missing children are reported and insufficient cooperation between the police and asylum or child protection authorities.
“Very little is recorded in a file of a missing migrant child,” Toscano said, “and too often it is assumed that a migrant child is somewhere safe in another country, although cross-border collaboration in these cases is practically non-existent.”
There are multiple reasons why children disappear, he said, including “lengthy and onerous procedures to obtain international protection or to be reunited with their family.” Many were also held in inadequate facilities, often without access to education, he added.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said there was “deep concern over the disappearance of children”, adding that member states should “take measures to prevent and respond to the disappearances of children in migration … by improving data collection. and cross-border collaboration “.