[WATCH] Europol chief warns thousands of migrant children go missing every year in the EU

‘Alarming growth’ in kidnappings and trafficking of children as criminals target unaccompanied minors entering the European Union

Europol chief warns thousands of migrant children go missing every year in the EU
Europol chief warns thousands of migrant children go missing every year in the EU
Europol director Rob Wainwright (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Europol director Rob Wainwright (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

The European Parliament had yet to put on its agenda a discussion on ways to trace the 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children that went missing in the European Union last year, attendees of a day-long seminar at Verdala Palace, entitled Lost in Migration, were informed by a panel of experts. 

Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, said his agency had put a spotlight on the issue of missing children in 2016 when it announced that 10,000 children had gone missing in the migration flow system and were possibly being exploited. 

He said that alarming growth was registered in the criminal activities of kidnappings and human trafficking and the circumstantial evidence linking this to migration. 

"The fight against human trafficking is picking up pace and we were involved in more than 900 investigations last year," he said. 

Wainwright said that while there was considerable crossover between smuggling and trafficking, it would be wrong to say that the two were one and the same thing, or that the same approach was needed to address both issues. 

Susan Bissell, director of Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, said that with 220 million children worldwide without a birth certificate, it was difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace and identify children travelling across borders without any form of identification. 

Francisco Fonseca Morilli, deputy director general, DG Justice, said that it was not enough to try and fill in the gaps. The European Commission, he said, recognised there was a real short-term problem in that it was imperative to desegregate data. 

"We are working with Eurostat and other agencies like Europol and hope to have new updated data available for publishing by the middle of the year," he said. 

"We must initiate a system of name-and-shame to ensure that money allocated is used by the Member States in a coherent manner to enhance the bloc's efforts."

The panelists agreed that greater cooperation was needed among EU member states, but also with countries bordering the bloc – particularly countries known to be part of the migration and smuggling path to Europe. 

International Organisation for Migration deputy director Laura Thompson insisted that the root cause for the migration of children must be identified and tackled, before moving to talk about change and protection. 

“A more serious effort is needed to identify unaccompanied children reaching the EU and to provide legal pathways to help them reunite with their families,” she said. 

Vincent Cochetel, director of bureau for Europe at UNHCR, said the EU needs to take time to work with unaccompanied migrant children and not adopt blanket measures and procedures across the board. 

"It is unbelievable that in 2017 Europe still does not have a common registration system for all migrants in general, and for unaccompanied children in particular," he said. 

Cochetel also called for a more robust guardianship system that could be taken up more easily but was also more practical and targeted than the current system, under which there were cases where couples were awarded guardianship of up to 80 children.

President Coleiro Preca calls for solid European commitment

The European Union’s migration policies and strategies need to be driven by a shared commitment to vulnerable children and their families, the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said when she addressed the conference.

The President noted that thousands of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were getting lost because of failing systems, while national and international support systems – where present – were struggling to provide effective outreach.

The President of Malta said that 'even one single missing child was too many'
The President of Malta said that 'even one single missing child was too many'

She said funds allocated for assisting and supporting migrant children should be channelled into direct action and be end up being swallowed up by bureaucracy.

“The dignity of children must be a lived reality, experienced by each and every child who forms part of our global family,” she said.

Coleiro Preca said that unaccompanied children were particularly vulnerable to abuses of their fundamental rights as they stood a greater risk of going missing, becuase of a lack of parental care.

Unaccompanied children experienced intersectional vulnerability due to their age, the uncertainty of their status, and their position as migrants, she said.

President Coleiro Preca called for systems and structures which can meet the material needs of children – including suitable accommodation, food and essential medical care – while insisting that the social and educational needs of every child also needed to be addressed. 

The President said that a lack of solidarity was at the root of interested parties’ concern.

“This is being brought about by the lack of a unified and effective policy or strategy, able to consistently provide safety for unaccompanied children who are seeking refuge in European countries,” she said.

Coleiro Preca said that governments across Europe always mobilised all their assets when children went missing.

“Why, then, do our authorities not feel the same sense of urgency when it comes to the unaccompanied migrant child?”

She appealed for the civil society to supply the social conscience needed to ensure that unaccompanied children, caught up in the migration tragedy unfolding across Europe’s borders, no longer be ignored or forgotten.

“Europol estimates that 27% of last year’s arrivals, fleeing situations of war, of environmental devastation, and extreme precarity, were children, and that at a minimum 10,000 unaccompanied children are now unaccounted for,” the President said.

“Even one single child is too many,” she said.

Lost in Migration

“Lost in Migration” is being attended by over 180 delegates, including representatives from UNHCR, UNICEF, Save the Children, EPIM, Defence for Children [The Netherlands], various organisations from Greece, Belgium, Italy and Germany, Europol, the Migration Policy Institute, IOM and EASO.

The conference was organised by Missing Children Europe and The President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

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