Failed by the system | Angela Caruana

Thousands of unaccompanied child refugees and asylum seekers go missing every year in Europe. Many are pushed into prostitution and slavery. Angela Caruana says the system is failing the children and there is very little will to deal with the problem  

Angela Caruana (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Angela Caruana (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

Europol, the EU’s police intelligence unit, estimates that around 10,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing in Europe over the past two years. 

In 2015 alone, nearly 90,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Europe and 13% of the applicants were younger than 14, travelling without their parents to the EU. 

Although migrant arrivals in Malta have dwindled significantly over the past two years, hundreds of unaccompanied minors reached our shores in previous years.

Angela Caruana, who spent some seven years working with unaccompanied migrants, describes the growing number of children who disappear as a phenomenon “which nobody wants to deal with. That was the case in the past and nothing has changed, because thousands of children go missing every year across Europe.” 

Caruana now works at the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, which later this month will be organising an international conference about children who go missing, whether through sexual exploitation or migration, entitled ‘Lost in Migration’.

Caruana was on the age assessment team, which was the first to meet the unaccompanied children, who back then came by sea at great risk for their lives following a gruelling journey across the desert in North Africa after fleeing war, violence and poverty in their home countries.

“It doesn’t take much to get it right, yet we keep getting it wrong. Where are the children going? Who are these children? These are invisible children who nobody cares about. Do you imagine what a Maltese family would go through if one of their children goes missing? I have an 18-year-old son and at times I go crazy if I’m not aware of his whereabouts, even for a few hours. But these kids who disappear are mostly black or Asian, so nobody cares.” 

So where do these children end up? To put it simply, no one really knows. That’s because when a child from Syria, Afghanistan or Eritrea goes missing in Europe, nothing much happens. Few security agencies file a missing person report and there are growing concerns that more and more children are being handed over to human traffickers and pushed into prostitution or slavery. 

Caruana, who started off as a volunteer at a reception centre in Sta Venera before joining what was then known as the Organisation for the Integration and Welfare of Asylum Seekers, explains that in 2007 very few countries were equipped to deal with unaccompanied minors.

“We received specialised training in human trafficking by the Italian branch International Organisation for Migration,” she says before recounting an encounter with unaccompanied minors who passed from Malta during a visit in the Netherlands to an open centre hosting unaccompanied minors.

“During a visit to this camp, which was bang in the middle of a village and where people led a very normal life, we were given a very warm welcome by everyone. But as soon as they heard us speak in Maltese some of them started retreating. We then found out that these were unaccompanied minors who had arrived in Malta but who went missing and travelled to Europe to find something better than they had in Malta. They thought we were there to take them back to Malta, but that was not the case.”

But Caruana adds that this shows that the phenomenon of missing children is an indication of problems which run deeper in the system. 

So what happened to the unaccompanied children who reached Malta? “Very few are still here. In fact in preparation for the conference we produced a video in which we met former unaccompanied children but it was very difficult to track them down because most of them left Malta and the few who stayed here still do not feel safe to share their experience although they have now reached adult age.”

Of those who managed to get out of Malta she says “I’m sure the involvement of human traffickers does not stop in Libya but somehow they do not feel safe detailing what happened following their arrival in Malta and how they went missing.”

She adds that some spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“Children do not go missing just for the sake of it. I believe that no child goes missing without a plan. Some go missing because they are aware that they are granted no protection in Malta so they risk a second voyage and travel to continental Europe. They do this without informing the authorities or the professionals around them.”

She explains that the vast majority of unaccompanied minors enjoy temporary subsidiary protection till the age of 18. 

Caruana recounts that during her time working with migrant children, once out of detention many unaccompanied minors would claim that they have family members living in other European countries. After providing proof of this, which normally consisted of a phone number of their relatives they would be allowed to travel for a brief visit.

“After the professionals would make a phone call and speak to the uncle in Sweden, they would be allowed to travel, only to never come back. Following investigations, it would transpire that the relatives did not exist. This would happen continuously, on loop, that is why the system allowed children to go missing.”

Authorities look at migration in numbers, and in these cases they would view the disappearance of a child as one more free bed in the open centre. 

Up to half of unaccompanied migrant children who are placed in reception centres in Europe vanish yearly, many in the first 48 hours of being placed in these centres.

Some go missing from the reception centres they have been placed in with a specific migration plan in mind, or run away for fear of being sent back to the situation they tried to escape from.

Other minors fall victim to kidnapping, trafficking, sexual exploitation and economic exploitation, including forced donation of organs, prostitution, forced drug smuggling and begging.

“Generally, when unaccompanied children travel to Europe by boat the human trafficker is on the boat with them, if not a trafficker would be waiting for them in the detention centre. Whenever we would raise the alarm on this, we always found closed doors from the relevant authorities.”

Caruana says the biggest struggle was not that against society and racism but against the system. 

“I could no longer be part of a system which was failing the unaccompanied children, the system was continuously failing them.”

Why was it is failing them? 

“The children are faceless, they’re just numbers, even for the people and authorities who should be protecting them. They are the invisible children.”

She says children living in open centres would habitually sleep till early afternoon, wake up, cook, eat, spend some time with other migrant children and go to bed again. 

“They are full of energy, and back then, they would be locked up in their dormitories. What would you do in their place? It’s OK for a few days, but after weeks and months, they would turn the world upside down.”

The children who reached Malta unaccompanied, Caruana says, shouldered big responsibilities, because they were heavily indebted to their parents for helping them flee slavery or being enrolled by violent gangs and militias. 

She explains that educational opportunities were very scarce and the only education they received was offered by volunteers. The same goes for health services.

“Then you had a few determined children, who despite the complete lack of support made a success. The blame should not be put on the professionals or the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers. The people there are continuously struggling against the system.

“The next thing these children would want is to go missing and leave Malta. When we ask former unaccompanied minors what we could have done differently to help them, they all say that the system had not listened to what they were saying and had not addressed their needs. Instead the system is set up to ease our guilt and fulfil the minimum obligations set by the EU. The services we offer to these children were never centred around their needs, they were aimed at fulfilling EU directives.”

Policies, she adds, must address the needs of the unaccompanied child asylum seekers and give them a voice and a safe space to share their views. 

Instead of just observing EU directives, Malta should set an example and lead the way, she says. Apart from further cooperation between police and security agencies on a European level, Caruana says that the system needs to be overhauled. 

“On paper the tools and the ideas are right but what is failing is the implementation.”

Another crucial node is securing borders. 

Caruana recounts that she once dealt with a case of a young woman who was in Malta with her two younger siblings. The three were given permission to travel to Germany but the woman returned alone. 

“When I asked her where the children were she said she left the children with family in Germany. But I could not ascertain this and I called the immigration police. But I was told that they could not do anything. I asked whether Interpol could help but I was told no. I was also told that there is no monitoring of children entering and exiting the country.”

She explains that security must improve because of the use of fake passports. She says one of the former unaccompanied migrants was interviewed ahead of the conference but went missing from Malta thanks to a fake passport sent to him by his friend in Italy. 

But that is only one side of the story. Many other unaccompanied children go missing with the help of smugglers.

“There are those who exit the country by plane, there are others who simply disappear. I don’t know how they get out of the country. Otherwise I would inform the authorities,” Caruana says. 

She explains that once children go missing, they build new identities. “Some go to the extent of removing their fingerprints by burning their fingers or putting acid on their fingers to make sure they are not identified and sent back to where they claimed asylum.” 

She says that there are no known cases of unaccompanied children in Malta who were forced into prostitution. However there have been recorded cases where minors absconded from detention after being promised an escape route to Italy, only to end up working on construction  sites in Malta.  

‘These kids do not have many options. They have no documents, they have escaped from detention and they are alone.”

The number of boat arrivals is insignificant today but this does not mean that no unaccompanied minors are arriving on our shores. 

“You have children coming by plane and by catamaran from Sicily. The problem is that these are not detected so we have unaccompanied children out there who are not receiving any kind of protection.” 

Three years ago, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made a commitment to end the detention of unaccompanied child migrants.

Malta detains all age-disputed cases pending an age determination process, and as a result children below the age of 18 may be detained for weeks or months, despite alternative available facilities. During detention, children are detained with adults, without any accommodation for their young age, and with no access to school. 

Under international and European standards, unaccompanied children should never be detained for reasons related to irregular entry, and pending age determination the person claiming to be a child should be treated as such until the determination is complete.

I ask whether any progress has been registered on this front, but my question is met by a deafening silence. 

After a few seconds, Caruana speaks. “I think this the silence says it all. It’s the loudest statement I can make.”

“And that is the problem, thousands of children go missing in Europe but you rarely read or hear anything about them.” 

Despite being determined to stand up for the voiceless and never giving up the fight, Caruana says that she is as responsible as anyone else.

“I am responsible for every unaccompanied child that goes missing. I formed part and still am part of a system that failed and continues to fail children.”