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Migrant children need ‘much more’ safeguarding

Missing people expert and lead author of the new report, Dr Karen Shalev Greene

Missing people expert and lead author of the new report, Dr Karen Shalev Greene

Experts working on behalf of missing children in Europe say much better training is needed for those working with the many thousands of refugee children who arrive in Europe alone.

In a report published today, the authors also call for a standard form for police, social workers, those working in immigration, shelters and reception centres, charities and other parties to record the details of such children to be shared across all services.

The EU-funded Summit report found widespread indifference among authorities to the children’s disappearance alongside numerous shining examples of good practice.

The small-scale in-depth study is the first snapshot of what happens to the migrant child population in Europe.

The report examines practices in seven EU countries – the UK, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland and Greece.

Authorities and frontline workers interviewed in the research reported widespread frustration at how the disappearance of unaccompanied children was handled. Another main concern was a lack of efficient procedures for managing missing unaccompanied children as well as the lack of clarity on the responsibilities of those involved. Even where practices are generally good, a lack of resources or motivation sometimes delayed or prevented an appropriate response.

About 10,000 of the 23,000 unaccompanied migrant children who arrived in Europe in 2014 disappeared within hours of being registered and only a handful have since been found.

Delphine Moralis, Secretary General of Missing Children Europe, the organisation coordinating the Summit project, said: “These vulnerable children, in their search for better life, often end up falling victim to trafficking, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and economic exploitation, including forced donation of organs, forced drug smuggling and begging. A worrying number of these children simply vanish.

“The key aim of our work is to reduce the number of children who go missing. We have examined how different countries and agencies handle the issue. With clear strategies, including standardised forms for recording and sharing details of children and better defined roles across different agencies, we can make progress.”

Dr Karen Shalev Greene, is director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth and the lead author of the report.

She said: “Migrant children arriving in Europe are beginning a journey into exploitation and suffering but there is a real culture of cynicism within the system.

“It’s our duty to break through this indifference. These children are entitled to the same level of protection as any other child, but the vast majority are treated with less urgency than any European country would treat the disappearance of one of their own child nationals.”

Most children go missing within a few hours of being placed in care or a detention centre, with many choosing to run away, some with a clear plan to meet a family member somewhere else in Europe.

Others are thought to run away because they don’t trust the authorities, are frightened they will be asked to pay for the food and shelter they are offered and/ or because they are abducted.

The report found that when a migrant child goes missing there is rarely much information available, including no photo, fingerprints, name, age, country of origin, partly because such data collection varies enormously across Europe and partly because so many of the children disappear so soon after being found.

Even where practices are generally good, there is a huge degree of frustration among those helping migrant children that other authorities involved lack the skills or the motivation to help when a child goes missing.

Some working with migrant children avoid working with other authorities and instead take matters into their own hands, using social media to put out appeals for children and to try and locate children’s family members in other countries.

Others try to do their best to reduce the number who go missing by, for example, taking the child’s clothes be washed and making the washing machine go through its longest cycle two or even three times in order to buy more time to gain the child’s trust.

The official statistics for unaccompanied child migrants in 2015 are not yet available, but numbers are growing. About 23,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Sweden in the first nine months of 2015, more than had arrived in the entire EU in 2014.

In most EU states, unaccompanied children are placed first into observation, care or reception centres where they are given a guardian before it is established how best to care for the child on a long-term basis. It is during this initial period, most abscond or are abducted. Many more are thought to have disappeared before the registration process.

The authors say more research is needed to better understand the children’s experiences, and identifying their needs and concerns when they arrive alone on European soil.

The report was written by Dr Shalev Greene, of the University’s Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, and Federica Toscano, project officer at Missing Children Europe. Summit project partners included organisations across Europe Child Circle, NIDOS, Defence for children-ECPAT, TUSLA, and KMOP.

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