At least 18,292 unaccompanied foreign minors have disappeared from reception centres across Europe following their arrival as refugees, according to data recently published by the investigative journalism project Lost in Europe.
The figures, which document disappearances between 2018 and 2020, are thought to be fairly conservative, painting a bleak picture of migrant reception protocol in many European states.
Italy has recorded the highest number of disappearances – 5,775 between 2019 and 2020 – at around 8 per day, with no data provided for 2018. The majority of missing minors are males (90%) and are over the age of 15 (85%); the nationalities most frequently represented are Morocco, Algeria, Eritrea, Guinea and Afghanistan.
Many European states do not collect, or declined to provide Lost in Europe with data regarding missing unaccompanied minors, thus exact figures are likely to be considerably higher. Adriana Holomova, coordinator of data collection for Lost in Europe, said that:
“France has never responded to our requests for data and Great Britain does not collect this information centrally, so it was impossible for them to provide it to us.”
The lack of coherent data collection methods among countries also means contradiction among state’s records is presumed.
Following their disappearance, many unaccompanied minors are particularly susceptible to entanglement in trafficking and exploitation. In 2018, it was found that 24% of children, suspected to be victims of trafficking, had gone missing while in the care of UK local authorities; often thought to have returned to the highly exploitative situation they were previously in.
Antonella Winter, Childhood Manager of Save the Children, said that the exploitation of foreign minors has not decreased during the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that:
“in particular the sexual exploitation of girls, especially Nigerians, but also from Eastern Europe… they are ‘sold’ by their exploiters through the internet. This makes them even more vulnerable”
The issue was first raised in 2016, when Brian Donald, a Europol official, said that
“Every year 10,000 foreign minors disappear into thin air, many of them continue the journey but others end up in criminal exploitation networks”.
The lack of sufficient legislation to protect unaccompanied minors has been condemned by experts, with many criticising the lack of resources and expertise in child protection across Europe. Kevin Hyland, a member of the Council of Europe’s anti-trafficking group, said that:
“Right now, the right to compensation is regulated within the EU if your plane is delayed, but if you are an exploited child you may have to fight every battle on your own”
European countries must ensure that greater protections are afforded to unaccompanied migrant minors, asylum seekers and refugees – sufficient regulation and improved data collection methods must be introduced, in line with the EU’s moral and legal obligations.