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Why Are We Failing to Support Lone Refugee Children?

Europe’s Criminal Intelligence Agency estimates that 10,000 unaccompanied refugee minors have gone missing since setting foot in Europe. But that’s just a guess, writes Daniel Howden, and we urgently need both reliable data and proper care for young refugees. This comment is part of our series “Childhood Under Attack” that presents the hurdles that Syrian minors face at different points of their journeys towards safety.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Top image: A Syrian refugee child looks over the fence at the Oncupinar camp for Syrian refugees next to the border crossing with Syria, near the town of Kilis in southeastern Turkey, Thursday, March 17, 2016. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

There is no broad consensus on the question of Europe’s borders and how to respond to the flow of refugees and migrants. There is open conflict among European member states and would-be members across the Balkans; there are angry rifts inside governments, in public opinion and amid communities.

But on the issue of what to do with the refugee and migrant children who come to Europe alone there can be no disagreement. This is the soft edge of an otherwise complex issue. Children arriving without family in the E.U. must be taken into care, provided for and given either a swift and legal route to relatives already in Europe, or proper care and some form of normality.

This is uncontroversial. It is also not happening. By law, all children under 18 who are not traveling with a relative or legal guardian should be identified and registered as “unaccompanied minors” on arrival in the E.U. According to their rights they should then be offered secure accommodation in their country of arrival and support to be reunited with family in a third country where applicable.

This is not a case of wishing these unaccompanied minors back to their homelands – which would be as illegal and expensive as it is immoral. It’s a choice between finding a legal path to reunifying families and leaving children to make dangerous journeys alone, effectively placing them in the hands of traffickers.

The response to the influx of refugee children – with honorable exceptions such as the Greek charity METAdrasi, which has provided heroic support – has been to wave them on their way to a smugglers’ march through the Balkans. The nearest thing to concerted action has been to close Greece’s northern border and leave the lost children trapped.

Some reluctant governments have sought cover for their inaction in official statistics. There are fewer than 800 registered unaccompanied minors currently known to be in Greece, where most of them have become stuck due to the closure of the land route to central Europe.

In reality, only a small fraction of the refugee children who have landed in Greece have been detected and registered. Their numbers are hidden both by the inadequacy of the official response on the islands and the ingenuity of the children themselves, who have often been told by smugglers or relatives to avoid detection by the Greek police.

According to Giving for Greece, an umbrella fund for front-line charities operating in the country, the cost of giving essential support to these vulnerable minors is around 17,000 euros per child for the next 12 months. The fund, operated by Greece’s Bodossaki Foundation, says this would pay for a functioning welfare system, secure food and accommodation, as well as access to health, education and legal services. It amounts to 13.6 million euros over the next year for those children who now seem set to be trapped in Greece for the foreseeable future. If this sounds expensive, one should stop to consider the 6 billion euros that have just been pledged to Turkey by the E.U. under murky conditions.

What are the alternatives? The head of Europe’s Criminal Intelligence Agency, Brian Donald, recently suggested that 10,000 refugee children have gone missing in the year or more since the refugee crisis exploded. This number has been widely reported in the media. It is the closest we have to an official estimate. And it is entirely hollow. It is not underpinned by any reliable numbers or reporting. It is a guess with the weight of an official agency.

Europol says it is investigating organized criminal networks believed to be targeting vulnerable children – many of whom are on an odyssey from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to a presumed safe haven in northern Europe.

The failure to provide them with even basic welfare, support or protection is the product of three interlocking crises: Europe’s divisive and partial response to the debt burden carried by its southern members; the influx of refugees and migrants pulled along by the historic exodus from Syria; and the collapse of reporting resources in Greece’s traditional media.

The interplay between them has left Europe’s most fragile state, Greece, overwhelmed and has brought the E.U.’s borders and asylum policies to the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the lost children have been left to wander into a largely unreported gray zone. Without more in-depth reporting we remain effectively blind to the human consequences of this. Not only do we not know how many children are missing or what has happened to them, for the most part we are not trying to find out. What we don’t know can diminish us.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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