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Outrage Over Unaccompanied Minors Highlights Massive E.U. Data Gap

While headlines about “missing children” stir moral outcry, the reality is that E.U. data on unaccompanied minors is full of holes and discrepancies. Researchers Nando Sigona and Rachel Humphris argue for better data to address the real needs of refugee children.

Written by Nando Sigona and Rachel Humphris Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A child looks on in an unfinished building site, near the train station at Thessaloniki, Greece, which migrants and other refugees use as a temporary shelter. AP/Mstyslav Chernov

Early in 2015, the E.U.’s law enforcement agency, Europol, denounced the disappearance of 10,000 unaccompanied minors with a warning that they may be victims of criminal networks. Despite questions over the validity of this figure, it sparked a moral outcry. The “killer number,” as charities and aid agencies privately referred to it, was too powerful a call to action to bother deconstructing.

Valid numbers, however, do matter.

A more rigorous scrutiny of the available data can improve our understanding of the phenomenon of “missing” children and its main structural causes, and help refocus policy efforts to address the actual situation of child migrants.

Child migration to Europe is diverse. While unaccompanied minors are prominent in the public debate and official data, other children – particularly undocumented minors or those with asylum-seeking parents – are often invisible in data and policy.

Over 1 million people reached Italy and Greece by sea in 2015. The large majority of them are young men and women, including 250,000 children. According to data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration, 94 percent of these children came to Greece, while a far smaller contingent – around 16,500 – arrived in Italy.

A closer look at the data on children arriving in Italy and Greece shows remarkable differences in their countries of origin and whether the children traveled alone.

The overwhelming majority of minors from Egypt – 98 percent – and Gambia – 96 percent – traveled alone on the treacherous sea crossing from North Africa. The opposite was the case for the young Syrians.

In Greece, where Syrians and Afghans make up the largest national groups of migrants arriving by sea, Syrian children are more likely to travel with someone responsible for them, but this is not the case for Afghan minors.

Top five nationalities and travel arrangements of under-18 arrivals in Italy in 2015. Elaboration: Nando Sigona; Source: IOM

Top five nationalities and travel arrangements of under-18 arrivals in Italy in 2015. Elaboration: Nando Sigona; Source: IOM

Sea arrivals should not be conflated with asylum data. Not all migrants arriving by boat apply for asylum, and not everyone applying for asylum came on a boat. E.U. asylum data shows that 1.26 million first-time asylum applications were lodged in 2015, and 365,000 of the applicants were under 18 years old. Only 90,000 of them were recorded as unaccompanied minors.

Yet, there are substantial differences in international, European and national definitions of unaccompanied children. These definitions are important because different categories provide different levels of protection in law or in practice.

Some countries, including Italy, Spain and France, afford protection to unaccompanied children mostly on the basis of age and separation from relatives, leaving the consideration of the child’s asylum claim as secondary. In other countries, the status of the child’s asylum claim is paramount and is initiated at an early stage. This can lead to the quick dismissal of claims made by minors from so-called safe countries. There have been attempts to achieve some coherence at the E.U. level, but these have not always been successful.

There are also significant differences in the way data are collected on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and how identification occurs. In the U.K., each of the four nations differs in the way they collect and publish their statistics.

Data on unaccompanied minors in the E.U. is aggregated from national statistics. As children may be moving between European countries, this process paradoxically can produce two opposite results: double counting and missing children.

A child may be recorded as unaccompanied upon arrival in Italy, for example, and then join family members elsewhere in Europe and lodge an asylum application as an “accompanied” minor. The paradox here is that a child can be counted as missing in Italy, reappear in another E.U. country and then be counted again under a different bureaucratic label. This phenomenon may be more widespread than many assume.

This can happen even within countries. Evidence from the research project Becoming Adult, for example, shows that double counting of unaccompanied minors is common in Italy.

E.U. data collection has struggled to adjust to the rapid movement of people across European borders. For example, age and gender are not often disaggregated for children arriving at the E.U.’s southern borders, in all transit countries, or for all dependents in asylum claims.

Disaggregated data would reveal the hitherto invisible children in Europe who are identified as “accompanied.” This is crucial because the majority of migrant and refugee children who reach Europe by sea are accompanied.

There is also an absence of data on family reunification and deficiencies in data on detention and return, particularly those who arrived as unaccompanied minors but have since reached 18 years of age.

The Europol announcement was far too appealing for well-meaning NGOs, advocates and politicians who were genuinely concerned with the plight of this invisible army of potential slaves. While the existence of cases of exploitation and trafficking is unquestionable, scrutiny of the data raises questions over the magnitude of the phenomenon and how Europol reached its figures.

Better data can improve our understanding of what drives unaccompanied children to go missing and help us to refocus our efforts to address the structural causes of the phenomenon, not least the E.U.’s policy and practices towards these children, in order to improve the situation of lone refugee and migrant children.

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

A full breakdown of this analysis of comparative data is available here.

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