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Unaccompanied refugee minors in Europe: Trapped between detention and deportation

Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camp
Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camps [File photo]

Unaccompanied minors make up the most vulnerable group of refugees attempting to claim asylum in Europe. Since the EU-Turkey deal came into action on 20 March support systems that previously aided and registered these cases have been left without the structures necessary to do so. Lone migrants ranging from 10-18 years old now find themselves detained for long periods of time while the authorities attempt to establish their eligibility for a claim to remain.

A recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed that there had been a four-fold increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving between 2014 and 2015. While the figures for 2016 remain unconfirmed, concerns over exploitation and trafficking are widespread as pleas for help from aid agencies on the ground continue to fall on deaf ears.

The motivations for making these perilous journeys, through the Turkey-Balkan route or across the Mediterranean to Italy, include fleeing violence, persecution and economic hardship. Seventeen-year-old Omar from Eritrea whose asylum is being processed in Sweden said he left home because of “fear mainly, I was scared of the government, if they take me into the army then that would be it. You can be under 18, they just take you in.”

Many of the minors travelling, particularly those from Sub-Saharan Africa, have been migrating from country to country before they cross the Mediterranean. Omar said: “I was just thinking of staying in Sudan but then I heard about the Libya route and my family sent me the money to make the trip”.  He continued, “I didn’t know of the dangers. It was so hard to get to Sweden, you can’t imagine.”

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According to Imad Aoun, Save the Children’s regional response communications manager in Greece, last year the highest number of unaccompanied children applying for asylum in the EU were from Afghanistan. The ongoing threat from armed groups like the Taliban and Daesh has led to an exodus of young Afghan boys fleeing forced recruitment.

When asked what opinion he had of Europe before arriving in Sweden, 15-year-old Abbas from Afghanistan said: “Honestly I was not thinking about Europe as an end goal, that’s just how it came about. I heard that there is work there and money.” A well known advantage for vetted unaccompanied minors is the understanding that their family member(s) can also be brought over.

The special treatment that unaccompanied refugee minors are entitled to receive has resulted in many young adults arriving in Europe claiming to be under 18. Simon McMahon spent time in the reception centres for unaccompanied children conducting research for the MEDMIG project. He said: “I ended up seeing a lot of people with the birthday 1st January 1997 which would just make people 18.” The fact remains that many arrive without any documentation and some don’t actually know their exact date of birth.

To complicate matters further there are also unaccompanied minors who say they are adults. Aoun said: “Some of them are told, ‘if you tell the authorities you are under 18 they are going to send you back or lock you up’.” Determining an individual’s age is a complex and inaccurate process involving wrist measurements and examining teeth.  Apart from being ethicallyquestionable, these results leave a three-year margin oferror.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalis, Sweden registered the most asylum applications by lone children last year with 35,369 followed by Germany with 14,439. The success rate of children being granted a permanent residency last year in Sweden was 66 per cent. In comparison the UK’s was just 23 per cent. Hany is a Syrian refugee himself who now works in a local community project for unaccompanied minors in Sundsvall, Sweden. The vast majority of the children he looks after are of Afghan origin and as young as 13 years old. When asked what happens to those who are found to be over 18 he said: “They are moved to a place for adults. I think then it is very hard or even impossible to get a positive decision from immigration after they discover that they are lying.” As Afghans are legally considered migrants, not refugees, they would likely face deportation if found to be 18 or over. With the borders now shut the issue of age assessments now falls on the ill-equipped reception centres across Italy and Greece.

Yet since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect it has left chaos in its wake. Save the Children’s Team Leader in Greece, Amy Frost, outlined the immediate impact this had on unaccompanied minors arriving there.

She said: “Most of them were on their way to reunite with family members in Western Europe when the borders shut overnight, leaving them trapped in a transit facility along with another 12,500 people.”

Living conditions in the reception camps are terrible and unaccompanied minors suffer from a lack of legal and psychological support. Aoun affirmed that “75 per cent of unaccompanied children in Greece have no suitable facilities to stay in.” Unfortunately aid agencies now operate in a limited capacity since EU officials have taken over the provision of services. It is widely felt that the EU is to blame and has fundamentally failed to resource the scheme.

Currently an unknown number of children are being held in police custody across Europe as the authorities simply don’t know where to put them. Many of the young lone refugees have suffered trauma prior to their arrival and locking them up serves to add to their distress. Aoun said of the Greek case: “We have spoken to children who have said that they have contemplated suicide because they have no idea what to do, they are locked in these facilities they do the same thing every day.”

With such dire prospects in the camps it is no surprise that unaccompanied children feel their only hope is to leave these so-called secure areas and embark on alternative routes. However relying on illegal trafficking networks out of the reach of the aid agencies or governments leave them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

In January Europol estimated that 10,000 child refugees had gone missing since arriving in Europe. Aoun warned of the loop holes in such data, “it makes it look like children are disappearing but in fact it is just an error because they are registered here as adults and there as children.” Europol responded that they have not collected data specifically linked to underage minors being trafficked but they have found a worrying overlap in suspects involved in human trafficking that appear now in the files relating to migrant smuggling.

The combination of illegal travel, administrative errors and inconsistencies in registration means that the data collected of unaccompanied minors is less representative than ever before. Closed borders since the EU-Turkey deal have served to push the unaccompanied minors, like other refugees, under the radar. There seems to be no end in sight as the authorities continue to turn a blind eye.

“The only ones who are benefiting from this are the smuggling networks,” Aoun said. Whether we choose to register them or not, young unaccompanied refugees are in Europe and it remains the EU’s responsibility to protect them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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