A new report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (Euro-Med Monitor) has revealed a significant disparity in the treatment of unaccompanied minors of asylum seekers compared to the accompanied ones in Europe. This included depriving the unaccompanied minors of legal protections, detaining them, and the insufficiency of services provided to them in several European countries.
On Thursday, the Euro-Med Monitor released a comprehensive report titled “Happiness, Love and Understanding: The Protection of Unaccompanied Minors in the 27 EU Member States.” A copy of this report was forwarded to the Arabi21 website, and it highlighted various shortcomings in reception procedures and protection offered to unaccompanied minor asylum seekers across the 27 member states of the European Union (EU).
The report evaluates the policies and practices of each European country to shed light on the condition of human rights for minor asylum seekers in the states under international human rights law and European law.
The report revealed that there is often a significant difference in treatment between accompanied and unaccompanied minors. Accompanied minors enjoy, in a fully supportive family environment, more safety guarantees provided by the state than their unaccompanied counterparts. In Malta, for instance, the detention of unaccompanied asylum-seeker children is frequent, while the detention of accompanied asylum-seeker children is rare.
Authorities often fail to implement policies concerning unaccompanied minors, which should take into account that they are legally underage and alone. This often results in the disappearance of unaccompanied minors, as in Austria in 2021, for instance, 78 per cent of all unaccompanied minor applicants disappeared. The report also confirmed a clear gap in services targeting unaccompanied minors, especially in relation to education and integration, as the case in Portugal and France.
The report emphasised numerous shortcomings in dealing with unaccompanied children in each EU member state. The most notable and widespread practices are systematic deportations at the borders of Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Cyprus, Romania, France, Italy, Slovenia and Spain, as well as ill-treatment, humiliation, and beatings perpetrated by police officers in Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia and Romania, violating the principle of prohibition of torture and the right of unaccompanied minors to seek asylum.
Similar to adult asylum seekers, the increasing number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in recent years can be attributed to ongoing violence, inconsistent living standards and limited economic opportunities in many developing countries.
In their home countries, children might face numerous and specific threats due to their young age, more than adults might encounter. These threats include child labour, early marriage, female genital mutilation, forced recruitment and human trafficking for prostitution or sexual exploitation, in addition to being associated with their families’ views or activities, which might lead them to form opinions that result in their persecution.
According to the data presented in the report, EU member states received about 881,200 asylum applications in 2022, including 39,520 applications from unaccompanied minors, the highest number since 2015, marking a 45 per cent increase from 2021, when these countries received 23,255 applications.
However, the proportion of unaccompanied minors remained relatively stable at about 4 per cent of the total number of international protection seekers. The increase in their numbers in 2021 can be attributed to the overall increase in asylum applications, more than the disproportionate influx of unaccompanied minors.
The report explained that the overall rise in the number of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers is due to the increased arrivals from Afghanistan when the Taliban assumed power in August 2021, in addition to a large number of arrivals from Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
Although the total number of unaccompanied minors in EU countries was relatively small, there are significant disparities in patterns at the country level. The highest proportion of unaccompanied minor asylum applications in 2022 was recorded in Bulgaria, with a rate of 17 per cent of total applications, followed by Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands with 12 per cent, and Hungary with 11 per cent. These figures indicate that a large number of unaccompanied minors arrived in EU countries and European Economic Area countries through the Balkan routes.
In terms of gender, males were the vast majority of unaccompanied minors, at a rate reaching 93 per cent, while females were only 7 per cent. Despite an increase in the rate of girls among children coming from Somalia, girls remained a minority among unaccompanied minors of all nationalities. In terms of age, 70 per cent of all applicants were between the ages of 16 and 17, followed by the 14-15 age group at 23 per cent, and 7 per cent were under 14 years of age.
The EU nations theoretically prohibit the detention of unaccompanied minors under both international and national law; however, in practice they permit it. In Belgium, for example, unaccompanied minors who do not possess residence permits can be detained during age assessment procedures, a process that could last for several weeks.
In Bulgaria, over the past two years, border police often registered unaccompanied children who were stopped at the border without valid documents as if they were accompanied by any adults travelling with them. This procedure was to justify their inclusion in an adult detention order, thus detaining them illegally.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Cypriot Minister of Interior closed all reception centres and transformed them into detention centres. Among those detained were families with children and unaccompanied minors, although the provisions of the national law prohibit the detention of unaccompanied minors.
In the Czech Republic, authorities detain unaccompanied minors who are over 15 years of age. The law does not distinguish between these minors and adults, and an unaccompanied minor may be detained under the same circumstances as an adult until the completion of an age assessment in cases where their true age is unknown.
As of 1 February, 2022, until the end of the last year, 416 children were detained in Polish detention centres. Meanwhile, Slovakia detained around 175 unaccompanied minors in the first half of 2021, despite the relatively low number of arriving minors.
The report showed that the primary obstacles preventing unaccompanied children from accessing protection in European countries are the timely determination that they are minors, the long waiting time for the appointment of a legal guardian – which often does not occur until an age assessment proves that the individual is under the legal age, as in Slovakia – and the lack of any guarantees in case of uncertainty about a minor’s age, which could lead to a violation of the “presumption of minority” principle. This is in addition to detaining minors in dangerous “waiting zones” with adults, as in France and the Czech Republic.
According to the report, unaccompanied asylum seekers suffer from a severe lack of adequate housing and healthcare. They are often accommodated in overcrowded reception centres with insufficient access to essential services, as in Malta, Slovenia and Lithuania, or they are even forced to sleep on the streets, as in Greece and France.
The report concluded that the policies and practices imposed on unaccompanied asylum seekers in European countries blatantly contradict European law, international law and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Euro-Med Monitor called for the enforcement of the principle of the child’s best interest, in a way that ensures the protection of unaccompanied asylum seekers in European countries from forcible return. The call includes housing them in reception facilities dedicated to minors, enabling them access to education and facilitating their integration into society, avoiding detaining them and granting them the right to be treated as children in all administrative procedures related to their status. The report also recommends the immediate appointment of a guardian capable of building a reciprocal trust relationship with the child.