Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Story of ‘Missing Children’: Unaccompanied Minors in the Prevailing Refugee Crisis



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Guest post by Arpita Mitra, MSc student in Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Oxford. Arpita has a BA in sociology from the University of Delhi. Her research interests include youth justice, transnational crimes and juvenile delinquency in the context of transitional justice, with special emphasis on South Asian politics. Follow Arpita on Twitter @msarpitamitra.

This article examines the situation of refugee and migrant children, who are increasingly becoming victims of human trafficking in their efforts to reach Europe. The concept of ‘missing children’ is examined, in order to emphasise the lack of adequate documentation of unaccompanied minors, the increasing control of refugee camps by traffickers and other gangs of organised crime, and the multi-faceted understanding of the conditions of criminality in Europe.

(Photo: Armend Nimany)
The recent trend of mass migration has been a common feature of media outlets and the topic of numerous reports. With over 1.2 million people entering the European continent since 2015, questions around the experiences of conflict, the threat of persecution, and gross human rights violations have resurfaced political and academic consciousness. The ‘burden’ of the refugee crisis has developed alongside the discourse of responsibilisation, which downplay the needs of individuals coming from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan, to name a few. Consequently, the news concerning a three-year old Syrian boy found dead on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey became an alarming call for political leaders to revisit the plight of refugee unaccompanied children.

An unaccompanied minor is defined as an individual ‘who has been separated from both parents and other relatives and is not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so’. As the borders along regions such as the Balkans are increasingly shut and re-fortified to limit the in-flow of refugees and asylum seekers, security concerns and rights of unaccompanied children pose greater challenges. It has been reported that children currently account for more than one third of the total migrant population arriving in Europe. According to the European Commission, around 3,500 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum status in Europe in the month of January 2016 alone. Boys between the ages of 14 and 16 years constitute 90 percent of the total proportion of minors travelling in the absence of parents or guardians. They’re typically sent off by their respective guardians based on the calculation that even the potentially life-threatening journey to Europe provides their children with a better chance at a good life than remaining in countries where bombs and bullets are part of their daily existence.

In this context, questions are emerging with respect to ‘missing and disappearing children’ and, more specifically, the conditions and situations to which they are disappearing. Such concerns place unaccompanied child refugees in a continuum wherein they not only leave one site of exploitation (i.e., the state of conflict in their home country), but are increasingly made vulnerable to other zones of exploitation through their migration. They also highlight the multiple, inter-related causes of deprivation that child refugees experience and the manner in which acts of criminality may occur as the by-product of coercive circumstances and ‘alternative’ techniques of survival.

An existing ‘pan-European criminal infrastructure’ with regards to organised crime groups is mushrooming, as gangs seek to exploit the increasing migration flow in order to smuggle children into human trafficking, under the pretence of easier entry into Europe. Unaccompanied refugee children are, thus, key targets for the purposes of sexual exploitation and child labour. Not only does this situation indicate the extent to which camps fall under the control of traffickers, it also problematises the notion that border control mechanisms exist at the cusp, demarcating binaries of legality-illegality.

(Photo: Getty images)
Under the EU law specific to child refugees and children seeking asylum, key requirements are established to: (a) recognise enhanced vulnerability of unaccompanied minors to sexual abuse/exploitation and/or human trafficking; (b) appoint guardians or representatives for the child victim of human trafficking; and (c) ensure ‘special protective provisions’ such as free legal counselling, representation and child-sensitive conduct of investigations and trial hearings among others. The case of ‘missing children’ goes against the basic principle of providing ‘international protection for unaccompanied minors’ (also mentioned under the Directive 2013/33/EU).

Beyond the prevailing ‘anti-migration sentiments,’ a key limitation in addressing the refugee crisis relates to the lack of infrastructure in Europe to support unaccompanied minors. In fact, president of METAdrasi, Lora Pappa, acknowledges the delayed and complicated procedure of registering unaccompanied minors and cross-checking the identity of adults who present themselves as separated relatives of the child. With the number of unaccompanied children entering Europe increasing fourfold since 2014, individual nation-states present grim statistics on missing and disappearing children at the border.

For example, local authorities in Finland, including the Finnish reception units, have ‘no clue’ about the 2,500 asylum seekers who have ‘disappeared’ under their supervision. Similar trends are noted in the more ‘favoured destinations’ for unaccompanied under-age asylum seekers such as Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Approximately 5,835 refugee children have been reported missing in Germany alone, 555 of whom are under the age of 14. While some of them will have been reunited with members of their family, a significant number comprise of unaccompanied minors, who have come into contact with gangs that facilitate various forms of international organised crime. Therefore, the link between agents seeking to smuggle people inside the European Union and trafficking gangs exploiting the vulnerabilities of unaccompanied minors accounts for part of this disturbing reality.

The tightening of border control policies have heightened the ‘fear’ of getting caught, or being sent back to the country of origin. This fear urges some unaccompanied minors to ‘invisibilise’ themselves to the authorities as a means to continue their respective journeys in Europe. At the same time, the decision to be invisible becomes counterproductive to the protection of rights of unaccompanied children in the light of growing risks of trafficking. How do we then account for ‘crimes of coercion’ or criminality involving such children, which are clearly driven by force, threat, or other forms of coercion? 

“I know that if I pay or offer sex, I will cross more quickly. I have been asked to do this. It’s hard to say no. They have not forced me yet, but they do force other girls.”

This statement by 16-year old Martha reveals the experiences of unaccompanied children on their way to the Calais refugee camp along the French coast. Her experiences echo several other reported crimes concerning young refugee boys who have been routinely raped in these camps. The inability to pay steep entry-fee subjects unaccompanied children to various forms of coercion, one of them being to commit an act otherwise deemed as ‘criminal’. This is a phenomenon reported by UNICEF as ‘helping migrants evade law enforcement, opening lorries and selling drugs or food donated by volunteers in trafficker-controlled night-time markets.’ Thus, loopholes in the protection of unaccompanied refugee children under the European Law create a favourable environment for members of organised crime groups to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of these children in the context of migration.

Although they enter Europe in the hope of escaping the violence and uncertainty plaguing their home country, they are continuously pulled in the vicious cycle of deprivation that involves forced recruitment into acts of economic and sexual exploitation.  The ‘necessity of allowing oneself to be sexually abused’ could become an everyday compromise for many children, transforming our understanding of what constitutes the causality for acts of crime. This, in turn, brings to fore the question of responsibilisation that not only problematises the enforcement of European law with regards to refugees, but also places children beyond a victim-perpetrator binary. 

While political leaders and policy makers have been concerned about the likely ‘risks’ of incorporating immigrants and refugees in European nation-states, little attention has been paid to the conditions that not only deprive unaccompanied children of their rights but also coerce them into further acts of criminality. Who constitutes a greater risk and to whom? What does this refugee crisis comprise of? Why does the increasing victimisation of unaccompanied refugee children continue to remain sparsely represented? These questions call for greater elaboration in the academic and political discourse.

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