Documents considered by the Committee on 22 November 2017 Contents

21Protecting migrant children

Committee’s assessment

Politically important

Committee’s decision

Not cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights

Document details

Commission Communication: The protection of children in migration

Legal base


Home Office

Document Number

(38665), 8297/17 + ADD 1, COM(17) 211

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

21.1Over 100,000 refugee and migrant children arrived in the European Union in 2016. Most of these children entered the EU through Greece (nearly 64,000) and Italy (just over 28,000). 92% of refugee and migrant children arriving in Greece came with their families. By contrast, 92% of refugee and migrant children crossing the Central Mediterranean to Italy were unaccompanied or separated, meaning that they arrived without any family members or had been separated from their parents during their journey to Europe.264 All refugee and migrant children are at risk of physical and psychological harm, family separation, detention and limited access to education and recreation. Unaccompanied or separated children are particularly vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse. In January 2016, Europol estimated that more than 10,000 refugee and migrant children had gone missing since arriving in Europe and many were likely to be victims of human trafficking, labour or sexual exploitation.265 They are also at risk of marginalisation and radicalisation, as well as forced marriage.

21.2All EU Member States are bound by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and are required to ensure that “the best interests of the child” are “a primary consideration” in any actions or decisions they take affecting children. There are specific obligations to protect children against economic and sexual exploitation as well as “other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare”.266 Conscious that the treatment of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children presents particular challenges for Member States, the Commission published an Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors in 2010 which sought to establish a more coherent approach across the EU. Its purpose was to ensure that “any child needing protection receives it and that, regardless of their immigration status, citizenship or background, all children are treated as children first and foremost”.267 The Action Plan covered a five year period from 2010 to 2014. During most of this time, the number of unaccompanied children applying for asylum in the EU remained fairly stable (averaging around 12,000 a year from 2008 to 2013), but in 2014 it almost doubled (to just over 23,000).

21.3The Action Plan expired at the end of 2014, shortly before the refugee and migration crisis in Europe reached its peak. According to data published by the EU’s statistical office—Eurostat—minors (children under the age of 18) constituted nearly one third of all first-time asylum applicants in 2016. 63,000 of the 1.2 million individuals applying for asylum in the EU in 2016 were considered to be unaccompanied children, a smaller proportion than in 2015 when there were 90,000 unaccompanied children amongst the 1.26 million asylum applicants.268 These figures demonstrate the scale of the challenge facing Member States in managing the largest influx of refugees and migrants since the aftermath of the Second World War but may well under-represent the actual number of unaccompanied children in Europe, since an unknown proportion may not have been registered on their arrival or applied for asylum.

21.4The Commission recognises that “behind the statistics, there are individual children that live through a range of experiences linked to migration, many of them traumatic” and that they require “specific and appropriate protection”.269 Whilst it considers that there is “a wealth of knowledge and good practice in Member States on the protection of children in migration”, it says that the migration and refugee crisis has “exposed gaps and shortcomings”. The purpose of its latest Communication, The protection of children in migration (published in April), is to “provide a series of coordinated and effective actions to the pressing protection gaps and needs that children face once they reach Europe”.270 These actions are intended to ensure a joined-up approach at EU, national, regional and local levels and to help Member States fulfil their responsibility to protect children in migration by providing more effective training, guidance, operational support and funding. According to the Commission’s First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans:

“The number of children arriving in the EU with or without their families has increased dramatically. We need to make sure that children who need protection actually receive it. And we need to do it now. This is our moral duty as well as our legal responsibility. Children should be our top priority as they are the most vulnerable, especially when they have nobody to guide them. That is why today we are setting out a number of concrete actions to better protect, support and take care of the best interests of all children who are arriving in the European Union.”271

21.5EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers agreed a set of Conclusions in June which welcomed the Commission Communication, recognised the need to protect children from violence, exploitation and trafficking and underlined the need for “the best interests of the child” to be “a primary consideration in all actions or decisions concerning children”. The Ministers called on Member States to protect children at all stages of migration and to take full account of their vulnerability when examining the Commission’s asylum reform proposals. They invited the Commission to report regularly on the implementation of the actions contained in the Communication.272

21.6The Immigration Minister (Brandon Lewis) notes the outcome of the referendum in June 2016 and the UK’s decision to leave the EU, adding:

“Until exit negotiations are concluded, the UK remains a full member of the European Union and all the rights and obligations of EU membership remain in force. During this period the Government will continue to negotiate, implement and apply EU legislation.”273

21.7He provides an overview of the measures taken by the UK to address the root causes of migration, safeguard unaccompanied and separated children along the main migratory routes to Europe and ensure adequate reception conditions on arrival. He explains that the Government is developing a safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children in the UK which will include an increased focus on foster care provision and measures to prevent children going missing from care. The Government has launched an Independent Child Trafficking Advocates service to support trafficked children in the UK and is funding projects at home and overseas to protect children at risk of trafficking. The Minister describes the action being taken to reunite unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with family in the UK under the Dublin rules and to implement section 67 of the Immigration Act 1967 which provides for unaccompanied refugee children elsewhere in Europe to be brought to the UK. He questions whether the Commission’s emphasis on guardianship systems to safeguard unaccompanied children would prove any more effective than the protection currently provided by local authorities’ children’s services in the UK.

21.8The Minister confirms that the Government will “continue to negotiate, implement and apply EU legislation” until the UK leaves the EU but does not set out the Government’s position on non-binding policy documents, such as this Communication. Does the Government intend to remain in lockstep with policy guidance issued by the Commission until Brexit day or to pursue a different path in areas where the UK is not constrained by EU law?

21.9The Commission intends to produce further guidance on how to carry out assessments of “the best interests of the child” which will be supplemented by specific guidance from the European Asylum Support Office on reception conditions for unaccompanied children and on age assessment procedures. How much importance does the Minister attach to EU-level guidance in these areas and to what extent does he expect the guidance to be consistent with standards and procedures applied in the UK?

21.10We note the Minister’s reservations about the Commission’s advocacy of legal guardians as a means of safeguarding the interests of unaccompanied children and his preference for the UK model in which each local authority’s children’s services has formal responsibility for the welfare of unaccompanied children. Does he consider that it would be feasible and beneficial for the UK to participate in the guardianship network which the Commission intends to set up later this year as a forum for sharing best practice?

21.11The Commission highlights the lack of precise data on the number of refugee and migrant children who go missing from reception facilities once they have reached Europe and says it intends to establish a repository of data on all children in migration and launch a consultation on the methodology for collecting the data. Does the UK have reliable data on the number of refugee and migrant children who go missing from local authority care? Would the Government support a more uniform methodology for collecting such data?

21.12We note that the Communication does not exclude the possibility that children may be accommodated in closed reception facilities but makes clear that detention should be “a last resort” and used only in “exceptional circumstances, where strictly necessary”.274 We ask the Minister whether this is consistent with the Government’s policy on administrative detention and to indicate the numbers of refugee or migrant children held in detention since the beginning of 2015.

21.13UNICEF estimates that around 25,800 unaccompanied or separated children arrived in Italy by sea in 2016.275 Data for the first quarter of 2017 suggest that there will be an even higher number in 2017.276 We ask the Minister how many unaccompanied children have been transferred to the UK from Italy and Greece under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 and under the family reunification provisions of the Dublin Regulation since the peak of the migration and refugee crisis in Europe in 2015.

21.14Finally, we would welcome some indication of the contribution made by EU funds to support the various policy measures described in the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum and whether the Government intends to compensate for their loss post-Brexit.

21.15Pending further information, the Communication remains under scrutiny. We draw this chapter to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Full details of the documents

Commission Communication: The protection of children in migration: (38665), 8297/17 + ADD 1, COM(17) 211.

The Commission Communication

21.16The Commission makes clear that “protecting all children in migration, regardless of status and at all stages of migration, is a priority”.277 The Communication starts with a series of actions to address the root causes of migration before moving onto the protection of refugee and migrant children once they are in the EU and cross-cutting actions to ensure more effective implementation.278 The actions are mainly addressed to Member States but identify areas in which the Commission and relevant EU agencies—the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (formerly Frontex), the European Asylum Support Office and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency—are able to provide operational support.

Addressing root causes and protecting children along migrant routes

21.17The Commission says that protracted conflict, forced displacement, violence and exploitation, unequal living standards and a lack of economic opportunity are amongst the root causes of migration. Children travelling on their own or who have become separated from their families are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and smuggling networks and are often unable to access child protection mechanisms along the migration route. The EU and Member States should therefore:

Ensuring swift identification and protection

21.18The Commission underlines the importance of identifying and registering refugee and migrant children on their arrival within the EU so that their special protection needs can be assessed at an early stage and family tracing and reunification processes initiated as quickly as possible. It highlights the risk of exploitation and trafficking and the need to ensure that national referral and reporting mechanisms work as effectively for refugee and migrant children as they do for all other children. The Commission says it will support Member States in their efforts to:

Providing adequate reception facilities in the EU

21.19The Commission observes that “appropriate child protection and security measures are not yet in place in all reception facilities”. It highlights the need for safe accommodation, psychosocial support, health care and access to education and recreation and says it will invite the European Asylum Support Office to develop specific guidance on reception conditions for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children during 2017.

21.20The Commission makes clear that the detention of refugee and migrant children should be used “exclusively in exceptional circumstances, where strictly necessary, only as a last resort, for the shortest time possible, and never in prison accommodation”.280 It says it will seek to ensure that viable alternatives to detention are available. It will also support Member States in ensuring that:

Procedural safeguards

21.21The Commission notes the crucial role that guardians play in safeguarding the rights of all unaccompanied children, including those who do not apply for asylum, but highlights “major shortcomings” in the functioning of guardianship systems in some Member States. It therefore intends to establish a European guardianship network during 2017 to develop and exchange good practice and guidance. It suggests that there are deficiencies or disparities in other important child protection measures—access to information and legal representation, the right to be heard, the right to an effective remedy, and age assessment methods—which may undermine the safeguards available to children during asylum or return procedures. The Commission makes clear that where the results of an age assessment are inconclusive, the individual concerned should be presumed to be a child. It says it will invite the European Asylum Support Office to update its guidance on age assessment during 2017.

21.22The Commission considers that the provisions of the Dublin Regulation which give priority to reuniting asylum-seeking families are under-utilised and “sometimes take months to be implemented”. Family tracing and reunification processes are also often protracted and start too late, particularly in cases involving unaccompanied or separated children. Asylum or other procedures for determining the status of migrant children are too frequently subject to delays and progress has been slow in relocating unaccompanied and separated children from Greece and Italy—by early April 2017, 341 children had been relocated from Greece but only one from Italy. The Commission says it will assist Member States in:

Ensuring durable solutions

21.23The emphasis placed on durable solutions which provide long term stability for refugee and migrant children stems from the obligation to act in the best interests of each child. The Commission outlines a range of options—integration in a Member State, return to the country of origin or reunification with family members in a third country—and makes clear that while investigating the best outcome in each case, children should have access to education, health care and psychosocial support. Their legal status should be established as quickly as possible so that effective integration measures can be taken at an early stage to manage the transition from childhood to adulthood. The Commission says it will promote the exchange of good practice and provide funding for integration measures. It urges Member States to:

Cross-cutting actions

21.24The Commission says it will produce additional guidance on how to carry out assessments of the “best interests of the child” to ensure that the most appropriate “durable solution” is identified in each case. It highlights a need for more EU-funded research on the integration of refugee and migrant children in national education systems as well as child protection training for individuals involved in their care and protection. EU funding will only be granted to organisations that have internal child protection policies in place. The Commission notes that data on refugee and migrant children are “very fragmented, not always disaggregated by age and sex and not always comparable, making children and their needs ‘invisible’.” Worryingly, there are no precise data on the number of such children who go missing or abscond from reception facilities. The Commission therefore intends to compile a data repository on all children in migration (whether or not they apply for asylum) and to launch a consultation by the end of 2017 on possible improvements to the methodology for collecting data relating to children and migration. The Commission also intends to collect and disseminate good practice on the protection of children in migration via an online database. Meanwhile, it urges Member States to ensure that:

The Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum of 13 July 2017

21.25The Minister provides an overview of the measures taken by the UK to address the issues highlighted by the Commission in the Communication. He expresses the Government’s commitment to “addressing the root causes of migration, including the drivers of conflict, instability and lack of economic opportunities in key source countries”, adding:

“The UK provides significant support to origin countries to reduce push factors, build stability, create livelihoods and combat trafficking networks. The UK pioneered a new approach to protracted crises at the London Syria Conference in February 2016 through the Jordan and Lebanon compacts, which go beyond people’s basic needs and invest in education, jobs and livelihoods. The UK has also committed £80 million to the Ethiopia jobs compact, an agreement with the Government of Ethiopia, the World Bank, European Investment Bank and the EU to create 100,000 new jobs for Ethiopians and refugees in Ethiopia.

“In Syria, the UK has pledged £2.46 billion, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. In 2015/2016, across Syria and the region, the UK provided almost 250,000 people with basic mental health support. In addition, over 265,000 victims of sexual and gender based violence in Syria and over 30,000 in the region were provided with specialist support, many of whom were children.

“The UK is committed to safeguarding the welfare of unaccompanied and separated children along migratory routes and ensuring they are provided with adequate reception in the EU. We agree with the recognition of the need to protect children along migratory routes from violence, exploitation and trafficking. Since 2015, the UK has allocated over £100m humanitarian assistance to the Mediterranean migration crisis response. To date, this support has provided more than 1.5 million relief items to people affected by the Mediterranean migration crisis, and more than 1.9 million meals for vulnerable refugees and migrants in Europe. At the June European Council, the Prime Minister announced a further £75m focused on the Central Mediterranean route. This will meet the urgent humanitarian needs of migrants, facilitate voluntary returns and build the capacity of governments to manage migration.”281

21.26The Minister notes that the UK runs two aid programmes which provide support to unaccompanied children in Europe and countries along key migration routes:

“The £10m Refugee Children Fund for Europe identifies and responds to the most pressing needs of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Greece and the Balkans. This support provides safe accommodation, educational activities, family reunification, psychosocial support, translation and legal advice, as well as training of officials in child protection, asylum and foster care alternatives. In addition, the £8 million Women and Girls Protection Fund for Europe and the Mediterranean protects women and girl refugees and migrants by providing shelters as a safe alternative to dangerous camp environments, providing tailor-made protection services, and strengthening national counter-trafficking mechanisms. This support includes enhanced protection, shelter, psychosocial and legal support, food and other emergency assistance to women and girls, as well as other vulnerable refugees and migrants, in Libya, Sudan and Niger.”282

21.27The Government is developing a safeguarding strategy for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children which is:

“drawing on the evidence of what works in keeping vulnerable children safe and in recognition of the increasing numbers and specific needs of unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children already in the UK, unaccompanied children who we transfer to the UK from Europe, and unaccompanied children we resettle directly from [outside] Europe. The strategy will address issues including training foster carers to provide specialist support to unaccompanied children, driving an increase in foster care provision and actions to prevent unaccompanied children going missing”.283

21.28The Government has launched the Independent Child Trafficking Advocates (ICTAs) service in three “early adopter” sites across the country. The Minister explains:

“ICTAs are specially trained to build trusting relationships with trafficked children to help support and protect them from further harm including re-trafficking. ICTAs will also work with local agencies to ensure the specific and complex needs of trafficked children are met, for example ensuring they are placed in safe, appropriate accommodation. The Home Office has awarded nearly £2.2m from the Child Trafficking Protection Fund (CTPF) to seven organisations for projects protecting vulnerable children in the UK and overseas who are at risk of trafficking. The projects cover a range of proposals.”284

21.29The Minister describes how the UK is working with authorities in France, Greece and Italy, as well as with the UN Refugee Agency and NGOs, to identify children who may be eligible to come to the UK under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. He continues:

“The UK is also working with Member States and relevant NGO partners to ensure the efficient and timely operation of the Dublin Regulation, so that unaccompanied minors with family in the UK can have their asylum claimed transferred here quickly and safely.

“We agree that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all actions or decisions concerning children and in assessing all durable solutions, resettlement, integration or return. Decisions over whether children are to be transferred to the UK under the Dublin Regulation, section 67 of the Immigration Act or as part of one of our resettlement schemes are underpinned by what is in the child’s best interests. We agree with the Commission’s conclusion that this is a primary consideration.”285

21.30The Minister explains that local authorities’ children’s services are responsible for looking after unaccompanied asylum seeking children, adding:

“Once an unaccompanied child arrives in the UK, the welfare needs of the child must come first, followed by the registering and processing of the claim for asylum. Within a few hours of a child arriving in the UK, the child is transferred to the care of a social worker and the local children’s services. Once in the care of the local authority an unaccompanied asylum seeking child is entitled to the same levels of care and access to services as other children in the UK.”286

21.31He notes the Commission’s concern about age assessment procedures and describes how they are approached in the UK:

“The Home Office does not treat an individual as an adult when there is doubt about whether they are under 18 years of age. When there is doubt, the individual will be referred to a local authority social services department for a careful, case law-compliant age assessment and will be treated as a child whilst the outcome is awaited.”287

21.32The Minister says that asylum-seeking children are entitled to legal aid to help with their application:

“For unaccompanied children legal assistance is available under the arrangements whereby a local authority has responsibility for meeting that child’s needs. Unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum are also referred to the Refugee Council Children’s Panel who are an independent voluntary organisation, funded by the Home Office, and who provide advice and guidance on a range of subjects to assist children through the asylum process.”288

21.33He notes the emphasis placed by the Commission on guardianship systems to safeguard unaccompanied children, but observes:

“The UK has extensive children’s legislation in place that allows local authority children’s services to take formal responsibility for unaccompanied children. We consider this sufficient protection for unaccompanied children in the UK. We do not agree that a legal guardian provides further protection beyond that offered by the local authority, and could in fact add increased bureaucracy and cost to the system.”

Previous Committee Reports

None on this document.

264 A factsheet produced by the UNHCR, UNICEF and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) provides an overview of the situation of refugee and migrant children in Europe in 2016. Unaccompanied children are children who are not accompanied by family members or an adult responsible for their care. Separated children may be accompanied by other family members but are separated from their parents or primary care-giver.

265 See the report published on the website of Missing Children Europe.

267 See p.3 of the Action Plan.

268 See Eurostat data for 2015 and 2016, as well as an explanation of the asylum statistics published by Eurostat.

269 See p.2 of the Commission Communication.

270 See p.3 of the Commission Communication.

271 See the European Commission’s press release of 12 April 2017.

272 See the Conclusions agreed on 8 June 2017.

273 See para 22 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

274 See p.9 of the Communication.

275 See UNICEF’s press notice of 13 January 2017.

276 See the Quarterly Overview of Trends on refugee and migrant children in Europe covering the period January to March 2017 published by UNHCR, UNICEF and IOM.

277 See p.2 of the Communication.

278 See the Commission’s Fact Sheet and Questions and Answers on actions for the protection of children in migration, 12 April 2017.

279 See the recently revised EU guidelines.

280 See p.9 of the Commission Communication.

281 See paras 23–25 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

282 See para 26 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

283 See para 27 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

284 See para 28 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

285 See paras 29–30 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

286 See para 31 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

287 See para 32 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

288 See para 33 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.

28 November 2017