The current refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian challenge to have faced the European Union since its foundation. Although the outcome of the referendum on 23 June 2016 was that the UK should leave the EU, the UK remains a full member of the EU, with all the responsibilities that entails, until the final withdrawal agreement is ratified. It is vital, both on moral grounds and in order to help maintain good relations with the other 27 Member States, that the UK Government should participate fully in EU action to resolve this humanitarian crisis.
It has become increasingly clear that children, many of them unaccompanied by a parent, relative or guardian, are in the forefront of the crisis. In 2015 88,245 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the EU, including 3,045 in the UK. In May 2016 alone, 3,133 unaccompanied migrant children arrived in Italy. Many children do not even reach the EU’s shores: at least 137 children have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of 2016.
The implementation of existing EU measures to protect unaccompanied migrant children has been poor, and the European Commission has not renewed its 2010–2014 Action Plan on unaccompanied minors. We are concerned that the EU and its Member States—including the UK—may have lost sight of the plight of unaccompanied migrant children. We have therefore sought to assess the nature and scale of the challenges they face across the EU. We have asked whether existing EU provisions are sufficiently clear and enforceable, and what further measures are needed to address the needs of unaccompanied migrant children.
We received a wealth of evidence suggesting that a number of underlying, cross-cutting problems affect unaccompanied migrant children. They face a culture of disbelief and suspicion. Authorities try to avoid taking responsibility for their care and protection. Existing EU and national measures are poorly implemented. Unsurprisingly, many children have lost trust in the institutions and measures intended to guarantee their rights, safety and well-being.
These underlying problems have contributed to deplorable reception conditions, particularly in refugee camps, while prolonged uncertainty about children’s legal status has left them ‘living in limbo’. Such outcomes have in turn exposed vulnerable children to smugglers and human traffickers, and it is conservatively estimated that at least 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children are currently missing in the EU. At the same time, a lack of comparable, reliable data makes evidence-based and tailored policy-making difficult.
The EU and its Member States, including the UK, must act urgently to address these complex problems. In this report we suggest a number of potential solutions, many of them as cross-cutting as the problems they are intended to address. Integrated child protection systems, focused on the best interests of the child, should be adopted across the EU, ensuring that children are, first and foremost, treated as children, whatever their immigration status. The EU institutions and Member States must improve data collection and sharing, particularly when identifying and registering unaccompanied children, and should work to achieve durable solutions once those children are in care.
In order to achieve better outcomes, EU institutions and Member States must cooperate not only with one another and with EU Agencies, but also with regional and local authorities, NGOs and individual professionals. A harmonised system of guardianship will be crucial, while professionals at all levels must receive training and resources to ensure that existing measures are implemented fully and in the best interests of children.
None of the specific recommendations made in this report will, in isolation, overcome the many long-term challenges faced by unaccompanied migrant children in the EU. But a proper debate on the refugee crisis generally, and on the predicament facing unaccompanied migrant children specifically, is a vital first step towards finding solutions. We hope that this report will help trigger such debate.