1.The data illustrated on the previous page give a flavour of the refugee crisis that has gripped the European Union over the past 18 months. They also show that children, many of them unaccompanied by a parent, relative or guardian, are in the forefront of that crisis. To grasp the reality of the crisis fully, the suffering that it has inflicted upon many thousands of children, people need to talk to those children and hear their stories. We have sought to do just that in this inquiry, by talking in private to a group of young people who arrived in the EU as unaccompanied migrant children. We are profoundly grateful to these young people, and to the organisations that facilitated the meeting, the Children’s Society and the Refugee Council.
2.The numbers of migrant children entering the EU, and the risks they face either en route or after their arrival, are all too apparent. We discuss many of these risks in later chapters. But perhaps equally telling is the fact that when unaccompanied migrant children arrive in the EU, they face suspicion and disbelief. They are subjected to repeated interviews questioning their motivation, family relations and age. They may be subjected to invasive age assessments to test that they truly are under 18. Often, the authorities simply decline to accept responsibility for them as children, and allow them to continue their journeys across borders alone.
3.Even when they have been correctly identified, unaccompanied migrant children may be accommodated in inappropriate, squalid facilities, amounting in effect to detention. They must navigate a series of complex legal processes, conducted in a foreign language, without adequate advice. They face uncertainty about their future, particularly as they approach the age of 18, when they lose rights to protection that they enjoyed as a child. Even if they do not face return to their country of origin, they may lose their accommodation and other support services. Against this backdrop, Europol estimates that at least 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the EU are now missing, and are potentially victims of sexual exploitation, trafficking or other criminal activity.1
4.The challenges facing unaccompanied migrant children have enormous long-term implications for the children themselves, the EU and its Member States—including the United Kingdom. In this inquiry we have therefore sought to assess the nature and scale of these challenges; consider whether existing EU provisions translate into clear obligations for professionals throughout national administrations; and evaluate which further measures could alleviate some of the challenges faced. Our Call for Evidence, setting out the scope of our inquiry, is reproduced in Annex 3.
5.Our inquiry was undertaken, and this report in large part drafted, before the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was known. Although the outcome of the referendum was that the UK should withdraw from 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 therefore vital, both on moral grounds and in order to help maintain amicable relations with the other 27 Member States, that the UK Government should play an active and supportive role in addressing the present humanitarian crisis affecting unaccompanied migrant children.
6.Hitherto the EU has sought to protect unaccompanied migrant children through specific provisions in a wide range of legislative measures, including Directives in the field of asylum, human trafficking and the return of irregular migrants. However, Member State implementation of EU measures has been poor, and in September 2013 the European Parliament condemned “the existing lacunae in the protection of unaccompanied minors in the European Union … and the numerous breaches of their fundamental rights in certain Member States.”2
7.In May 2010, the European Commission published an Action Plan on Unaccompanied Minors. In its midterm review of the Action Plan, the Commission recognised that “the arrival of unaccompanied children on EU territory is not a temporary development, but a long term feature of migration into the EU.” Nevertheless, the Commission did not renew the Action Plan following its expiry in 2014, choosing instead to focus on the development of a strategy to address all children in migration. At the time of writing this strategy was not yet forthcoming.
8.Particularly in the context of the refugee crisis currently facing the EU, we were therefore concerned that the Commission and Member States had lost sight of the plight of unaccompanied migrant children. This is the background against which our inquiry took place, and which forms the context for the recommendations in this report.
9.The term ‘unaccompanied minors’, widely used in the context of EU migration law, describes all foreign nationals or stateless persons below the age of 18, who either arrive in the EU unaccompanied by a responsible adult or who are left unaccompanied after their arrival. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the UNCRC), “a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years”. The term ‘unaccompanied migrant children’ thus has the same meaning as ‘unaccompanied minors’, and for this reason we have used both terms interchangeably in this report. Even though the evidence suggests that most unaccompanied minors in the EU are 16 or 17 year-old boys, all individuals under the age of 18 are children, and are entitled to the same rights and protections.3
10.We heard evidence from a large number of experts and practitioners, and a full list is given in Annex 2. We are grateful to all who contributed to our inquiry. We are particularly grateful to Professor Helen Stalford, Professor of Law and Director of the European Children’s Rights Unit at the University of Liverpool, who has acted as specialist adviser to this inquiry.
11.We make this report for debate.
1 European Parliament, ‘MEPs discuss fate of 10,000 refugee children that have gone missing’ (April 2016):http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdfs/news/public/story/20160419STO23927/20160419STO23927_en.pdf [accessed 4 July 2016]
2 European Parliament resolution of 12 September 2013 on the situation of unaccompanied minors in the EU 2012/2263(INI)) (OJ C93/165, 9 March 2016)
3 See Chapter 3 for further discussion on the issue of perceptions of vulnerability.