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Mind the gap: why are unaccompanied children disappearing in their thousands?

Until the EU recognises the specific needs of child migrants and makes it a priority to swiftly reunite them with family members, many will likely continue to abscond from the reception system.

The ‘disappearance’ of 10,000 migrant children after arriving in the EU made recently headlines in British newspapers and across the world. The Observer reported data from Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency, drawing an explicit link between the fact that thousands of young migrants had vanished after registering with EU state authorities and the alleged intervention of a ‘sophisticated pan-European criminal infrastructure’ that is ‘targeting minors for sex abuse and slavery’. But does this speak to the reality?

Children are arriving in unprecedented numbers on the shores of Greece and Italy, about 270,000 in 2015. According to UNHCR data, children make up 10 per cent of those arriving in Italy by sea, and 26 per cent of arrivals in Greece. Since September 2015, two children have drowned every day on average since trying to cross the eastern Mediterranean to find safety with their families in Europe. There is a lack of disaggregated data from the Greek arrival route but of the 15,000 children arriving in Italy 29 per cent are from Eritrea, 13 per cent from Syria, 11 per cent from Egypt, 9 per cent from Somalia, and 7 per cent from Nigeria.

These children are among the most vulnerable of those embarking in dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean and the unaccompanied ones among them are particularly so. Unaccompanied and separated children are at record level in comparison to previous years. According to the IOM and Unicef briefing Migration of Children to Europe, in 2014, more than 23,000 unaccompanied children made applications for asylum. In contrast, in 2015 Sweden alone has received 23,300 asylum claims from unaccompanied children. Crucially, the report notes that it is very difficult to get accurate numbers for unaccompanied children as formal registration procedures in some European countries do not allow their identification.

As EU state authorities are well aware, in Italy as much as in the UK and Sweden, a sizable number of unaccompanied minors go ‘missing’ from the state authorities at various points of their encounter with the immigration apparatus. But, and this is where we think the Observer piece got its story wrong, the main cause of such disappearance has little to do, or not in the way the article hints to, with pan-European criminal infrastructures and more with the disjuncture between how state authorities treat unaccompanied minors and how minors imagine and envisage their migration project.

Research we carried out in a number of EU countries, including Italy, UK and Greece, since 2014 as part of two ESRC-funded projects – Unravelling the migration crisis (MEDMIG) and Becoming Adult: Conceptions of futures and wellbeing among former unaccompanied minors – offers crucial insights into the dreams and aspirations of young unaccompanied migrants and the challenges they face in fulfilling them in Europe. If we look at the case of Italy, the gap between the number of minors registered at arrival and those who apply for asylum is sizeable, only about 40% in 2015, and among the latter not all wait for a decision on their case; many are reported ‘missing’ from their legal guardians and the centres where they reside. But why is this the case?

Many young adults who succeed in reaching Europe carry with them family obligations to fulfil and sizeable debts that they are expected to start to repay soon. They can’t wait months if not years until the asylum process is completed and they are allowed to enter the job market. They also may find the little assistance and support they get by an overburdened local authority in the south of Italy, or the orphanage-like arrangements in some reception centres for children, very distant from their aspirations. Ali, a 17 year old African asylum seeking minor explains why he ran away from a reception centre in Sicily, ‘We had no freedom! We couldn’t go out. They forced us to sleep. We had no phones, you couldn’t contact anyone. No internet. One pair of clothes… the caretaker said we should go. Some decided to leave, some to stay. We spread.’

Other unaccompanied asylum seeking minors explain that they ran away from the centres in the south because of the slow asylum system and poor training and work opportunities. Mohammed is also 17: ‘we lived very, very, very badly there. In two months we had no clothes. No clothes and no good food. No proper medical help, nothing…the teacher there told me to come to Rome, to study…. If you go elsewhere, she told me, you can study properly. She even got me the ticket!’

Significantly, some minors may have family, friends, and other social connections in other EU countries and know that joining them as soon as possible is the best way to start a meaningful life for them in Europe. Like Fatima, 17, who we met in the north of Italy where she was travelling through with her 10 year old brother. Now in Sweden where they have reunited with family, they lived homeless in Italy for months after fleeing from a centre in the south. Day in, day out, they would run at the approach of the red-bibbed staff of Save The Children, fearing that even the NGOs trying to assist them sought to interrupt their journeys. They had to hide until the money came for them to move on, Fatima explains, ‘there is no other way’. 

Lotus installation at MAXXI Art Gallery made of thermal blankets, Rome. Photo: Jennifer Allsopp Lotus installation at MAXXI Art Gallery made of thermal blankets, Rome. Photo: Jennifer AllsoppBut why then are young people disappearing in the UK or Sweden? Are Sweden and the UK not meant to be the dream destination for all young migrants of Europe? Here we encounter a different type of disjuncture, one that manifests itself at a later stage, when the unaccompanied minor gets closer to adulthood and, irrespective of the time they spent in their country of residence, they may face deportation. Another media story has broken in recent days revealing that the UK government has deported twice as many children to dangerous countries as it thought it had.  

So where do we place the criminal gangs in this story? Some young migrants, as a result of their inability to fulfil their aspirations disengage from the state system meant to assist and support them and find themselves on their own. The decisions of most unaccompanied young migrants are determined by a range of push and pull factors which may, in some cases, lead them to actually reach out to underground networks, either to reunite with family members or to find a way to earn money and settle debts. The true scale of this phenomenon remains unknown, since the count of the ‘missing’ is less straightforward than national data and the Europol information let us believe. Data collected with local authorities in the UK as part of Becoming Adult show that they report ‘missing’ cases in very different ways – ranging from a few hours of unavailability to permanent disappearance. It is also likely that some of those ‘missing’ in Italy may be reappear in another EU states but they are still counted as disappeared in quarterly data. Finally, research in Italy also show that double counting of unaccompanied minors by local authorities is far from rare as they have no access to police ID database and a young person may be on the records of more than one authority at the same time.

Until the EU makes it a priority to swiftly reunite unaccompanied minors with family members in the EU, as is being widely fought for with some success in the context of those stuck in Calais seeking to reach relatives in the UK, many child migrants like Fatima and her brother will likely continue to abscond from the system, seeking to take the future into their own hands. Those who have strong social networks may find their way, those who are isolated are more vulnerable to abuse by more or less organised gangs who are ready to exploit an opportunity open to them by the immigration apparatus.

Read migrant testimony and research-based articles in our dialogue on migration: People on the move.

About the authors

Nando Sigona is Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity. He is also Research Associate at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. His research interests include: irregular and child migration, governance and governmentality of forced migration in Europe, Roma politics and anti-Gypsyism, statelessness, and the intersection between migration, citizenship and belonging. He is one of the founding editors of Migration Studies, an international journal by Oxford University, co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (OUP, 2014) and co-author of Sans Papiers: The Social and Economic Lives of Undocumented Migrants (Pluto Press, 2014). He maintains a personal blog and is active on Twitter @nandosigona

Jennifer Allsopp is a writer and researcher working on migration, gender and social policy. She was a commissioning editor at openDemocracy 50.50 between 2011 and 2017, facilitating the People on the Move migration platform (2011-2017) and series including 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (2012), Unlocking Detention (2014-15) and working with francophone activists for Our Africa (2012-14). She reported from numerous international feminist gatherings including for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (2015) and the Nobel Women's Initiative (2012, 2015, 2017). She has worked at the universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Queen Mary's and is completing a PhD at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. Twitter @JenniferAllsopp.

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