Stand up for the unaccompanied children

12-year-old unaccompanied refugee, February 2012. Photo: L. Dobbs/UNHCR
OP-ED: Much more can be done to give all unaccompanied migrant children a dignified welcome at Europe's borders. Each EU Member State must play its part, writes EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström.
A society is judged by how well it treats its most vulnerable people. The unaccompanied children who arrive at European borders are among the most vulnerable and exposed individuals. They travel without parents or guardians, often fleeing violence and conflict.  How do we treat them? Not nearly as well as we should. A new report from the European Commission, which I am presenting today, shows that much more can be done to give all unaccompanied children the reception they deserve.

A significant number of unaccompanied children arrive in Europe every year.  While there is still conflict and extreme poverty in the world, this pattern will continue, and we must not shy away from it. Asylum seekers are a particularly vulnerable group, which last year numbered over twelve thousand children. In some countries, the numbers are on the rise. Most of these children have fled from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia.

Stories that reach me from reception centers across Europe clearly illustrate the flaws in the system. Many children go through horrendous ordeals; they are jammed together under the same roof as adult asylum seekers, experience abusive treatment during interviews or have difficulties in obtaining medical care and legal assistance. I still remember a young Afghan boy in Evros, Greece, who was squeezed into a cramped and dirty room together with around 70 other refugees. Outside there were two toilets, one of which was broken. The boy asked for a euro coin so that he could call his mother from the payphone down the hall, to give her some news, after having endured many months of hardship.

Two years ago, an action plan was adopted at EU level to help us take better care of unaccompanied children. The plan aims to rigorously enforce and improve existing EU laws, from ensuring that children are legally represented to proactively tracing their families. Member States are also called upon to appoint guardians in order to provide each child with an adult contact person.

Today's report from the European Commission demonstrates that we have a long way to go. Reception conditions are still very poor in many places around Europe. The asylum situation in Greece, for example, has been a major problem for quite some time. In addition, border staff and authorities in all EU countries need to receive training on how to sensitively deal with children who have escaped the horrors of war. On the bright side, the report also shows that several EU countries have taken significant steps to improve reception conditions, such as the recent initiatives on appointing guardians in the Netherlands and Belgium. EU states should now share such experiences and learn from each other's successes.

In many countries, such as Spain, the children they receive are not primarily asylum seekers but simply in search of a better life. Often, they end up working in an economic grey zone, making it even more important to ensure that they do not fall victim to traffickers or unscrupulous employers. Relief organisations, which often possess important expertise in this field, should be invited to play a more important role.  

At the same time, we know too little about this most vulnerable group of migrants. We do not know, for example, how many of them are victims of trafficking, or how many of them never apply for asylum. And although we know that many more boys arrive in Europe than girls, we do not have exact figures. All this calls for better cooperation and information sharing between EU countries. Cooperation also needs to be improved at national level, since the responsibility for unaccompanied minors is often divided between many different authorities. As part of the EU action plan, efforts being made in this area, but Member States must take more responsibility. 

Another challenge is to determine the age of the unaccompanied children. Whichever technique is used - examining bone structure, teeth and wrists, or interviews – these procedures can be a difficult process for the child. European countries have begun to exchange their experiences and best practice, promoting child-friendly techniques, but more can and should be done.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to tackle the root causes which lead children to leave their homes and countries to begin with. We must intensify our efforts against conflicts and lack of democracy in the countries which these children leave behind. This requires concerted, long-term policies to combat oppression, poverty and lack of freedom.

At home, improvements can already be made this winter, if Member States deliver what they have promised and implement an improved Common European Asylum System. The final negotiations are ongoing between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The proposals from the European Commission include measures to provide children with better care and protection, including stricter requirements to reunite children with their relatives and to act in the best interests of the child.

With the help of each EU member state, we can take big steps in the right direction, to ensure that these children receive a dignified welcome at Europe's borders.

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