About a month ago the EU’s criminal intelligence agency warned that at least 10,000 unaccompanied children have vanished after reaching Europe. Brian Donald, the Europol’s chief of staff, shared in an interview with the Observer that 5,000 minors are missing in Italy and close to 1,000 have disappeared in Sweden after registering with the authorities. According to the agency, many of these children might have fallen pray to a complex “criminal infrastructure” that targets vulnerable migrants across the continent.
Researchers have contested the organised-crime hypothesis by pointing out that the disappearances are mainly due to discrepancies between the aspirations of the unaccompanied children and the ways in which the authorities treat them. Based on research carried out in a number of EU countries, Nando Sigona and Jennifer Allsopp report, for instance, that only about 40% of the unaccompanied minors who are registered at arrival in Italy ultimately apply for asylum and even less wait for their decisions. Interviews with minor asylum-seekers suggest that they leave deficient asylum-systems to seek work opportunities and reunite with family members without delay.
Very often, however, poor guardianship arrangements leave asylum-seeking children vulnerable to disappearance and exploitation. The EU has embraced the standards established by the Committee on the Rights of the Child with regard to unaccompanied minors. One of these benchmarks is the prompt appointment of a guardian, which the Committee considers “one of the most important practical measures to be taken to protect children”. Under EU law, however, there is no consistent definition of a guardian, nor of his or her functions. The relevant asylum provisions define only the role of a legal representative, whose function is much narrower than that of a guardian. Guardianship schemes, therefore, remain country-specific and vary greatly among Member States.
In Member States at the frontier of the Union, such as Bulgaria and Greece, it has been extremely difficult to appoint guardians to unaccompanied minors. Until a recent legislative amendment, guardians had to be appointed to asylum-seeking children in Bulgaria from among their relatives and close ones. For the majority of children traveling alone, these provisions were inapplicable and left them in a legal limbo with no one to effectively watch over their best interest or legal representation. As a result, many were unaware of their rights and failed to apply for international protection. Social workers must, in principle, always be alerted when an unaccompanied minor is identified on the territory, but they signal their inability to formally perform the role of legal guardians due to lack of expertise and conflict of interest.
The shortcomings of guardianship and reception arrangements at the gates of the EU imply that many children are vulnerable to disappearance at the point of entry. They may or may not later resurface in a different Member State. METAction, a Greek NGO, has sought to fill the gap in the national protection system that leaves out about 4,000 unaccompanied minors per year due to insufficiencies in the terms of the legal provisions and the implementation of guardianship. During its seven months of operation, the organisation has made tangible achievements in developing strong relationships with children, advancing their identification process and protecting them from trafficking and exploitation networks.
Such initiatives address a major lacuna in national asylum systems, but remain dependent on the availability of external funding for their existence. During the term of their operation the underlying legislative and institutional framework remains unsuited to provide adequately for the protection of unaccompanied minors. Given the difficulty of implementing a full-fledged legal solution to the problem in these contexts, perhaps the most effective way forward is a formal collaboration that would allow the state to integrate the expertise and operational capacity of specialised NGOs with regard to the care for vulnerable groups.