Seven percent of asylum seekers entering Europe in 2015 were unaccompanied minors. This label is placed upon asylum seekers under the age of 18 if they arrive at an EU border without family members. Minors are frequently separated from their families along the way, while other asylum seekers take perilous journeys alone. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently released a report asserting that unaccompanied minors are highly vulnerable and require special protection. A unified policy in Europe is needed in order to adequately protect unaccompanied minors’ rights. Increased security, along with legal routes of entry into the EU, can ensure that asylum seekers do not resort to human trafficking networks.In 2015, 51% of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in EU countries arrive from Afghanistan. Historically, Afghans often migrated to flee conflicts and wars, poverty, or social instability in order to pursue better opportunities abroad. Moving abroad to neighboring countries is common for Afghans due to lax border controls by the Afghan government, as noted in the UNHCR study on unaccompanied Afghan minors in Europe. Moreover, as the UNHCR study also notes, the large Afghan diaspora in Europe rely on the hawala system, an informal network of personal contacts that moves money and people abroad, and thus enables human smuggling networks to thrive.

Unaccompanied minors travelling to Europe are more vulnerable than other refugees. During their journey, they are often taken advantage of by criminal networks, most notably by human traffickers.  According to the 2014 United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) report on human trafficking, children represented 28% of the identified victims. Furthermore, it has been reported that migrants are resorting, in desperation, to work for human traffickers in order to complete their journey to the EU. Although there has been an increase in the number of countries criminalizing human traffickers, there is still a need to completely dismantle these human smuggling networks in order to help protect vulnerable groups and save lives.

On 11 February 2016, NATO agreed to deploy ships in the Aegean Sea. Since then, 31 ships from 8 countries have patrolled the Aegean Sea with the aim to stop human trafficking networks by sharing intelligence gathered by NATO with Greece, Turkey, and Frontex – the EU border and coast guard agency. NATO ships help dismantle the human smuggling networks and aim to save lives. The cooperation between NATO, the EU, and Turkey is vital in combating the rise of human trafficking networks in the Aegean Sea.

Increased legal modes of entry into the EU could provide alternatives to the illegal and dangerous routes of human trafficking networks. Some argue that the current asylum system is failing, as a result, fueling human trafficking networks. Improving the current asylum system requires a joint effort between many countries. For instance, Brazil has suggested the implementation of humanitarian visas which, if employed, would offer a safe and legal alternative for asylum seekers. The European Parliament has studied the Brazilian suggestion and released a report in 2014 in favor of creating humanitarian visas. But one question remains: why has it not been implemented yet?

The number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the EU quadrupled in two years from under 13,000 in 2013 to 88,300 in 2015. Examining the 88,300 asylum seekers, Eurostat found that males make up 91% of all claims, partially due to cultural restrictions and gender roles. Sweden for example, has more asylum seekers than Germany, Hungary, and Austria combined. Sweden has seen the highest numbers of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum because they have traditionally been the most accommodating towards granting asylum. Due to the high numbers of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, European nations struggle to meet the needs of providing the special protections unaccompanied minors require. The Swedish government has responded to this influx of asylum claims by introducing border controls, tightening laws surrounding residence permits, and reducing government assistance. Other EU nations are also introducing similar policies in an effort to discourage migrants from coming to Europe. These tightening border controls prevent people from seeking asylum in European countries in 2016, and fail to tackle the problems of human trafficking networks.

Unaccompanied minors face a range of challenges when entering Europe, even though international laws protect all asylum seekers, such as guaranteeing them the right to non-refoulement. Furthermore, it was reported that after the closure of The Jungle camp in Calais, France, led to underage asylum seekers to live in dire housing conditions such as living in shipping containers without basic supplies or proper supervision. Recently, 12 minors who were former residents of The Jungle camp began a hungerstrike in reaction to the news that family reunification in the UK had been suspended. In some extreme cases it has been reported that minors are placed in asylum centers where they are unprotected from criminal networks and are thought by authorities to be recruited into prostitutionrings. These different instances demonstrate that unified policies toward unaccompanied minors and increased security are crucial inside European countries in order to protect these vulnerable minors.

Unaccompanied minors also face difficulties integrating. Since these refugees are minors without family or support, they require unique assistance. State support should include legal representation, a social worker, and a foster family for integration when they are granted asylum, according to the report Life Projects for Unaccompanied Migrant Minors. This report was created by the Council of Europe in 2007 to ensure that the best interests of unaccompanied minors were represented to facilitate their integration process. The report recommends a team of people to be set up for the purpose of working with minors, focusing on a variety of areas: housing, health, and education; personal and cultural development; social integration and future employment. Although several pilot projects have been started, more needs to be done to expand initiatives like Life Projects to more countries. These Life Projects facilitate skill-building necessary for successful integration, and give minors the tools they require in order to have a prosperous future. This is a great example of a policy that could help protect unaccompanied minors settling in a new country.

World leaders recognize the unique challenges facing EU member states. In November 2016, former United States President Barack Obama praised the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the promises made by his country to expand housing and education for unaccompanied minors. President Obama stressed that the United States and other countries have a responsibility to assist Greece in their efforts. His speech was a call for the international community to come together to assist unaccompanied minors. Since EU borders have been restricted, many asylum seekers are waiting in Greece where the housing situation is especially strained. A recent report called “More Than Six Months Stranded-What Now?” pointed out that the lack of accommodation for unaccompanied minors has, in some cases, led the police to hold minors in protective custody, violating their rights.

It is in Europe’s best interest to protect the rights of unaccompanied minors in order for them to successfully integrate into society. If this does not occur, it will create unnecessary social, political, and economic impacts on EU nations. Coordinated efforts by EU governments, NGOs, and community organizations can and should facilitate integration of asylum seekers, especially concerning unaccompanied minors. Increased security along with legal routes for entry into the EU is vital to ensure that there will be no need to resort to human trafficking networks.

Photo: Welcome asylum seekers and refugees – Refugee Action protest 27 July 2013 Melbourne, by Takver via Flickr. Licensed under Public Domain.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association Denmark.

danish refugee
We thank the Danish Refugee Council for their contribution in the making of this article.

About the Author: Gillian Almy-Kiełpińska

Gillian is a program writer at YATA Denmark. She focuses on Society, Culture, and International Relations. She holds a MA in Global Studies and Cultural Encounters from Roskilde University and a BA in Sociology from University of California, Santa Barbara. A California native, she has lived in Denmark since 2013.

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