Geneva – A new report from Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor reveals significant disparities in the treatment of unaccompanied minors compared to accompanied minors in Europe, with a lack of safeguards, detention, and inadequate services being prevalent issues across several countries.
On Thursday, Euro-Med Monitor released a comprehensive report examining the protection of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the 27 EU Member States. Titled “Happiness, Love and Understanding: The Protection of Unaccompanied Minors in the 27 EU Member States”, the report assesses the policies and practices of each country, aiming to shed light on the state of human rights for minor asylum seekers in Europe under the lens of both European and international human rights law. The report aims to raise awareness and draw attention to the urgent need for timely identification, legal guardianship, and proper accommodation for unaccompanied minors, while calling for compliance with international and European laws to ensure their protection.
Why a report on unaccompanied minors seeking asylum?
Just as with adult migrants, the increasing number of unaccompanied child migrants in recent years is due to persistent violence and protracted conflict, as well as unequal living standards and limited economic opportunities in many developing countries. In addition to these burdens, though, unaccompanied minors may have suffered further persecution in their countries of origin, or may fear it, especially on account of their status as children. From subjection to child labour, early marriage, female genital mutilation, or underage recruitment to sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation, specific threats to children exist because their young age makes them more vulnerable than adults. Moreover, children may be associated with the opinions or activities of their families, leading to their own persecution.
Thousands of minors flee dangerous situations in their home countries every year, arriving on their own at the European Union’s borders with the hope of finding safety and security by progressing on the path to international protection. Member States received 881,200 first-time applications for international protection in 2022, of which 39,520 were made by unaccompanied minors. This was the highest number of unaccompanied minor applicants since 2015, and a 45% increase compared to 2021, when 23,255 applications were submitted by unaccompanied minors. The portion of unaccompanied minors within all applicants for international protection stayed relatively stable at around four per cent, however, so the increase in their absolute number reflects more asylum applications being submitted overall, as opposed to a disproportionate influx of unaccompanied minors. To a large extent, this increase was caused by a rise in the number of unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021, and from Ukraine after the February 2022 Russian invasion.
Elena Principe, a child protection assistant at a daytime centre for unaccompanied minors in Italy, is quoted in the report. Principe spoke with Euro-Med Monitor’s team about the distinct challenges confronting S (full name withheld for his protection), an unaccompanied asylum-seeking Somali boy. Italy is “a country that welcomed him but [that] can be very hostile too”, she stated. “He is facing the institutional barriers related to the transition to adulthood, the discriminations deriving from living in a country marked by systemic racism, and the overall difficulties of dealing with his own story, which started without the opportunity of living a safe childhood.”
Principe formed a playful bond with S, whom she said had easily visible scars of torture on his hands. “He taught me to play a Somalian dice game and made fun of me because I would lose every single match no matter how hard I tried,” she told Euro-Med Monitor. “At the same time, he took good care of his dear friend A, a child of the same age, who experienced psychological distress due to the traumatic events related to his migration journey and was hospitalised to receive adequate support.”
While the overall share of unaccompanied minors in EU+ countries was relatively small, there were notable variations in patterns at the country level. In 2022, the highest percentage of unaccompanied minor asylum applications relative to all first-time asylum applications were filed in Bulgaria (17%), followed by Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands (12%), and Hungary (11%). These proportions suggest that a large number of unaccompanied minors arrived in EU+ countries via the Balkan routes.
In terms of sex, 93% of unaccompanied minor applicants were male, while only seven per cent were female. Girls comprised a minority among applicants of all nationalities, although they were slightly more prevalent among children from Somalia. In terms of age, the majority (70%) of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the EU was aged between 16-17 years old, 23% were aged 14-15 years old, and seven per cent were younger than 14 years old.
The report shows that there is often a striking difference in treatment between unaccompanied and accompanied minors, with the latter having more guarantees of safety from the state, besides a supportive family environment. In Malta, for instance, the detention of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is frequent, while the detention of asylum-seeking children with families is rare. Additionally, authorities often fail to implement policies that identify and monitor unaccompanied minors, and that consider the fact that they are underage and on their own, and disappearances occur as a result. Seventy-eight per cent of all unaccompanied minor applicants in Austria disappeared in 2021, for instance. Also apparent is a clear gap in services targeting unaccompanied minors with regard to ensuring their education and integration into society, as evident in France and Portugal.
Several shortcomings in each of the EU Member States in regard to dealing with unaccompanied children are highlighted in this report. The most notable and widespread shortcomings are the systematic border pushbacks reported in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, and Spain. In addition, the ill-treatments, humiliations, and beatings often perpetrated by police officers are documented in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Romania, and violate the right to seek asylum as well as the prohibition on torture.
The unlawful deprivation of the liberty of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is a major concern. It is common for EU states to prohibit the detention of unaccompanied minors by national as well as international law, but nevertheless allow it. In Belgium, for example, unaccompanied children without a residence permit can be detained while their age is assessed, and the procedure can take several weeks. In Bulgaria, unaccompanied children without valid documents who were intercepted by the Border Police in the last couple of years were often “attached” to any of the unrelated adults travelling with them, registered as “accompanied” to substantiate their inclusion in the detention order of the adult, and were consequently illegally detained. In Cyprus, during the pandemic, the country’s interior minister closed all reception centres and turned them into detention centres; detainees included families with children as well as unaccompanied minors, despite provisions of national law which prohibit the detention of unaccompanied minors.
A serious concern in the Czech Republic, meanwhile, is the detention of unaccompanied minors over 15 years of age. Czech law does not distinguish between their detention and the imprisonment of adults, and in cases of doubt about a minor’s age, they might be detained under the same conditions as an adult until the completion of the age assessment process. And as of 1 February 2022, 416 children had been placed in detention centres in Poland (out of a total of 1,652 detainees), while in the first half of 2021 alone, 175 unaccompanied minors had been detained in Slovakia.
In general, the main obstacles standing between unaccompanied children and the right to safeguards and protection all over Europe are delayed identification as minors, lengthy waiting periods to be assigned a legal guardian (who is often not appointed until an age assessment proves that the minor is underage, as in Slovakia), and lack of benefit of the doubt with respect to classifying individuals as minors, which may lead to the violation of the “presumption of minority” principle and to their detention in dangerous “waiting zones” alongside adults, as is the case in France and the Czech Republic. In cases of lack of consent to age examinations, applicants in Poland are automatically considered to be adults.
The report also calls attention to a widespread lack of adequate accommodation and systematic care provided for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers, who are often placed in overcrowded reception centres with insufficient access to basic services, as reported in Lithuania, Malta, and Slovenia. Minors have even been forced to sleep rough on the streets, particularly in France and Greece. Also apparent is a clear gap in services targeting unaccompanied minors with regard to ensuring their education and integration into society, as evident in France, Greece, Hungary, and Portugal.
Remarks and conclusions
The shortcomings across Europe that have been documented in this report by Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor are undoubtedly in stark contrast to both European and international law, and are particularly contrary to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Inspired by the principle of the best interest of the child, above all, the following procedures should be guaranteed for unaccompanied minors in each EU country: They must never be pushed back; they must not be detained and must be accommodated in reception facilities designed for minors; they must have the right to be heard and treated like a child throughout all administrative procedures concerning their status; and they must be assisted by a promptly appointed guardian who is an expert on the topic, and who will develop a relationship of mutual trust with the child.
These are the very basic guarantees to protect minors’ rights during their reception and first asylum phase, after which an additional layer of rights and possibilities—including access to education, family reunification, and facilitated integration—should be ensured by European states.