In the three years from 2018 to 2020, more than 18,000 unaccompanied minors arrived as refugees in Europe, and what happened to them next remains a mystery.
That’s according to a report by the collective Lost in Europe, which includes the publications Knack and De Standaard. And the true number is bound to be even higher, since France and Romania, among other countries, do not keep track of the numbers.
Similarly, not all European countries keep track of where the minors come from. However from the data that do exist, the main countries of origin that are registered are Morocco, Algeria, Eritrea, Guinea and Afghanistan.
In Belgium, Fedasil, the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers, registered a total of 2,642 disappearances of minors from its observation and orientation centres during the three-year period: 987 in 2018, 1,072 in 2019 and 583 in 2020.
The sharp decline last year is being attributed to the pandemic.
“Covid-19 has had a negative impact on the influx and registration of the target group and therefore also on the number of disappearances,” said Lies Gilis, spokesperson for Fedasil.
Of the total of 583 disappearances in Belgium, 14 were counted as “concerning” by the missing persons unit of the federal police, as well as the missing children charity Child Focus.
In 344 cases the young people concerned simply refused an assignment or did not arrive at the reception centre without explanation. Another 225 arrived at the centres and later left of their own accord.
The estimates by Lost in Europe are not only vague, according to the Council of Europe, but most likely conservative, according to Kevin Hyland, a member of the council’s expert group.
For the past year, only 10 out of 27 EU countries provided figures. Countries that do register use methods that do not match well with each other. In Belgium, information about disappearances is spread over Fedasil, the justice ministry, police services and prosecutors and a foundation such as Child Focus.
In some cases minors are registered as adults, in others the opposite is true. Some minors pass through different countries and vanish each time, and so are counted more than once.
The European Commission, in the person of Ylva Johansson, commissioner for home affairs, has expressed “deep concern about children disappearing,” but in the end the Commission puts the responsibility back on the member states.
According to Kevin Hyland, “Resources and expertise in child protection and exploitation remain limited across Europe. Right now, the right to compensation is regulated within the EU if your plane is delayed, but if you are an exploited child you may have to fight every battle on your own.”