Youths in a German home for unaccompanied minor refugees | Photo: Picture-alliance/Ulli Deck/dpa
Youths in a German home for unaccompanied minor refugees | Photo: Picture-alliance/Ulli Deck/dpa

Authorities lose track of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees each year. Often they are safe, but experts say alarmingly little is known about their situations, and the government must do more to protect them.

The increased influx of refugees to Europe in recent years has also brought tens of thousands of refugee minors to Germany, as well as other countries. Many of them vanished from the authorities' radar after arrival, either immediately or at some later date. At the start of 2017, Germany's Federal Criminal Investigation Office (BKA) recorded more than 8,400 missing refugee minors. By the start of 2019, that number had fallen to around 3,200.

This decrease is not, however, a signal that all is now well, as Tobias Klaus from the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors explains. "The numbers themselves have, of course, decreased considerably," he says. "But that's connected to the fact that there have also been considerably fewer underage refugees arriving in the country."

Read more: Half of world's refugee children can't go to school, says UN

Young migrants more likely to disappear

The minor refugees' association has conducted an as-yet-unpublished survey that actually indicates a slight trend in the opposite direction. The nonprofit association questioned more than 720 specialists working in child and youth welfare on subjects including the disappearance of unaccompanied refugee minors. The participants were slightly more likely than in the previous year to say that young migrants sometimes, or very often, disappeared.

"Their replies suggest that most young people disappear at the beginning of their stay in Germany, i.e. while they have been provisionally taken into care," said Klaus. "In 2017, 32.2 percent of those surveyed said that this sometimes or very often happens. In 2018, it was 35 percent."

There was an even clearer increase compared to 2017 further down the line. For example, 20.1 percent of the experts surveyed in the current study said that young refugees sometimes or very often disappear while in the "Help for Young Adults" program. (Unaccompanied refugees can still receive support from youth welfare services after their 18th birthday.) In the previous year's survey, only 14.1 per cent said this.

Lost in the system

As in previous years, the main reason the interviewees gave was that children, usually aged between 14 and 17, leave to make their own way to relatives or other people known to them. This may mean they travel on to other European countries, or other parts of Germany. If it's the latter, the unaccompanied refugees don't usually vanish for long, and they're taken off the list of missing persons.

They are usually also separated from the person they traveled to be with. For example, "If a young person is picked up in Munich, and their cousin lives in Hamburg, the Munich Youth Welfare Office can ask Hamburg to assume responsibility. But the Youth Welfare Office there doesn't have to comply with this request," Klaus explains.

According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), this procedure is intended to ensure "accommodation, care, support and assistance in the best interests of the child." According to the minor refugees' association, however, the system pays too little attention to the interests and needs of the unaccompanied minors, and focuses instead on quotas — i.e. whether a federal state or a municipality has already accepted a comparatively large or small number of young refugees.

Fear of deportation

In the nonprofit's survey, the second presumed reason for young people disappearing is the perceived or real likelihood that they may be forced to leave Germany. "Many of them fear deportation, or feel they have no prospects," says Klaus.

According to BKA figures, the largest group of missing persons are Afghans, who in Germany very often find themselves threatened with deportation. People from Morocco and Algeria also have a very low chance of being allowed to stay, and a disproportionate number of refugee minors from these countries go missing compared to those from the main countries of origin.

"If young people can't see any path for themselves within the system, and all they get to hear is 'You're not wanted here, no matter what you do,' they're particularly at risk — not only of suddenly disappearing, but of actually slipping into illegality and into parallel systems," Klaus explains.

We know 'alarmingly little' about children in danger

Although the BKA's success rate in solving cases has remained above 80 percent in recent years — in other words, most missing persons do reappear at some point — there are those youths who fall off the authorities' radar. A study by the BAMF and the German national contact point for the European Migration Network (EMN) also warns that unaccompanied minors may become victims of criminal activity. The study recommended that to better protect them from dangers including homelessness, trafficking, and recruitment into criminal activity or prostitution, the organization and exchange of data must be improved.

Tobias Klaus of the minor refugees' association can only agree. "That should actually cause us most concern: The fact that we know alarmingly little about the dangerous situations these young people may find themselves in. The government must make more funds available. We need more social workers and offers of support."

Author: Ines Eisele

First published: January 28, 2019

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