Unaccompanied minors are often forced to sleep on the ground | Photo: Idro Seferi Il/DW
Unaccompanied minors are often forced to sleep on the ground | Photo: Idro Seferi Il/DW

More than 18,000 unaccompanied migrant minors have gone missing in Europe in the past three years, an investigation has found. Adriana Homolova from the journalists' collective Lost in Europe says that number is far too high.

Between 2018 and 2020, more than 18,000 unaccompanied migrant children disappeared in Europe, according to data collected by Lost in Europe in 31 countries – including in the European Union, Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Moldova. Although the data was often incomplete, and in some cases absent altogether, the confirmed number of missing migrant children remains astonishingly high.

According to the journalists’ partial findings, Italy ranked the highest in the number of recorded disappearances, with 5,775 missing migrant minors, followed by Belgium with 2,642, Greece with 2,118 and Spain with 1,889.

Most of the missing minors were from Morocco, with some 8,000 Moroccan children going missing in the past three years, mainly in Spain. Algerians were the second most affected group, with 1,460 missing youths, Eritrea with 1,171, Guinea with 1,116, Afghanistan with 952 and Tunisia with 822.

InfoMigrants spoke with Lost in Europe’s data journalist Adriana Homolova to find out more.

InfoMigrants: How did you collect the data?

Adriana Homolova: I contacted representatives (police authorities, migration and interior ministries etc.) in different countries. In the vast majority of cases, the governments had data on unaccompanied minors who had disappeared on their territories.

We were unable to collect statistics from four countries, however: the UK, Romania, Denmark and France. France was the only country which didn’t respond to our requests at all, even if just to say it had no data available.

IM: Do you think the data is reliable?

AH: We have a lot of questions when it comes to the data. It varies greatly from country to country. It’s very reliable in Sweden and Switzerland, for example, but is quite unclear in Belgium and the Netherlands. A lot of the time we don’t know where the data actually comes from, and in some cases we don’t know what period it refers to. We also have doubts when it comes to the registration methods of these migrants in different countries. For example, if a child disappears, and then reappears, how is that registered? While some countries keep a track of missing minors, others don’t, so even if a missing minor reappears, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their name is removed from the country’s list of missing minors. Other countries don’t even bother to register these youths at all, because they consider them to be in transit.

The reliability of the data is a complex issue, but what we can say is that even if some missing minors may appear erroneously in the figures [if a minor reappears after going missing but without authorities having declared his or her disappearance, eds. note] it is clear that many migrant minors aren’t included in the data.

In 2020, only half of the countries that were looked into provided us with information, and the other half said they didn’t have the figures for that year yet. So we know that a large part of the data for that year is currently inaccessible.

On top of that, we have no information regarding missing migrant minors in France, which is a huge transit-hub for migrants, neither for the United Kingdom, which is a main destination country for them. This is why we can say that 18,000 is really a minimum figure.

IM: What exactly do these "disappearances" mean?

AH: It can simply mean that a minor has moved from one country to another, with the first country losing track of the person in question.

But we also investigate criminal cases. Many young Vietnamese migrants, for example, are exploited for work as soon as they arrive in Europe. In Germany, migrants are exploited by beauty parlors, and in the UK, by cannabis farms. There are also trafficking networks of young Nigerian girls in some countries.

IM: What do these figures actually show?

AH: The situation is partly a consequence of the migration policies that have been put in place. In some countries, migrant minors need to go through very bureaucratic processes to prove their age when applying for asylum. This can result in them instead trying their luck elsewhere, and as they move to another country, we lose track of them.

Normally, and according to European laws, if you are a child you should be treated as such, rather than as a migrant [in France, for example, an unaccompanied minor must be taken in by the child welfare services, and has the same rights as a French minor, eds. note].

We’re talking about a very high, far too high, number of missing children here. If there were 18,000 non-migrant children missing in Europe, everyone would panic. But this is not the case here. At present, and despite these figures, there is no international tool to identify the missing migrant minors who have disappeared.

The Lost in Europe collective consists of a team of 20 investigative journalists located in seven different countries.


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