The Austrian government has released figures showing that nearly 4,500 unaccompanied children who applied for asylum in Austria last year have disappeared. There are fears that many are at risk from human traffickers.
In 2021 around 5,770 children and adolescents who had arrived in Austria without a parent or guardian and without legal status – so-called unaccompanied minors (UAMs) – applied for asylum. The majority were boys from Afghanistan (3,401) and Syria (1,345) but others had traveled from as far afield as Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco, and Egypt.
Responding to parliamentary questions from the liberal Neos party MP Stephanie Krisper, Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner has published figures which show the government has no knowledge of what happened to 4,489 of those UAMs. That means that 78% of migrant children who traveled to Austria alone last year are missing.
Out of sight
Lisa Wolfsegger of the NGO Asylum Coordination has been campaigning for many years for better protection of unaccompanied children. "Imagine that in one year around 180 school classes simply disappeared without a trace," she said in a statement. "Where have all these children gone?"
The answer is likely to be that a large number of the children traveled on to relatives in other EU countries, Wolfsegger says. Joining family members in Europe necessarily means disappearing from national authorities and traveling via 'illegal' routes, because across the European Union legal family reunion is only open to parents and siblings. More distant relatives are excluded.
It is also likely that some have become victims of human traffickers, Wolfsegger said. The risks to migrant children traveling alone are especially severe – every year thousands of migrant children are trafficked in Europe, including Austria. The most recent data from the UN anti-trafficking body UNODC show that boys and girls account for a third of all trafficking victims worldwide.
No legal guardian
The root of the problem, according to Wolfsegger, is that unaccompanied minors are not immediately assigned a guardian. In the early stages of the asylum procedure no single person is responsible for them and as a result the children often miss out on important information about their rights and opportunities. Some find their situation so difficult that they choose to go underground, which adds to the risks of trafficking or exploitation. These dangers could be minimized, Wolfsegger says, if guardians were appointed straight away, as is the case in other European countries.
With the possibility that large numbers of UAMs will arrive in Austria from Ukraine, the issue of guardianship is likely to receive more attention. According to a report in the Austrian paper The Standard, Stephanie Krisper says that the government – a coalition of center-right and green parties – made a commitment to address the issue, but so far, nothing has happened.