Brussels, 28 September 2012
Shaping a common approach on unaccompanied minors
The Commission's report highlights the main progress and future developments in addressing the situation of unaccompanied minors following the adoption of the Action Plan in 2010.
What is meant by unaccompanied minors?
An unaccompanied minor is a migrant under the age of 18, who is not accompanied by either of his/her parents or an adult responsible for him/her and who originates from a country outside the European Union.
Children migrate to the EU for many reasons. Some are asylum seekers fleeing war, armed conflicts, discrimination or persecution in their home countries, sometimes even within their own family, while others are victims of trafficking and slavery. Some dream of education and employment opportunities, others do not leave on their own accord but are sent away by their families to escape poverty. They may arrive clandestinely, in an attempt to join relatives, on their own or after having paid smugglers. But whatever the purpose of their journey, they find themselves extremely vulnerable in a foreign country, separated from their loved ones, with rather uncertain prospects.
That is why young migrants should be given special attention and care across all EU Member States.
How many minors are concerned in the EU?
Exact numbers are difficult to provide. The most reliable data available are those on unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum. In 2011, there were 12,225 asylum applications in the 27 Member States, a number comparable to previous years – i.e. 10,845 in 2010, 12,245 in 2009 and 11,715 in 2008 (see table 1 below).
Most unaccompanied minors who lodged asylum claims in the EU were boys (10,175 male applicants - 2,025 female applicants in 2011) and were primarily from Afghanistan and poor African countries (see table 2 below).
As such, the asylum figures only paint one part of the overall picture of unaccompanied minors migrating to the EU and the flows of children are in fact much greater than the asylum application numbers indicate.
While in some Member States, unaccompanied minors arrive indeed predominantly as asylum seekers (e.g. Sweden, Germany), in other Member States asylum flows are relatively less significant in comparison to children arriving as irregular migrants. New data on residence permits issued to unaccompanied minors give a hint on the possible extent of other types of flows. In 2011, Italy and Spain issued first permits to respectively 3,345 and 750 children not seeking asylum (see table 3 below), whilst registering 815 and 10 asylum applications from unaccompanied minors the same year.
How is the issue being addressed in the EU?
The standards of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights are at the heart of all EU action concerning unaccompanied minors.
This means that each unaccompanied minor must be seen as being a child before being a migrant and that particular consideration must be given to his particular circumstances. As soon as a young person is identified and suspected to be an isolated minor, authorities have to provide immediate protection and care.
EU legislation in the field of asylum, immigration or trafficking in human beings is always guided by the best-interests of the child and includes specific provisions on the treatment of unaccompanied minors:
Asylum: Reception Conditions Directive / Asylum Procedures Directive / Qualification Directive / Temporary Protection Directive / Dublin Regulation
Ensure representation of the unaccompanied minor
Place unaccompanied minors with adult relatives, with a foster family, in accommodation centres with special provisions for minors or in other suitable accommodation
Attempt to trace the unaccompanied minors' family members as quickly as possible and where they are found on EU territory, place the minor with family member(s)
Ensure appropriate training for anybody working with unaccompanied minors
Consider family unity, welfare and social development of the unaccompanied minor as well as his/her safety and opinion when assessing the best interests of the child
Immigration: Return Directive / Schengen Borders Code
Consider unaccompanied minors as being children before being migrants
Allow the admission of parents or grandparents of unaccompanied minor refugees for the purpose of family reunification
Prior to deciding on the return of an unaccompanied minor, provide him/her with assistance by appropriate bodies other than the authorities enforcing return
Before removing an unaccompanied minor, ensure that s/he will be returned to a member of his/her family, a nominated guardian or adequate reception facilities in the country of return
If necessary, extend the period for voluntary departure, taking into account school attendance and the existence of other family and social ties
Pending return, ensure that family unity is maintained, emergency healthcare is provided, minors have access to the basic education system (for the length of their stay) and special needs of vulnerable persons are taken into account
Unaccompanied minors shall only be detained as a measure of last resort and for as short a period of time as possible
Border guards must pay particular attention to minors (both accompanied and unaccompanied)
Trafficking in human beings: Trafficking in human beings Directive / Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography
Assistance and support to unaccompanied child victims of trafficking in human beings on the basis of individual assessments of each child's circumstances to find a durable solution
Appoint a guardian for an unaccompanied child victim of trafficking in human beings
Ensure that special protective provisions apply in criminal investigations and proceedings, such as free legal counselling and representation, as well as child-sensitive conduct of investigations, interviews and trial hearings
What is the added value of the Action Plan?
Building on EU legislation and financial instruments, the 2010 Action Plan provides a common EU wide approach in order to increase protection of unaccompanied minors across EU Member States.
The Action Plan distinguishes three main strands of action:
Preventing the unsafe migration and trafficking of children and increasing protection capacities in non-EU countries.
Protecting unaccompanied minors detected at the border or on the EU territory by applying reception measures and providing procedural guarantees until a durable solution is found.
Ensuring durable solutions by individually assessing each case to return the minor to his/her country of origin, to grant him/her international protection or to resettle him/her in an EU country.
How does it help concretely?
Unaccompanied minors face many challenges. The following are a few examples of concrete actions implementing the common EU approach:
“[…] everyone thinks we lie about our age.” (Boy, 17, Spain)1
In 2011, Member States had registered 1,250 asylum applications by unaccompanied minors of less than 14 years of age. Another 935 unaccompanied children who applied for asylum were minors but their precise age could not be determined.
Age determination is of course essential to certify minor status. The Action Plan promotes information sharing and sharing of best practices on unaccompanied minors and age assessment.
In 2011 EASO provided training to asylum officials on issues of gender, trauma and age, with the objective of ensuring that interviews with minors are conducted in a child friendly manner. Interviews are used by Member States' authorities to determine the age of a minor, along with other techniques such as assessment by doctors, psychological evaluation, etc.
In 2012, EASO organised expert meetings on age assessment methods, such as medical examinations and interviewing techniques. The Agency will further develop training activities, as well as deliver technical documentation and a handbook on age assessment.
“I felt safe in the protected reception, I’ve grown stronger there.” (Girl, 17, Netherlands)
Appropriate reception conditions and procedural safeguards need to be ensured from the moment the child is found at the external border or within a Member State. Whilst the EU is seeking to adopt higher standards of protection for unaccompanied minors by completing the negotiations on the revision of the asylum acquis, financing will continue to be an important part of the practical development of the Action plan.
EU financing enables to establish and improve reception facilities responding to specific needs of minors, as well as measures for the development of appropriate integration actions.
For instance the project "Unaccompanied and separated children “on the move” in need of international protection" was implemented by the UNHCR. Its aim was to develop and promote common measures to address reception, counselling and referral of Unaccompanied and Separated Children (UASC), providing assistance, child appropriate information, counselling and referral to asylum procedures or other protection mechanisms along one of the most frequently travelled routes of UASC through the EU (through Greece, Italy and France).
The ‘Better Integration of Separated Children’ project aims to strengthen the integration of separated children after they have been granted residence in EU states by facilitating the exchange of good practice. Through this project professionals in five countries (Austria, Denmark, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia) working with separated children in the integration process have become better equipped to assist separated children in their development and foster the health, self-respect and dignity of separated children. The project was implemented by Save the Children Denmark.
“I do not know what is a legal guardian. Do I have one?” (Girl, 17, Austria)
Guardianship is a crucial element of child protection. The Action Plan has facilitated the exchange of knowledge and practices between EU institutions, national authorities and intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations. The Expert Group on unaccompanied minors, created by the Commission as part of the Action Plan, met in June 2011 to discuss and exchange good practices on guardianship.
Specific EU legislation, such as the Directive on Trafficking in Human Beings (April 2011), also underlines that Member States should appoint a guardian or a representative from the moment the child victim is identified by the authorities.
While there is no single model of guardianship, there are common challenges across the EU such as the need to train guardians. Over the past years, the Commission has funded several projects to support guardianship networks or establish standards for guardians of unaccompanied children.
The project ‘Closing a protection gap: Core Standards for guardians of separated children in Europe’ run by Defence for Children in the Netherlands was finalised in 2011 (co-financed by DAPHNE III Programme). Its aim was to harmonize the protection separated children receive from their guardian by focusing on the qualifications of a guardian. The 'Core Standards' that have been developed help the guardians in their daily work and could inspire State authorities to adjust the guardianship systems where necessary.
“Learning is important! My father was teacher in Afghanistan and was killed by Taliban because he did not stop teaching [...].” (Boy, 14, Austria)
Access to education is a right for child asylum seekers and is paramount for their integration in the host society.
Many projects are implemented, such as the one coordinated by the Hellenic Red Cross (co-financed by the European Refugee Fund): "Access of minor asylum seekers (aged 15-18 years old) to the educational system in Europe – Meeting the challenges". The main objective of the project is to support, influence and improve the existing educational framework in favour of the minor asylum seekers at national and EU level.
Investing in education in third countries also prevents unsafe migration and provides positive alternatives to youth.
National and EU financing of centres in countries of origin such as Senegal, Morocco, Moldova, Egypt, Kenya, Guatemala and Bolivia, which provides shelter and education to minors, has had encouraging results. The project 'Education and training for Egyptian Youth in Fayoum Governate' is one example of activities at bilateral level, between Italy and Egypt (implemented by IOM). It is based on the idea that strengthening vulnerable youth’s access to technical education and vocational training in rural communities with high-migration pressure will provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to take advantage of economic opportunities, both at home and abroad.
“I have never been in contact with family […] those people who are looking for me may kill me, put me in prison.” (Boy, 17, UK)
Children are trafficked to the EU for various reasons including sexual and labour exploitation.
The Action Plan acknowledges that prevention of unsafe migration and trafficking of children is the first step in dealing effectively with the issue of migration of unaccompanied minors, in particular through development cooperation and dialogues with third countries.
The EU has funded projects on preventing unsafe migration and trafficking, raising awareness for children at risk, training specialised personnel to detect risk situations, as well as on reinforcing capacities of third countries to combat trafficking in Human beings (e.g. in South Asia (SANYUKT), in Moldova, in Paraguay, etc).
In addition, the recent EU Strategy against Trafficking in Human Beings, just as the Directive, recognises the importance of better identifying, protecting and assisting in the EU child victims who are particularly vulnerable to victimisation and re-trafficking.
Examples of projects where actions against child trafficking have been - and are - among the set priorities are also available on the EU Anti Trafficking website.
“I have not seen my family since I was 7 years old. My brother found me through the Red Cross, but he couldn’t find the rest of my family.” (Boy, 17, UK)
Separated children are often intensely worried about their parents and other family members. Durable solution should always be determined on the basis of an individual assessment and every effort should be made to find the family of the child and to reunite the child with his family, provided that this is in his best interests. This applies if the child is: - returned to his or her country of origin where it will be necessary to ensure reintegration; - given the status of international protection or other legal status that allows him to integrate in the Member State of residence; - or resettled in the EU.
The Expert Group on unaccompanied minors met in March this year to exchange experience and best practices on family tracing, seeing active participation from Member States, International Organizations and NGOs,.
The Qualification Directive, which was adopted December 2011, reinforces the provision on the tracing of family members of minors who have been granted international protection. If return is identified as the child's best solution, it should be done safely. Under the Return Directive, before returning an unaccompanied minor, Member States are obliged to make sure that "he or she will be returned to a member of his or her family, a nominated guardian or adequate reception facilities in the country of return".
Financing under the Return Fund include cooperation projects in the field of pre-departure and post-arrival reintegration activities. For instance, the European Reintegration Instrument by the Dutch Repatriation and Departure Services should assess the reception and reintegration situation in selected third countries, present a standard model for reintegrating unaccompanied minors and provide assistance to selected groups of returning minors (those older than 16,5 years).
What are the main areas for improvements identified in the report?
Today's report takes stock of the progress made in four areas identified by the 2010 Action Plan and makes recommendations for further improvements in each of those:
Data collection continues to be one of the key challenges to analysing current policy and developing a comprehensive approach.
Additional efforts in quantitative and qualitative data gathering and exchange are needed.
Member States are encouraged to continue to collect data on unaccompanied minors who are asylum seekers, but also on those who are irregular migrants or victims of trafficking.
Member States are encouraged to collect quantitative and qualitative data concerning the number of unaccompanied minors absconding from care facilities, the types of services and support provided at the various stages of applicable procedures (such as accelerated procedures, border procedures, age assessments, tracing of families, appointing of guardians, etc.)
Prevention of unsafe migration and trafficking
The EU and Member States should continue to address root causes of migration and create safe environments for children to grow up in their countries of origin by integrating the issue of unaccompanied minors into development cooperation (poverty reduction, education, health, labour policy, human rights and democratisation and post-conflict reconstruction).
Such cooperation should not be limited to prevention measures, but should also address other relevant issues such as restoring family links, ensuring the safe return of children, and re-trafficking risks. These issues should also be addressed in the context of mobility partnerships and in dialogues with the main countries of origin.
Reception measures and access to procedural guarantees in the EU
The Commission will ensure that EU legislation affecting unaccompanied minors is correctly implemented and that potential gaps are addressed.
It will also continue to make financial resources available for projects, but efforts to use the funds must be strengthened. Member States and civil society organisations are invited to submit targeted proposals. An important contribution could be made by new projects focused on best practice in preventing the disappearance of children from care, improving standards of accommodation and dealing with situations when they reach 18 years of age.
Durable solutions in the best interests of the child
Despite Member States' divergent approaches to family tracing, some rules and practices developed at national level could be usefully shared among Member States.
Member States and civil society organisations are invited to use the full potential of the financial resources available under the Return Fund, which calls, amongst other things, for projects concerning family tracing, monitoring of returned minors and reception centres for returned UAMs.
The Commission will also continue to advocate for resettlement to the EU of unaccompanied minors who are refugees in non-EU countries if, after a careful assessment in collaboration with the UNHCR and relevant civil society organisations, no other durable solution is available. This should be a priority of the Union resettlement programme for 2014-2020 by the Asylum and Migration Fund
Further detailed information from Member States reports
Belgium estimates the number of UAM at 4 000.
France provided an estimate of 6 000 UAMs in its territory with countries/regions of origin being the Democratic Republic of Congo and other sub-Saharan territories, Central Asia, India, the Balkans and the Maghreb. The number of unaccompanied minors requesting asylum was 595 in 2011 and 610 in 2010.
Italy provided data, which indicated that there were 5 559 unaccompanied minors on Italian territory on 31 December 2011. Most of them came from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, Ivory Coast or Ghana. Most of the minors were males aged 16-17. Countries of origin were found to have changed over the last few years. Flows from traditional countries of origin such as Albania, or Morocco decreased considerably while flows from socio-political unstable countries in Africa and the Middle East increased.
Hungary reported that between 2009 and 2011 the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended by the Police and the Office of Immigration and Nationality was 1000. In 2011 the number was 61 (3.6% of all asylum seekers).
Malta issued 15 care orders in 2010, mostly to UAMs from Eritrea, Somalia and Côte d'Ivoire; and 25 in 2011, mostly from Eritrea, Somalia, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.
Poland reported 14 UAMs who were staying at reception centres of the Border Guard in 2010–2011. These UAMs came from Afghanistan, Vietnam, Tunisia and Haiti. Unaccompanied minors applying for refugee status in Poland amounted to 31 in 2010 and 23 in 2011. Their countries of origins were the Russian Federation, Afghanistan and Georgia.
Portugal reported 48 unaccompanied foreign minors identified at border posts in 2010 and 34 in 2011. Seven unaccompanied minors filed an asylum request in 2010 and five in 2011.
In Romania, in 2010, 39 unaccompanied asylum seekers were registered and 9 of them (mainly Afghans) have obtained protection in Romania. Five unaccompanied minors were reunited with their families in their countries of origin. In 2011, 33 asylum applicants considered to be unaccompanied minors were registered and 11 of them (mainly Afghans) obtained protection in Romania. Two unaccompanied minors were reunited with their families in their countries of origin.
In the Slovak Republic there were 264 unaccompanied minors in 2010 and 169 in 2011. Among them, 7 were registered as asylum seekers in 2010 (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Moldova, Pakistan and stateless). In 2011, 18 were registered as asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Moldova and Somalia. A special register was created for UAMs.
Slovenia reported 63 minors as asylum seekers in 2010 (38 unaccompanied minors), six of whom was granted international protection (one of them was unaccompanied minor) and 103 in 2011 (58 unaccompanied minors), ten of whom were granted international protection status (two of them where unaccompanied minors).
In Spain, the aggregated figure of UAM for the period 2008-2011 was over 5 500 and for 2011 alone, around 3 700.
In Sweden most unaccompanied minors apply for asylum. In 2010, there were 2 393 cases and 2 657 in 2011. Top countries of origin were Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.
In the United Kingdom, the recorded number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK was 1277 in 2011.
Table 1: Asylum applications submitted by unaccompanied minors (Eurostat, 2011)
Table 2: Countries of origin of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum
(Eurostat, 2011 - countries of more than 100 applicants)
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Table 3: Residence permits issued to unaccompanied minors
European Union (27 countries)
Germany (including former GDR from 1991)
All quotes from the 2011 report 'Separated, asylum-seeking children in European Union Member States', EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.