With record numbers of child refugees and migrants – 700 a day seeking asylum in Europe – UNICEF has identified five groups of vulnerable children and is mobilizing tailored actions to meet their needs.
Since summer 2015, the numbers of children and women have steadily increased, with no end in sight as winter approaches. Not only is the total number of children seeking asylum in the European Union unprecedented in recent history – 214,000 in total from January to September this year, according to the latest data from Eurostat – but so, too, is the number of children on the move.
In June, just 1 in 10 refugees and migrants registered crossing the border from Greece into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia through Gevgelija was a child. By October, children accounted for 1 in 3 refugees and migrants registered at the same border.
“These young people are determined to make a better life for themselves, but their futures hang in the balance as they make their way through Europe. We cannot let them down,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe. “The big question for us is: Are we ready for this, is Europe fit for purpose, will we be able to give these children the future that they are risking their lives for?”
In Sweden alone, the total number of unaccompanied children claiming asylum is more than the total of last year for all of Europe – 24,000 unaccompanied minors have claimed asylum there.
The following actions are already being carried out by government authorities, UNICEF, UNHCR, the Red Cross, humanitarian protection workers and national social workers, but need to be stepped up urgently.
1. Babies and small children – Rapid winterization is needed to prevent illnesses and deaths; avoid unpredictable and sudden changes to border procedures.
2. Children with disabilities and special needs – Whether their disabilities are physical or psychological, these children need appropriate facilities and specialized services.
3. Lost children – To prevent children being separated from their families or caregivers during their journey, provide proper monitoring by child protection officers and interpreters and use number tracking or tagging for families.
4. Children left behind – Children who do not have the financial means, contacts or support networks to find the money fall prey to traffickers and criminal gangs and are exposed to violence, sexual abuse and exploitation; they need urgent care and protection such as a qualified guardian appointed by child welfare systems.
5. Unaccompanied adolescents on the move – These are mostly boys aged between 14 and 17, many from Afghanistan, who do not want to be identified as unaccompanied or separated children. It may be in their best interests to allow them to continue their journey and thus prevent further harm. Where children do remain in accommodation centres for months on end while their asylum applications are being processed, UNICEF advocates for measures to increase their safety (separate toilets, adequate lighting, staffing 24/7).
The refugee and migrant crisis is unlike any other and poses unique challenges to programming for children and families on the move who spend sometimes just a few hours in transit centres. The crisis has created unique challenges for those striving to assist them on their journey and to protect them against abuse and violations of their rights.
“When countries progress and become EU members with a strong GDP, there is a notion that they no longer need help, but the refugee and migrant crisis is changing Europe and it is changing the way we operate,” said UNICEF’s Marie-Pierre Poirier. “Refugees and migrants, all children need protection. UNICEF is ready to step up its partnership with governments at their request as we adapt to this fast moving and unpredictable crisis.”