More than 18,000 migrant children go missing in Europe. “This is a story of humanity”

Lost in Europe revealed in its latest data research that at least 18,292 children in migration have gone missing in Europe between 2018-2020. This International Missing Children’s Day Mind the Children raises attention to this pressing issue. We talk about it with Aagje Ieven, Secretary General of Missing Children Europe, one of the organisations that has initiated the annual International Missing Children’s Day, and on this day every year, publishes a facts & figures report including new statistics on missing children in migration.

Missing Children Europe runs a network of hotlines supporting parents of children who have gone missing or are at risk of going missing. In 2015 they started working on children in migration after two shocking statistics came out: the European Migration Network made the figure public of 30,000 missing migrant children in, at that time, the previous four years, and Europol spoke of 10,000 missing children in a year. “Those were very worrying figures. That’s when we started our work on migration, and raising the attention on the fact that children in migration were not being reported as missing in the same way as other children,” Aagje Ieven says.

What does Missing Children Europe do to help these children?
“There are many reasons these children go missing: inadequate reception conditions, lengthy and complex procedures for family reunification, lack of cross-border cooperation, lack of training of professionals and in general lack of information. We work on all of these areas. Children not having access to the right information, like where to find services, how procedures work, and which rights they have in each country, is especially worrying. Because of this, they are very vulnerable to misinformation by people who can profit from that, such as smugglers and traffickers. We make important information directly available for these children through the Miniila App.

A large part of our work is advocacy. We co-lead the Initiative for Children in Migration, bringing together over 100 like-minded organisations, through which we advocate for better procedures and reception conditions. We work on improving the cross-border cooperation between professionals and policy makers by doing simulations with them with fictional stories of children who had been trafficked and gone missing several times on their journey. Rather than pointing the finger and blaming others, we try to bring everyone together to find the gaps in the system and think about how to fix them.”

Children playing. Photo: Daniel Osorio.
Photo by Daniel Osorio (Dani Oshi).

Within Mind the Children, Defence for Children-ECPAT Netherlands (DCI) is also advocating for the rights of these children, with the stories of Lost in Europe in hand. How can you strengthen and support each other in your common goal?
“It is very important to have a strong voice as civil society. DCI and Missing Children Europe can strengthen the cooperation between national and international organisations, we can complement each other because they work on a national level, and we work on an international level.

That connection between national and international level is quite important. Different countries have very different realities and ways of dealing with European led initiatives. What the EU puts down as the chosen procedure, is implemented differently in every country. For us it is really important to see what is actually happening on the ground, and DCI can help with that. What we see at the European level are the principles, the theories, and the guiding international human rights documents. What they see is what it means to people in daily life. One change in a sentence for us for principled reasons, can lead to a lot of practical problems on the ground. To avoid that you need to be in constant communication with the national level.”

The most likely result in a missing child in migration case, is that the child is not found.

Aagje Ieven – Secretary General Missing Children Europe

Lost in Europe reveals the gaps in the system through investigative journalism, and pictures the scale of the problem. Are the Lost in Europe investigations helpful for your work, and in what way?
“For us they are very important, because it is so difficult to get those figures. The European Migration Network reported the 30,000 figure a few years ago, but that was 30,000 compared to an overall number of asylum applications received of 230,000. This new figure from Lost in Europe of 18,292 is compared to an overall number of asylum applications of 52,000. So the proportion is quite a lot bigger compared to the overall migration streams than it was a few years ago. And these are only numbers from ten countries, so relatively the problem is getting worse.

I think having an exact figure showing how many children go missing, even if it’s only from ten countries, shows the magnitude of the problem which is often not really visible. For us this is an important piece of research, because it can help us appeal to the conscience of people who are responsible for finding these children. If these were 18,000 children who were white, born in the UK, France or the Netherlands, we would be putting all our resources towards finding them. That’s not happening now. There is a lack of political will, a lack of awareness, and I think Lost in Europe, and the Mind the Children project in general, are very helpful in raising that awareness and changing the attitudes.”

Shoes and socks belonging to Syrian migrants are hung to dry near the Serbian border with Hungary, near the village of Horgos. Photo: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

In their latest publication Lost in Europe also states that the number of 18,292 is a minimum because ‘cross-border cooperation is non-existent and the administration is lacking’. Did your facts & figures research confirm this?
“Absolutely. Our facts & figures research is a data collection from 21 hotlines all over the world, and the number of children in migration that are being reported to a hotline as missing, is much lower than other children. They make up only 3,5% of the cases. You would expect this to be higher if you look at the number of migrant children that go missing in general.

Another worrying thing is that while missing migrant children made up 3,5% of cases reported last year, the made up 17% of cases still open from the previous year. Their cases are not resolved as quickly as other missing children cases. These cases are in fact more complicated to solve because of the cross-border element, two-thirds of the reported cases in 2020 were cross-border cases, but it also shows lack of political will and cooperation.”

“We need to counter that very poisoning discourse of migration as something to be feared or seen as a burden.”

Aagje Ieven – Secretary General Missing Children Europe

What else have you found?
“What is actually worse, is that the most likely result in a missing child in migration case, is that the child is not found. Only 43% of the cases opened resulted in finding the child, so more than half is never solved. And this outcome ties directly to why so many children go missing. Because there is under-reporting, and because the follow up across borders is not the way it should be, these children become more vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers. If we don’t start doing something, if we do not work harder to find all of those children, the trafficking and smuggling continues because no one is looking. This is a warm plea to do better.”

You said that missing migrant children are not given the same level of attention as other missing children in Europe. What is the problem there?
“It all comes back again to the issue of political will. We see so many political groups taking the easy way of blaming migrants for all of our problems. The fear of migration and what it means to our resources is a tempting political discourse to use. It is a short-term strategy to gain political power that has proven to work in a lot of counties across Europe, and beyond. This discourse however is not always based on facts.

I think what we need to do here is show another side of the story. Show the public that migration is not something to be feared. It is something of all times, it has always happened, and has actually brought humanity to better places. It is the story of humanity. It is not as scary as it is presented. Particularly not when talking about young people in search of a better life, of an opportunity to contribute to a better society. When you talk to these young people, they say: I came to Europe because I believe in it and the freedoms and rights it provides. That is something we don’t talk about enough, we don’t show enough, we don’t see enough of. That is really the only way to counter that very poisoning discourse of migration as something to be feared or seen as a burden.”

You can find the Facts & Figures report of Missing Children Europe here.

Free Press Unlimited also produced a special Mind the Children talkshow with Adriana Homolova, data journalist at Lost in Europe, and Veronika Pisorn from Defence for Children-ECPAT Netherlands. Watch it here.