One in six refugee children travel to Europe alone. Many of them first arrive in Greek or Italian “hotspots” where they are identified, registered and fingerprinted. From there, refugees are (in theory) distributed among EU member states to be rehoused and integrated.

However, many children stay in the reception centers for much longer than then they are supposed to. In the camps, these children risk being exposed to abuse, rape, poor hygiene and disease. They are also easy targets for criminal networks that want to use them for drug smuggling, pickpocketing, and human trafficking.

Shockingly, Europol has estimated that as many as 10,000 unaccompanied minors have gone missing upon their arrival in Europe. The situation is so bad that Catherine Woolaard, the Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, has called the EU’s treatment of unaccompanied minors “one of the most shameful aspects of the refugee crisis”.

In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.

This week, we are looking at Vienna, Austria. As both a transit and a destination country, Austria receives around 2,000 asylum applications per month. Around 10% of these come from unaccompanied minors, most of them coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The majority are unaccompanied boys aged between 15 and 17.

Curious to know more about unaccompanied refugee children? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).

What is the scale of the problem? To get a bit of background, we approached Dr. Claire Healy, Research Officer at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), which is headquartered in Vienna. What would she say?

In 2015, we had around 1 million people in total arrive along the migration routes into Europe, most of them in order to apply for asylum. In 2016, the numbers reduced significantly: just under 400,000. And within that you of course have a lot of children; around 30% of all the people arriving are children (a child is anyone under the age of 18 years, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). But the majority of them arrived with their families, so this is something that’s been overestimated in a way, and sometimes there’s less attention going to the children who’ve actually arrived with their families. They’re generally also younger children.

Then there are the children who are unaccompanied; in 2015, that was around 90,000 children. So, that’s how many unaccompanied children we need to respond to throughout the whole European Union. Then it reduced to about 60,000 last year, in 2016. So, it’s a very significant number; it’s definitely a very serious child protection concern that 150,000 children arrived in those two years unaccompanied. But when you consider, of course, that we’ve got 28 EU Member States with a total population of over 500 million. So, that’s the scale of it.

So, what are reasons why they become unaccompanied? It’s not that they are somehow “born unaccompanied”, but rather that they’re in a situation where they’re separated from their parents or customary guardians; and we often refer to them as ‘separated children’. Then, among those 150,000 children, most of them are teenagers, some of them are younger. Most of them are boys, around 85-90% of them are boys. Among their families of origin there is a certain awareness, maybe not full information, but there is an awareness of what the journey will be like, and so it is very rare for families to send girls.

The major risk is that taking that migration route is so dangerous, it’s very risky even for adults; the idea of a child doing it – if you imagine teenagers you know going through that experience of the migration route, and dealing with smugglers, and taking dangerous journeys across the sea or land. But there are additional risk for women and girls, of sexual violence, rape, and sexual exploitation. So, of course, it’s also extremely dangerous for the few girls who take that trip. The boys, of course, are also still children and they’re also very vulnerable.

We had a comment from David, who asks how unaccompanied children are able to make the trip to Europe in the first place. What would Dr. Claire Healy say?

Each child’s situation is different, and it’s very interesting for us when we do research talking to children and individual migrants, to try and understand the different motivations and situations. And, of course, they’re very diverse. It depends on which country they come from. Those coming from countries like Syria, Iraq, Eritrea have experienced conflict, war and, in some cases they may be orphans, they may have lost their parents in the war or they may have simply lost track of them and become separated from them.

In other cases, for various different reasons, the parents are not able to travel. Whether it’s for health reasons or whether it’s responsibilities they have in their country, which mean that they cannot leave. It may also be because as a child you receive better care and better rights when you arrive in Europe. So, in some cases I think certain families are making a decision that if the child goes first, when they make it to a European Union country they will have an array of rights as children that the adults wouldn’t have. They have a better chance of being protected and taken care of, and then they can also apply for family reunification for their immediate family members…

However, the vast majority of families don’t take that option. I think that’s very important to remember. We’re talking about 150,000 children in a context where about 1.4 million people arrived during 2015-2016. For those children who are unaccompanied, their individual family situation, the situation in the village, town, city or country where they live – and a number of other factors, contribute to the decision. Whether they’re immediately escaping conflict, or whether they’re trying to seek a safer future with more prospects. Or maybe there is no access to education where they are, and therefore it’s very important to their families that the teenager who’s going gets a proper education. So, really there’s no one answer to that question. Even in the case of one individual child it’s a combination of factors.

Finally, we had a comment from Theoni, who wonders if Austria has the resources it needs to address the refugee challenge in general. To get a response, we put this question to Peter Hacker, Refugee Coordinator of the City of Vienna. What would he say? Does the city of Vienna receive enough financial support from the federal government to receive and integrate refugees?

Well, you must know that I’m the Director-General of an organisation that is part of the city government, and I’m responsible for elderly care, disabled people, homeless people, and on top of all that also for refugees. And actually, being Director-General of an organisation like that, you never have enough money.

So, clearly, I can’t say ‘No’ to more money, because I never have enough money. But, besides the joke, actually yes, we have a lot of money. And so we feel it’s our duty also to demonstrate and explain the results we get, and also to explain that we are successful. We had so many people arriving in 2015, and they are today already working, starting with teachers who came as refugees and are working now in schools teaching refugee children, as well as specialists and doctors, but also including ordinary people that have no highly sophisticated jobs, now they’re in work.

So, we see they are successful. We always said, from the beginning, that it’s a challenge. It’s not a crisis. I think a crisis is something else. It was a difficult situation, no doubt about that. It was a serious situation, and a challenge. But the point where it was a major challenge is now gone. In fact, I have communicated also to the people of Vienna that we are now in a consultation situation, because there are not as many refugees coming these days. So, the most challenging time is over. But it’s still hard work; we always said that this would need time, concentration, and – as your question suggests – it also needs money.

How can European countries protect unaccompanied refugee children? Is the EU doing enough to protect unaccompanied minors? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

The Debating Europe “Cities & Refugees” project is co-funded by the European Union’s “Europe for Citizens” program.
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – MaximilianV
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

45 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

    • avatar
      Joelle Grant

      Quite. And they stop be children at a very young age too. Nothing to do with european children. It is just a fact.

  1. avatar
    Iosif Cristian

    1st of all Why do European countries have to protect refugee children? 2nd of all Germany should deal with this problem after all they are the one that told them to come. Oh and btw stop making a difference between refugees children and refugees, i bet you that they didn’t come here alone. Oh and yea I’m still waiting for that european vote regarding the refugees, that if we are democrats or are we communists and we don’t have a word to say in this?

    • avatar
      Bogdan Iliuță Istrate

      The EU member states, as well as all the other signatories of the UN Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees have to protect the refugees because they have agreed to do so, back in 1951. And it would be highly hypocritical for any of the European states not to do so, since the first Protocol was created specifically for them. So you can say it’s up to us to take care of the people who can’t take care of themselves, as others did for us 70 years ago.
      Oh yeah, there won’t ever be a referendum on refugees, because doing so we would condemn people to their death, for the simple reason that some of us feel unsettled to be near them.

    • avatar
      Iosif Cristian

      Times change, Europe changed, policies change, everything changes in 70 years. Also no problem (this time the refugees problem) its the same with another one. Let me remind you how we got to shelter all this refugees, Germany said come and after that most of the EU countries followed not the other way around … Its like Germany won the war and we are there to follow and support. Don’t tell me that you don’t see how our country its a little bitch in EU, we never take a stand and never fight for what’s ours… Also when the refugees started coming in EU there was a pool where around 70% of our population was against them… This is why we didn’t vote because our vote doesn’t matter. Democracy my ass … Didn’t know that EU fancied communism so much.

    • avatar
      Tiromanzino May

      In 1951, the Geneva convention wasn’t used to transfer half of the population from 1 continent to exploit the welfare of other. Those who left their lands in 1951 had no pension and house waiting for them in the countries they migrated to. 80% of them are not even Syrian but Middle Eastern migrants or nor African.

      Please stop this mantra of the Geneva convention 70 years later. The XXI century arrived 17 years ago.

      The real refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and it cost a 0.00001% to sustain them there, that it cost to sustain a young Moroccan in his twenties in Berlin claiming he comes from Aleppo.

    • avatar
      Florence Baudin


    • avatar
      Ivan Burrows

      You think the EU is democratic ?

    • avatar
      Florence Baudin

      They​don’t want to as they know the answer! NO !

    • avatar
      Florence Baudin

      Bogdan ! STFU your refugees are leeches, sucking the blood out of hard working people , we don’t want them, they’re about all Muslims too, fuck off

    • avatar
      Joelle Grant

      Bogdan Iliuță Istrate: here is for you. These people hiding behind children are not refugees. They are invaders and are part of a plan which is being executed now. So no point comparing situations which are not comparable. We are talking attacks in our own countries committed by these so called refugees and to make matters worse they do it with the help of our governments.

    • avatar
      Sorin Stanescu

      First point is clear: why the hell we should have human feelings and to care about some kids ?! 8-|

  2. avatar
    Stefania Portici

    ma questo articolo è di oggi !? Mi sembra che è rimasto un pò indietro .Gli immigrati minori soli non accompagnati dai loro genitori stanno tutti qui, al sicuro, hanno tutte le tutele e protezioni uguali agli orfani italiani ( anzi maggiori . Per ragioni di austerità stupide e criminali della UE, gli orfani immigrati hanno maggiori benefici rispetto agli orfani italiani . Comunque non voglio soffermarmi su questo, stanno bene )

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      la soluzione è stata già trovata, gli immigrati minorenni hanno maggiori tutele. Questi minori non sono pochi .Spero si risolva presto la situazione di dove provengono e che si possa rimpatriarli , ricongiungerli ai loro genitori nella loro terra ( moltissimi di loro non sono orfani, i loro genitori sono vivi e vivono nel loro Paese) .

    • avatar
      Sari Bruno

      Stefania Portici : Non e´così´semplice la faccenda; spesso sono proprio i genitori a mandargli in Europa con la speranza che il resto della famiglia potrà raggiungere i minori più tardi.

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      Sari Bruno quello che hai detto è vero ma per restare o per venire devono avere dei requisiti, se sono immigrati economici ( come il 90% sono ) eh… la mandopera estera non è richiesta NON HANNO DIRITTO , che vengono a fare ? I disoccupati !? Se non hanno i requisiti è più probabile che siano i figli a raggiungere i loro genitori e non il contrario

  3. avatar
    Bódis Kata

    Those who are not real children and lie about their age should be sent home very fast.
    Those who are real children should be given a place in the child care systems and their parents’ right to custody should be taken away. Sending them to a faraway country with human smuggling organised crime is simply child abuse, such abusive parents should not be allowed in Europe. The existing rules fur easy family reunification is the primary motive for the abuse, so these rules are clearly poorly conceived and are not in the interest of the children.

    • avatar
      Stefania Portici

      “tra il dire e il fare ci passa il mare” . Tu dici “rispedirli indietro” eh ….e come li rispedisci? Non ci si riesce nè per i minori nè per gli adulti . I minori necessitano di una maggiore tutela .Sembra che il flusso finalmente si sta fermando e verrà il momento in cui tutta questa gente potrà ritornare a casa sua. L’Italia sta agendo bene

  4. avatar
    Stefano Zuzzi

    Tuttoggi, i dati ci sono :
    ci sono unita’ operative efficienti che si prestano prodigandosi per i minori non accompagnati ; ma ancora una volta, siamo rimasti solo noi a togliere le castagne bollenti dal fuoco.
    Ci sono delle trattative in corso, ma bisogna dimostrare che la Francia puo’ avere un ruolo nelle trattative libiche.
    Dovremo altresi ricordare che la Guardia Costiera libica, e’ priva di sistemi satellitari che possano intercettare i barconi; sicche’ dovremo noi prevenire la mossa degli scafisti, mandando i nostri droni.
    Per ora le trattative, restano ancora lunghe perché nessuno fin ora, ha la bacchetta magica.
    Il Ministro dell ‘Interno ,
    ha tutta la mia solidarieta’.

  5. avatar
    catherine benning

    How can European countries protect unaccompanied refugee children?

    First of all, children do not flee to Europe in a boat unaccompanied. In fact children, in the true sense of child, do not stray from their parents. As the picture DE adds is of a child who is clearly unable to manage to feed himself let alone ship himself to Europe from whatever country he has come from. How would he even know which country he left? These children are simply shills. The message is, get them in by whatever means then have them apply for their family to come as a human right. That goes to Mother, Father, Grandma, Grandpa, brother, sister, Aunt, Uncle On endlessly. And the family would use a child in such a way. Which tells you which kind of people they are to do this to their young. Why is it always Europe they ship them or themselves to? Why not try another continent? Spread it about a bit.

    What you are really speaking of is male humans who are well into their teens or perhaps 35 years old. And why do you think Europe should take them in? Why should citizens of these states want to support and feed illegal criminals who would use children in such a way?. There are many poverty stricken children right here on this continent already and how much help do you give them?

    What is the aim here? Why would any country or unit of countries want to take on such burdens? Any ideas?

    • avatar
      Joelle Grant

      So why do they still come here?

  6. avatar
    Franck Legon

    By not mixing them with young migrant adults who claim being childrens for the benefits.

  7. avatar
    Henk Marks

    Disgusting. A lot of inhuman responses. These people, be they young or old, have no homes anymore and most likely lost close family.

  8. avatar
    Μπάμπης Δάτσιος

    Όλοι είναι υποκριτές !!!
    Πρέπει να σταματήσει ο πολεμος στις χώρες της Ασίας για να μην εγκαταλείπουν τα σπίτια τους.

  9. avatar
    Νικόλαος Κομσέλης

    There are 1,6 billion muslims in the world. If 10% decide to migrate to Europe we can say goodbye to our homes, our neighborhood, our countries, our way of living. And the more we help them, the more they’ll keep coming. I remember 20 years ago I used to travel to Berlin and Paris. The once touristic European capitals have been transformed in to ghettoes and warzones. Keep up the good job Europe, save migrant children and destroy ours.

  10. avatar
    Ivan Burrows

    Don’t worry, they won’t be unaccompanied for long. As soon as they get residency in a Schengen country their parents will be over to join them.

  11. avatar
    Saul Crucero

    These children will not take the very risky trip if there are no adults that bring them here in Europe. That is HUMAN TRAFFICKING.

    19/06/2018 Vincent Cochetel, Special Envoy of the UNHCR for the Central Mediterranean, has responded to this comment.

    19/06/2018 Mark Lagon, former US Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons, and currently Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, has responded to this comment.

  12. avatar
    Marisa Casado López

    Unaccompanied minirs is the term. The Commission switched the file from DG HOME to DG JUST who misuses terms such as children for minors. The term child is a biological term, not a political one.

  13. avatar
    John Economou

    Europe must close borders all over urgently.They are notrefugees but ilegal and must deported,they don,t belong among us.

  14. avatar
    Γεώργιος Μίχας

    Europe, as servant of the US, invaded with FALSE data in Iraq and caused hundreds thousands deaths and complete destroy of people of Iraq… Europe, with stupid “humanitarian” excuses, supported criminal jihadists in Syria and Libya…. Europe gives weapon to fanatic Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen…. In short, Europe destabilized Middle East, Europe committed crimes against humanity and created the waves of refugees and immigrants….
    And is surprise to me that European democratic citizens say “why to support refugees, did they asked us before to come in Europe?”. The real question should be : “did Europe ever asked the peoples of Middle East and Africa before to invade and/or enslave them?”
    (sorry for my bad english)

    • avatar
      Jenny Rivett

      some of us know this but have no power to stop it happening : (

  15. avatar
    Danny boy

    Let’s get real here,firstly a young man of fifteen to seventeen is not a child,secondly any young people under that age don’t make journeys across continents on there own.
    Any country stupid enough to grant asylum to these ‘children’ will soon see mum,dad twelve brothers and sisters and granny following close behind

  16. avatar
    Avril Tallett

    It’s very sad how uncaring people seem to be these days. It was fortunate for many that it was easier to be a refugee in the 1930s and 40s.

    • avatar
      Lila Guha

      Not for all. A selected few.

    • avatar
      Arthur Gustin

      Ahahah, even during the first world war european nations killed civilians trying to cross the borders fleeing the fights in thousands :D

  17. avatar
    Anita Alfonsi

    I just want to let you know that if you are interested, the European Social Network is organising a seminar in Stokholm on 23-24 October discussing examples of policy and practice for the social inclusion of migrant children and young people.

    Participants will have the opportunity to hear about and exchange on child protection and guardianship, housing, health care, mental health support, education, training, and employment.

    Registration will open soon. In the meantime, you can contact our Secretariat.

    More info:

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