As the ongoing tension between the Bashar Assad regime and Syrian National Army (SNA) continues to escalate, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced due to worsening atrocities by regime forces on civilians since late February in Syria’s Idlib province. Thousands of displaced Syrians have flocked the Turkish border since.
Encountering these large migration flows and creating a safe haven for refugees, on Feb. 28, the Turkish government announced an open-border policy, allowing free passage to European countries. A vast number of migrants headed for Turkey’s far west border and queued up at Greek border gates in search of refuge. According to data published by the Turkish Interior Ministry, in the first three months of 2020, 130,469 migrants crossed the Turkish border in total.
The initial – rather disappointing – European response to the mass movement of refugees was to send additional border guards to support the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) and granting Greece 700 million euros ($795 million) for migration management to prevent migrants from reaching the European Union. Europe's high ideals of inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity and stance against discrimination were tested, and the continent failed yet again.
Greek border guards, police and members of the military responded with violence and fired tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and even real bullets to push back migrants trying to make their way across the Turkish-Greek border. Amnesty International reported that the clashes left two migrants dead and many others injured.
The U.N. numbers
Most of those heading for Greece took the relatively short voyage from Turkey via the sea to avoid the stark measures at the Greek border gates and ended up in already crowded camps of the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios. According to recent data from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 9,699 migrants crossed the Greek border in the first four months of 2020, 7,623 of those crossed using the sea route. Despite the risk of an outbreak of the coronavirus in the camps and an official capacity of 8,000, some 39,000 people are currently staying in overcrowded refugee camps and residential areas across Greek islands. According to the UNHCR, around 36% are minors.
Considering the high percentage of children seeking asylum in European countries, the migration of underage refugees and youth constitute a crucial area of concern. In 2019, child migrants accounted for 14% of the total migrant population worldwide. The most vulnerable group among them is unaccompanied minors (UAMs), those under the age of 18 and migrating without a parent or legal guardian to seek asylum. As reported by the European Commission's Eurostat, in 2019 there were 13,800 asylum applicants in the EU member states from UAMs, which also consist of 7% of all asylum applicants by minor refugees.
The situation in Greek refugee camps is even more terrifying. According to Greece’s deputy migration minister, George Koumoutsakos, a third of the 100,000 migrants in Greek refugee camps are minors. Additionally, the U.N. Children’s rights organization UNICEF stated that there are currently more than 5,400 unaccompanied children in Greece. Among them, 90% of all unaccompanied children are boys, the majority of whom are from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Syria as reported by the Greek National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA). Also, one-tenth of all minor refugees in Greece are younger than 14.
Criticism of Europe
Meanwhile, international criticism of Europe’s reckless and negligent refugee policies has risen after several European countries came up with a narrow-scope solution preventing thousands of refugees from pouring over their borders. On March 6, Jahnz Adalbert, the European Commission spokesperson for migration, home affairs, and citizenship, announced that eight EU member states are willing to take in UAMs from Greece. As declared by the European Commission, at least 1,600 unaccompanied children will be evacuated. The first eight countries that initially volunteered to accept refugee minors were Croatia, Germany, Finland, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal. Later, Bulgaria, Belgium, Switzerland and the United Kingdom joined the coalition of EU member states interested in welcoming minor refugees. Despite the delays caused by the coronavirus outbreak in transferring unaccompanied refugee minors, the first 12 children, aged between 11 and 15, were moved to Luxembourg on April 15, following Germany with 47 refugee children and Britain, who took 16 underage migrants on May 11 included in 50 asylum-seekers from Greece in total. Recently, 23 unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers arrived in Switzerland from Greece on May 16. Furthermore, Belgium declared the relocation of 18 refugee minors in the forthcoming days, while Portugal volunteered to take in several refugee children.
Despite the difficulties of transferring children amid the coronavirus epidemic, the relocation of refugee minors is only a small concern. The main and most challenging question awaits the recipient member states upon the children’s arrival: What will be next?
The European Commission action plan for UAMs states that the “promotion of reunification of children with their parents through family tracing activities in the Member States and countries of origin” is the basic principle regarding the UAMs' best interests and also the most favorable. However, in general, the regulations related to UAMs at the EU level are merely advisory, not necessarily mandatory. The member states play a primary role in the care and integration of UAMs and often act as guardians themselves. Also, the relocation process and the criteria for determining who will be taken in are decided by each volunteered member state. The admission criteria vary from state to state. It is also associated with the status of the child, whether in the context of family reunion, is based on the Dublin III Regulation or not. While Switzerland and Finland are looking to increase their refugee quota through family reunification, Germany states that only the most vulnerable with disabilities, unaccompanied and separated will be taken in.
Saved, reunited or adopted?
In general, the unaccompanied children living in the EU are under the care and guardianship of state authorities. The majority of children are granted refugee status or subsidiary protection upon arrival until their asylum applications are finalized. There are a variety of institutions, just as ministries, asylum agencies, youth centers and local authorities responsible for the welfare and accommodation of underage refugees. Member states also collaborate with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Although the UNHCR Guideline on Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum of February 1997, the Council of Europe Action Plan on Migrant Children in Europe (2017-2019), the European Council Resolution (97/C 221/03) of 1997, the Council Directive 2003/9/EC and other international and regional texts on UAMs emphasize that the children’s best interests can be honored through restoring family links and reuniting separated families, most of refugee host countries are reluctant to implement family reunification processes. As a consequence of the lack of detailed investigation, the family members of UAMs remain undetected or even ignored. In most cases, the children are sent to youth care centers and protected under their custody, even if their parents are in the same country.
The family structure outlined in international legal texts is also not compatible with countries’ extended family guidelines. International and regional laws recognize only first-degree relatives and other guardians appointed by law as proper guardians. On this basis, a vast number of minors arriving accompanied by distant relatives, acquaintances or even neighbors are registered as "unaccompanied" due to the limited scope of the legal concept of family. A notable example of contradicting family perceptions is the decision of the German Higher Administrative Court of Münster in December 2018. The court abolished temporary guardianship awarded to underage asylum applicant’s adult cousins for the reason that the cousin could not be regarded as a legal guardian. Last year, the German Federal Office for Asylum and Migration (BAMF) rejected 75% of requests for family reunification under the Dublin III Regulation from Greece. The BAMF is known for imposing excessively harsh requirements that have no basis in the regulation.
A further matter of concern is that the family reunification process on the basis of the Dublin-III Regulation and European Council Directive 2003/86 cover only the applications for those granted refugee statuses, not for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. Even though the European Commission declared that a new pact on migration and asylum is one of the main priorities of 2020’s agenda and a reform of the Dublin-III Regulation, which aims to create more effective protection for UAMs and an extension of the definition of "family members" will be put on the table, no consensus has been reached.
Another issue that remains problematic is the prolonged waiting period between the moment the unaccompanied minor is granted subsidiary protection status and the application for family reunification. When the minor applicant turns 18 in the course of the reunification process, they will be naturally excluded from UAMs' privileged protection rights, and the reunification process may no longer be processed.
The situation in child and youth care facilities and accommodations is also far from encouraging. In the German case, for example, according to a survey conducted by the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (BumF) in 2018 with 1,000 UAMs under the guardianship of the German Youth Welfare Offices, more than 50% of the participants stated they have relatives in Germany. Nearly half, or 44.5 %, of the participants expressed they had been involuntarily placed in a youth care center far from their relatives and 40% declared that they are unsatisfied with current accommodation facilities. Additionally, the high rates of incidences of discrimination, racism, peer bullying, violence, drug consumption and juvenile delinquency in youth care centers are seriously alarming.
Furthermore, the counseling and psycho-social services customized for unaccompanied minors stem from a standardized overall approach, ignoring the religious and cultural background of children. Generally, recipient states appoint a temporary guardian for the UAMs, who should be consulted during the different stages of the adaptation process of the child and even with an assessment of the child’s best interests. However, most guardians are not well informed about the child's background and are often unfamiliar with their religious and cultural tendencies. As declared by German Interior, Building and Community Minister Horst Seehofer on April 29, Catholic and Protestant churches are willing to accompany refugee children during their adaptation period, providing psychosocial support and safe shelter. Given that a high percentage of UMAs in Europe are Muslims of Afghan, Syrian and Pakistani origin, appointing caretakers considering the existing cultural and religious identity of children has the utmost importance in regard to respecting their rights and individuality. The same applies to the children under the guardianship of foster families. About half of the refugee recipient EU member states place unaccompanied minors in the care of foster families without taking cultural and religious harmony between the child and caretaker family into consideration.
The untold stories
Disappearances of children during migration constitute the gravest cause of worry since neither a universal tracking instrument for collecting accurate data nor an advanced preventive and suspensive mechanism to address the issue are currently present. The most recent comparable data on missing unaccompanied refugee minors from the European Migration Network (EMN) reveals that more than 30,000 young newcomers went missing in Europe between 2014-2017. Particularly the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) declared 1,074 youth and 711 children missing in Germany by the end of March 2020. International advocacy groups and human rights NGOs warn that they could fall victim to human trafficking, violence and sexual exploitation.
Recently, the EMN published an informative report on the actions of member states in cases of missing UAMs. According to the report, the lack of a uniform mechanism for cross-border cooperation makes it difficult to create a wide scope approach. As reported by the EMN, the member states should pay particular attention to the issue and should establish sufficient cooperation between various local authorities.
In conclusion, in line with the best interests of the children, considering their international protection needs and taking existing family ties into account, a holistic approach should be implemented to create better living conditions for underage refugee children who have suffered persistent violations of their human rights. The utmost priority should be given to restoring family ties through family tracing efforts and reunification of separated families for the sake of the wellbeing of children.
The children should not be placed in the care of youth centers or foster parents unless no relatives can be found. Minors without relatives should be entrusted to suitable foster families who will take responsibility for their welfare and accommodation with consideration of their cultural and religious identity.
*Op-ed contributor based in Turkey
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