The surge in asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Europe over the last two years is regularly described as a crisis. Certainly the numbers are significant: in 2015 there were about 1.2 million asylum applications in Europe, double the number in 2014 which was already a record year. The human suffering should also not be underestimated; almost 4,000 people are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe in 2015. These arrivals also pose significant policy challenges placing strains on asylum systems, testing the capacity of local municipalities in places like Southern Sweden, and posing longer term challenges of integration. Policy responses across Europe have varied widely and certainly not been harmonized, and in some cases have been quite extreme.
Challenging though this situation is, it need not be a crisis. A sense of perspective is required, that the majority of the world’s 20 million refugees are still hosted in poorer countries; and even the majority of Syrian refugees are in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, not Europe. It is also worth remembering that Europe’s population is about 500 million, and it is the wealthiest single market in the world: it is quite surprising that the arrival of actually a relatively small number of people in need of help has triggered such a dramatic response. It may also be possible to turn a negative into a positive. While there are undoubtedly short term challenges, in the longer term refugees may help address the demographic deficit in Europe and fill labour market gaps.
One aspect of the asylum and refugee flows that may more legitimately be described as a crisis, however, concerns the arrival of unaccompanied minors; that is individuals under the age of 18 and not accompanied by a responsible adult. Recent data released by the EU statistical office Eurostat show that there were 88,300 asylum applications by unaccompanied minors in Europe in 2015. This is significantly more than had been estimated earlier this year. It represents a fourfold increase on the number in 2014, which itself was double the number reported in 2013. Of the 2015 total, 91 percent were male; 57 percent aged 16-17, 29 percent 14-15, and 13 percent under 14 years old. Over half of these minors were from Afghanistan, compared to about 16 percent from Syria. They mainly arrived in Sweden, followed by Germany, Hungary, and Austria. Unaccompanied minors made up almost one in four of all refugee children arriving in Europe in 2015.
Unaccompanied minors made up almost one in four of all refugee children arriving in Europe in 2015.
All refugee children require particular protection and assistance, arising from their unique rights and requirements. But unaccompanied minors may be especially vulnerable. They often have deep psychological trauma having become separated or been abandoned, compounded by the stresses of leaving their homes and their experiences travelling to Europe. They are also particularly susceptible to human trafficking.
Once they arrive in Europe, unaccompanied minors usually require one-on-one care. When possible they should be appointed a legal guardian or advisor. In some Central European countries unaccompanied minors have been detained on arrival, against UN guidelines, to place them into the care of surrogate families. Most unaccompanied minors cannot go home: their family members cannot be traced, and usually their countries of origin do not have sufficient capacity to establish legal guardianship. As a result their education and integration is also a priority.
Despite its growing scale, the special vulnerabilities entailed, and the specific policy challenges posed, the migration of unaccompanied minors has not yet attracted significant research attention. One reason for this is a methodological challenge, especially among the very young, and in particular relating to research ethics.
Featured image credit: Syrian primary school children attending catch-up learning classes in Lebanon. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.