10 Things You Didn’t Know About Europe’s Child Refugee Crisis

10 Things You Didn't Know About Europe's Child Refugee Crisis
10 Things You Didn't Know About Europe's Child Refugee Crisis

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Europe’s Child Refugee Crisis

Child migration involves minors between ages 3 and 18 years of age traveling with or without parents or guardian, across country or regional borders. They may or may not have legal travel documents with them, and they arrive in a country (not necessarily their final destination) in the capacity of refugee, asylum seeker, or economic migrant.

An increasing number of minors arriving in European countries are refugees escaping persecution, war and devastation, or are otherwise displaced. Many unaccompanied children are escaping violence, exploitation, abuse, and regional conflict. Children abandoned by, or separated from, parents move from place to place and/or country to country seeking safety where they can heal and thrive.

The majority of refugee minors making their way into EU Member States are male and between the ages of 15 and 18 years old. They have fled violent conflict/war and physical and moral starvation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Western or Central Africa, or Somalia. Most try to apply for asylum after arriving in the receiving country. Most cases of unaccompanied migrant/refugee children arriving in Spain are reviewed under a non-asylum procedure.

All individuals, including unaccompanied these refugee children, enjoy freedom of movement within Europe. Citizens of EU Member States and the EFTA States of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland are permitted to enter and stay in any EU Member State for up to three months without registration. They are granted a permit to stay when they can verify income. The rights of children as unaccompanied migrants are not clearly defined, however. As a result, each individual national government interprets and enforces the rules of freedom of movement for unaccompanied children (under 18 years of age) differently.

10Risks to Unaccompanied (Refugee) Children

Child refugees face real human trafficking risks

Children escaping violence or conflict in one region or country may consider their migratory hardship as temporary with the promise of safety and an opportunity to reduce life and death risks at the end of their journey. However, some children, in addition to the hardship of migrating to a different county and culture, encounter severe risks during or at their destination. Ineffective social safety nets expose refugee children to sexual exploitation and abuse, including trafficking and slavery. Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable. To obtain shelter and food, they can easily become victims of predatory persons they meet, including transporters, smugglers, and traffickers, during their migration or at their destination. To compound their personal danger, they might also encounter indifference or abuse by state officials, including police, border and immigration officials, or detention facilities personnel, when they seek help. Some refugee children may die along their journey from starvation, dehydration, transportation or sea incidents. Others may die at the hands of those they trust to help.

Unaccompanied refugee children are not only subjected to unsafe migration conditions or acts of violence. Those without the required legal papers that let them move about more freely can run afoul of the law. Left entirely on their own, these refugee kids may go into hiding or engage in, or be forced into, illegal, gang, or criminal activities (i.e.: drugs, burglary, fraud, adoption or marriage scams) to make a living. In addition to being at risk of sexual exploitation (i.e.: sexual, prostitution, pornography), they may be also become forced labor as domestics, au-pairs, or agriculture, factory, or construction workers.

9Refugee Stop-Over Camps

Kid camps are real and dangerous

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Escaping to, and starting over, in Europe is not intended to be overly-complex. In accordance with the Dublin III Treaty, refugees are expected to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. Unaccompanied minors having a close relative in an EU Member State other than the one they initially entered may apply for asylum there. In spring of 2016, the UK Parliament passed an amendment sponsored by Labour party member Alfred Dubs (evacuated from Czechoslovakia during the Kindertransport in 1939). The amendment stated the UK government must accept an unspecified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe.

France was the first country to recognize the constitutional right to asylum. Only a 30-mile-long channel separates Calais, France from the UK at the Strait of Dover. For many refugees, their focus is getting to Britain by truck, train, or ferry. “The Jungle” is a former tent-city stop-over on the way. Amid the rats and trash burning, it had one advantage: its proximity to the thirty-mile-long Channel Tunnel that connects the land masses. Until they can get transportation, the refugees and migrants collect at the forty-acre sandlot of tents.

One of the safer spaces in the tent “Jungle” was the Kids’ Café. It was a designated recreation “room” where no adults were allowed. It was for the children. It had free food and intermittent Wi-Fi so they might contact relatives. The room was typically filled with adolescent boys. Each one tried to plan their next move. They wanted to believe Britain accepted unaccompanied minors like they’d heard. They weren’t sure after the Nice attack and the 17-year old Afghan asylum-seeker that tried attacking riders on a German train with an ax. Britain had accepted only 140 children under Dublin III. Not a single child had been admitted under the Alfred Dubs plan. The eventual destruction of “the Jungle” (and other make-shift camps like it) makes the child refugee situation that much more urgent.

8Juvenile Detention

This isn’t the Juvie you’re used to

Everyday bulldozers roll into camps like “the Jungle” and demolish them regardless if there are children still living in the camp or not. Only the metal shipping containers remain. Diplomatic authorities argue what to do about the unaccompanied children left behind in the meantime. Countries refuse to accept any of them without conducting preliminary background checks on the soil where they stand. Many unaccompanied children are packed into the containers (a.k.a. juvenile centers) with little food or drinking water to wait. Poorly or untrained detention officials may not adhere to human rights rules or they may commit criminal offenses against the minors themselves.

It is a violation of human rights to indefinitely detain, arrest, or otherwise deny refugee children their freedom. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child addresses this, stating, “The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time … Unaccompanied or separated children should not, as a general rule, be detained. Detention cannot be justified solely on the basis of the child being unaccompanied or separated, or on their migratory or residence status, or lack thereof.”

Immigration detention is generally inappropriate for children. Juvenile detention is extremely stressful for refugees and asylum seekers. There are minimum standards for detaining refugee/migrant children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child mandates human rights, particularly as they pertain to children. Refugee children, whether they are accompanied or not, should not be detained for extended periods. Refugee/migration detention centers must not be prisons. The must not be similar to prisons or resemble a prison-like environment.

Juvenile detention centers should have specially-trained officials to ensure child protection and care. Adolescents should be separated from younger children and both adolescents and younger children should be separated from adults unless it is a child-family situation.

7Age Assessments

Bend over! It won’t hurt a bit

Establishing the age of a refugee minor is important. Those determined to be “a child” are eligible for certain considerations and benefits under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and various national laws. Age determines shelter and services designated for younger children as opposed to adolescents as opposed to adults. Differently-trained authorities will have protection responsibilities over different age groups. Guardians may be appointed depending on the child’s age.

Age is a factor in appointing unaccompanied children a guardian. Children are granted temporary status and protection until they reach 18 years old. The child’s right and access to work, legal employment, and representation must be established. Children also have a right to be heard and to express their views, stories, and request special needs.

Many children do not have documents, which makes verifying age and identity difficult. Less developed countries do not register births. Age and identity determined at the refugee’s first point of entry may also have been incorrectly documented. It is also quite common to find that some children want to pass for young adults to maintain their freedom, while others want to pass for children to gain certain benefits. Fraudulent documents may be easily procured in stop-over tent camps.

Different EU Member States conduct age assessments differently. Sweden inspects unaccompanied refugees’ teeth and knees. Some regions of Germany require refugees undergo a full physical/medical exam (to determine pubic development). The UK relies on holistic assessments of behavior, appearance, and background. These methods unfortunately do not account for racial biases or prolonged results of journey and living in tent camp squalor have on skin and body.

6Refugee Schools

Schools for migrant kids

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Education is central to the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) mandate to protect the increasing volumes of refugees coming into EU Member States. The UNHCR reports that not only are learning opportunities significantly reduced when children become refugees from war and conflict, but that only 50% of refugee children ever get to attend primary school. The percent of adolescents that attend secondary school is less (at 22%). Fewer still (less than 1%) pursue higher education. For example, UNHCR estimates approximately 900,000 (2016) school-age Syrian refugees are not in school.

Including refugees in various national education systems requires committed time, resources, and strong partnerships. For the refugee students to academically, as well as socially, succeed, immediate language instruction is necessary. If they do not understand their host country’s language, they cannot learn.

Approximately 1.35 million (2015) refugees were pre-registered for asylum in Germany. Every child has the right and legal obligation to attend school after they have resided in the country for three months. Refugees and asylum seekers that entered Germany have spent summers in classrooms, learning the language, culture, and grammar of their new environment. The German Children and Youth Foundation (DKJS) is a state-funded umbrella organization that has made it possible for Berlin’s refugee and asylum-seeker schools to remain open to teach the displaced children over the summer holiday.

Many refugee children have been out of school for years. They must learn how to make new friends and adapt new environments. UNHCR publishes teaching materials and encourages integration, and social and general well-being opportunities. German Welcome Classes help the refugee children learn the language. They cannot join regular school classes until they know the language so they may comprehend the lessons. Unaccompanied children appear to have a more difficult time learning the language and lessons.

Additionally, refugee children staying in detention centers are also mandated by UNHCR to have access to economic and social rights, which includes education.

5Children’s Asylum

Children seeking asylum have special rights

Countries that have sanctioned the UN Refugee Convention are obliged to protect refugees that are within their territory. The UN Refugee Convention legalizes the right to seek asylum with particular safeguards in place for children. Each refugee child has the right to have their application for asylum individually reviewed. Regardless if the child is accompanied or unaccompanied when they arrive, their individual, child-specific circumstances (i.e.: war, conflict, famine and drought, etc.) and vulnerability must be defined and reviewed. Nearly 90,000 unaccompanied children sought European asylum in 2015.

The European Union Member States have adopted these criteria and established a series of Directives that standardizes conditions and qualification for asylum as well as for returning the refugee to their country of origin.

Refugee children that are in-transit are considered vulnerable. Vulnerability is typically defined as a need for protection. From a humanitarian child rights standpoint, vulnerability is the degree of limitation that prevents the child from fulfilling their rights (according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child doctrine), which include reducing their poverty, accessing education, and increasing their health and nutrition.

Often the most difficult requirement refugee children must meet in order to gain protective asylum is to get to the EU Member State that is accepting refugee children applications. The UK Home Office, for example, considers an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child as parentless and under 18 years of age. To be considered, they must apply for asylum on UK territory. Immigration officers are located at ports of entry to ensure young persons enter legally and according to UK Immigration Rules. Refugee children must also pass an interview before achieving refugee status.

4UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency)

The UNHCR does what it can to help

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The UNHCR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), or UN Refugee Agency, protects the rights and well-being of refugees. They provide humanitarian assistance and services to internally displaced persons as well as refugees in camps and urban settings.

The UNHCR’s has seen significant increase in the number of Syrian refugees, as well as those fleeing war and conflict in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Somalia, etc. Refugee camps spring up as a result of refugees seeking asylum after they have escaped war in their native country. The impromptu camps serve to meet basic human needs (i.e.: food, shelter, networking) temporarily. Some camps are tents while others might have containers among shelters. Although vital, refugee camps are generally prohibited by host country governments. As such, UNHCR provides security and legal protection for refugees.

The camps serve as safety nets, providing food and medical aid until the refugees decide to move into cities or back to their countries of origin. UNHCR attempts to offer refugees livelihood opportunities, skills, and education, to reduce their dependency on humanitarian aid. There are fewer refugee camps across Europe as more refugees are moving into apartments or with relatives.

3The Dublin III Regulation

Dublin III sets the rules of the road

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Typically, asylum is requested in the country where the refugee/migrant arrives, unless the refugee intends to live with relatives in a different EU Member State. The Dublin III Council Regulation is used to determine who among EU Member States, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland will be responsible for reviewing an individual’s asylum application. Dublin III also outlines provisions for transferring refugees between Member States without compromising their right to asylum. The process to determine which Member State will be responsible for reviewing and granting the asylum request begins when the asylum application is filed. The decision should be made within two months; three months for complex cases.

When refugee children crossing Europe are concerned, the Dublin III Council Regulation must be implemented in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Close cooperation between EU Member States is required to ensure, in consideration of the child’s age, that the best interests of the child are the main concern. This includes the child’s background, well-being, social development, safety, and security.

Dublin III has developed specific procedural assurances for unaccompanied children. The primary concern is to keep them safe. When there is no identifiable family or relative, the responsible EU Member State is the one where the unaccompanied refugee child files the asylum application. When there is an identified family member that will take care of the refugee child, that Member State becomes responsible. When there are several family members in different Member States, the decision is based on the best interests of the child, and the Member State of the selected relative becomes responsible.

2 Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis isn’t getting better

The refugee crisis is a large movement of internally displaced persons, refugees, or other migrants. It also refers to incidents and major issues happening in the particular country the refugees/migrants fled while they were in transit, or after they finally arrived in the safe country. In 2015, the total global number of internally-displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers, was at its highest level. By the end of 2015, there were 16.1 million UNHCR registered refugees worldwide.

Middle East refugees tend to seek asylum in European countries rather than in those which are closer to their own regions. Eighty percent of refugees arriving in Europe by sea in 2015 came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Syrian refugees, for example, were the largest UNHCR recorded refugee group in 2015 (4.9 million), followed by Afghans and Iraqis. There is immense risk faced during their journey to European soil. Although extremely dangerous (most die crossing the Mediterranean), many refugees are motivated to seek asylum within European nations for safety and relief from war and conflict. Children comprised 51% of refugees in 2015. Most of them were unaccompanied (separated from their parents or travelling alone).

Of those refugees seeking asylum, Germany received the most new asylum applications in 2015 (476,000+). However, Hungary had the highest in comparison to its population. National asylum systems in Europe vary. While fleeing Iraqis arriving in Germany, for example, have an 85% chance of being admitted as a refugee, those applying for asylum in Slovenia may have no chance of gaining protection status.

1European Migrant Crisis

The European Migrant Crisis needs the world’s attention

The European migrant crisis arises when volumes of undocumented migrants fleeing war, conflict, drought and famine, etc. in predominantly Muslim-oriented countries crossed borders and the Mediterranean Sea and through southeast Europe to arrive in EU Member States seeking refugee status and asylum.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over one million displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers crossed the Mediterranean Sea between January 2015 and March 2016. They predominantly came from Syria (46.7%), Afghanistan (20.9%), and Iraq (9.4%).

There is no obligation, regardless of Dublin III Regulation statements, for refugees and asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. Governments are also under no obligation to send asylum seekers away. Any EU Member State may take responsibility for an asylum seeker and communicate this to any other member that has already begun proceedings.

In 2015, Hungary was inundated with asylum applications. They were forced to stop accepting applicants, who eventually crossed borders into other EU countries. As a result, Germany voluntarily assumed responsibility for processing Syrian asylum applications it was not responsible for. The Czech Republic also offered relief to Syrian refugees that had already applied for asylum in another EU country (i.e. get asylum there or continue their journey).

Limited living accommodations in Turkey have been compounded by the large number of refugees moving into the country. As a result, many refugees that arrive in southern Europe continue north to EU Member countries such as Germany and France. Germany has historically been a popular final destination for EU refugees and migrants.

Northern EU Member States offer more space, security, and transport to Britain.


Sixty-five million migrant children are fleeing poverty, war, and conflict. They comprise approximately 51% of refugees (2015). Most are traveling unaccompanied. They have been separated from their parents or are travelling alone. They are extremely vulnerable, typically having no identification documents, and prone to experience nefarious risks from traffickers, slave traders, or those that would otherwise abuse and exploit them or sponsor them in criminal activities. Migration regulations (i.e.: Dublin III), EU country organizations (i.e.: UK Home Office, the German Children and Youth Foundation (DKJS)), and child refugee regulations (i.e.: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency)) have been established to determine refugee children’s best interests and provide asylum, education, care, and future social and skills development.