LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Europe’s refugee crisis has created a “huge business opportunity” for human traffickers, and governments should widen the legal routes of entry to protect refugee children, the U.N. children’s agency (Unicef) said on Tuesday.
The number of children on the move in Europe has been rising and children now account for more than one-third of all refugees and migrants - compared with just one in 10 in June 2015 - and many are traveling alone, according to Unicef figures.
“We know that (child protection and monitoring systems) are well over-stretched and overwhelmed and they need to be strengthened,” Sarah Crowe, Unicef’s global spokeswoman on the European refugee and migrant crisis, told a media briefing in London.
“They need to make sure that they’ve got a proper system in place with guardianship, with child protection officers who are able to determine where (children’s) best interests are and how to re-unify them with family ... otherwise they will abscond and be preyed upon.”
More than one million people fleeing conflict poured into Europe, mainly through Greece, last year. The European Union is implementing an accord under which all new arrivals in Greece will be sent back to Turkey if they do not meet asylum criteria.
In 2015, 95,000 children who sought asylum in Europe were not accompanied by an adult, Crowe said, adding that this vastly underestimated the number who arrived as many children avoided registering with the authorities from fear of being detained.
Unregistered children were not covered by any child protection services and so were most vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation, according to Unicef.
“We know that thousands and thousands of children are simply unaccounted for and the most horrifying thing of all is we just have no idea where they are or what’s happening to them,” Unicef deputy executive director Lily Caprani told the briefing.
“It’s that complete absence of information that should terrify us the most.”
Crowe said that although not all children who were unaccounted for were necessarily being exploited by human traffickers, Europe should strengthen child protection systems and widen legal routes such as family reunification.
She said that as the migrant route to Europe through the Balkan countries seemed to be shut, people would find alternative and more dangerous routes.
“That’s why we are saying there has to be a safe and legal alternative,” Crowe said. “We’re ... calling for alternatives such as humanitarian visas, scholarship grants that can be seen as ways in ... especially for young people.”