This is Europe’s quiet crisis. The lives of children are depicted as the most precious. They are meant to be lives to be protected and nurtured. They are supposed to be the future of our societies after all.
However, 96,500 unaccompanied children applied for asylum across Europe in 2015. Over 10,000 of these are unaccounted for or missing.
Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, believes many of these children are working as slaves, on construction sites and farm land or as sex workers. How can we let these children, the most vulnerable and valued members of society, be the ones to be let down by our European politics? In a society governed by numbers, the extent of human trafficking has long since passed the stage in Europe where it should demand attention and response.
Perhaps this is just further evidence of Europe’s ineffective strategy to cope with refugees. UNICEF found that children currently have to wait up to 11 months between registration and transfer to a country that has agreed to accept them. In Sweden up to 10 children are reported missing each week and in Slovenia more than 80 per cent of unaccompanied children went missing from reception centres. The situation is a complex and emotional one, but traffickers are taking advantage of the waves of migrants and operating across Europe due to the weakness of Europe’s child protection system.
Even on a national scale, we are far from rising to the challenge. Just last month the House of Commons defeated an amendment to an immigration bill that would have seen the UK accept 3000 child refugees. The Home Office argued that they were doing enough already to help child refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries. David Cameron maintains that we must ensure that refugees don’t have the incentive to travel across Europe. Yet the National Crime Agency identified that the number of children being trafficked in the UK increased by 46% from last year, so this is a problem that is clearly not diminishing or going to disappear.
What the Home Office failed to acknowledge is that a significant number of these refugees were under 14 years of age, and travelling alone without the protection of adult family members or guardians. As a means to pacify protestors to the UK stance, the government has agreed to fast-track child migrants who have family members in the UK as well as take in children registered in Greece, Italy or France before the refugee deal was created with Turkey. Yet is a fast-track modification of a notoriously slow process actually helpful? Furthermore, this is another act of ostracising the children who need help the most - the ones without parents or guardians. Smugglers and traffickers, meanwhile, are presenting these migrants with “solutions”, an escape route to a better life, far exceeding what the asylum jungle currently offers them.
It is this internal conflict of how to respond that is symbolic of the EU attitude towards this ever-growing crisis. Unaccompanied children just aren’t valued enough by a society hypocritically putting children in that vulnerable and important societal position.
The fact is that the conflict driving this migration isn’t disappearing, meaning it has become a question of humanity to acknowledge the situation and respond as best as possible. We need to counter the “offer” of smugglers and traffickers rather than restricting our borders. The situation they are fleeing from will always provide a greater incentive to migrate than any disincentive David Cameron could ever create.
The crisis of child refugees is a quiet one, but it shouldn’t be this way. There is an incongruence of what we as a society place value on and what our policies place value on. By reassessing what we believe is important and then crucially protecting these values, we can hope to better the situation in Europe.