International Day of Missing Children

Missing Children

By Bojana Djokanovic

International Missing Children’s Day (IMCD), which is observed on 25 May, is dedicated to children who have gone missing, including those who have subsequently been found. The annual commemoration was initiated in 1983 by then US President Ronald Reagan as “National Missing Children’s Day”. This followed the 1979 disappearance of a six-year-old boy, Etan Patz, on his way to school in New York City, a case that generated widespread indignation, and concern for missing children throughout the US.

After the US began highlighting the issue in this way, other countries followed suit. In 2001, 25 May was formally recognized for the first time as International Missing Children’s Day, as a result of a joint effort by the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), Missing Children Europe and the European Commission.[1]

Missing Children Europe, a European federation working for missing and sexually exploited children, recently issued a Summit Report[2] on best practice and key challenges related to interagency cooperation to safeguard unaccompanied children from going missing. The report shows, among other things, an alarming increase in the number of unaccompanied children going missing in EU countries.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child defines unaccompanied minors and unaccompanied children as those “who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so.” The Committee defines separated children as those “who have been separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary care-giver, but not necessarily from other relatives. These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.”[3]

Missing Children Europe reports the following disappearance numbers in some EU countries: in Germany, on 1 January 2016, the Federal Criminal Police (BKA) stated that 4,749 unaccompanied children are considered to be missing. Of these, 431 were younger than 13-years-old, 4,287 were between 14 and 17 years old, and 31 were aged 18. On 1 July 2015 the number of missing unaccompanied refugees in Germany was 1,637; in the UK, the British Asylum Screening Unit reported that 60 percent of unaccompanied minors in UK social care centers go missing and are not found again; in Italy, the CONNECT project reported that, in 2013, 24 percent of registered unaccompanied children went missing from reception centers and that many more go missing before registration. The Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that in 2014, 3,707 unaccompanied children of the 14,243 who were registered after arriving via boat went missing from reception centers. The Ministry of Welfare reported that in 2015, 62 percent of all unaccompanied children who had arrived between January and May went missing. However, only a minority of countries reported that legal or procedural regulations are in place to address the issue of missing migrant children. These were Austria, Finland, Ireland and Romania.[4]

Unaccompanied children and children in general are extremely vulnerable and can be easy prey for human traffickers and smugglers or kidnappers, who may exploit them for sexual slavery or forced labor and make them part of organized crime. “In the context of migration, children placed in centers disappear just hours after having set their foot on European soil.”[5] Additionally, the capsizing of boats in the Mediterranean on illegal migration routes causes hundreds of people to die or go missing at sea, many of whom are children.[6] Other examples around the world are also indicative of this alarming situation. In Nigeria, the kidnapping of 276 Chibok school girls[7] by Boko Haram in 2014 is one example; in Mexico women and girls go missing as a result of “feminicide”; in India, according to the NGO Child Rights and You (CRY), between 2013 and 2015 the number of children who went missing and were never accounted for increased by 84 percent. [8]

The issue of missing migrant children and unaccompanied children is aggravated by a lack of information and underreporting of cases of disappearances. Further, the remains of deceased migrants are often not found or are difficult to identify, because many migrants travel without documents and their families may not report them missing. The approaches adopted by national authorities to this problem vary, with some giving greater priority to locating missing migrants than others. In cases of surviving minors, all reasonable efforts should be undertaken to clarify the fate of their parents.

The issue of missing and disappeared persons is a complex global problem involving a wide variety of legal, geographical and political factors. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has developed targeted programs geared towards helping states to account for the missing, ensuring that survivors are able to access their rights and that people traffickers and perpetrators of disappearances are held to account. The objective is to account for the missing so that the anguish suffered by families and friends left behind is mitigated. In that regard, ICMP and the International Organization for Migration have designed a joint proposal to assist with accounting for the missing migrants and refugees children.

International and national organizations, NGOs and other stakeholders dealing with the issue of missing children need to harness their efforts, and enhance data sharing, provision of information and reporting of the missing. As Missing Children Europe puts it, protecting children “is a shared responsibility of states, at the level of law enforcement authorities, guardians, reception centers, hotline operators, and more. Failing cooperation and coordination amongst national and transnational stakeholders causes obstacles to bringing the children to safety and protecting them from harm.” [9]




[4] Ibid