The Tragedy of Missing Young People and Children

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The Mediterranean “refugee and migrant crisis” has led to an increasing number of children and minors going missing on dangerous routes to safety and a better life. At the end of January, EUROPOL Chief of Staff Brian Donald told The Observer newspaper that more than 10,000 children and unaccompanied minors may have gone missing since the start of the crisis.[1] The authorities believe some of these unaccounted for children may be victims of trafficking, slavery, sexual exploitation and other criminal activities. These include children who have begun their journeys unaccompanied, or whose parents or guardians died along the way, or who were forcibly taken from their parents on the migrant and refugee route.

While as many as 5,000 children may have disappeared in Italy alone[2], the Council of Europe has issued a report highlighting an alarming rise in the number of children going missing from reception centers for asylum seekers in Croatia.[3] European authorities have been taken by surprise by the numbers of migrants and refugees and seem unable to document child migrants and refugees and address the issue adequately.

UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically addresses the rights of refugee children (Article 22), child labor (Article 32), sexual exploitation (Article 34), and abduction, sale and trafficking (Article 35).[4] Some of other international legal provision that cover the rights of the child include the Declaration of the Rights of the Child 1959, the Minimum Age Convention 1973, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, and the European Convention on Human Rights 1950. [5] In addition to violations of laws and legal mechanisms on the protection of children, enforced disappearances violate fundamental human rights, while issues surrounding the disappearance of migrant children and adults alike involve a variety of legal, geographical and political factors.

In March 2013 ICMP signed a Cooperation Agreement with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Since then, ICMP and IOM have joined forces and are seeking support to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the Mediterranean migration crisis, with the dual objective of:

  • Reinforcing the capacity of countries of arrival to meet their obligations to families of the missing, among other things under Articles, 2, 3 and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires states to conduct effective investigations where persons have gone missing; and
  • Exploring avenues for repatriation of the remains of the missing to countries of origin.

The aim is to ensure accountability, assess policies in migrants’ home countries that cause people to leave their homes, and improve policies towards missing migrants. ICMP is also discussing a formal cooperation agreement with the authorities in Italy in order to address the challenge of locating and identifying missing refugees and migrants.

A number of strategic initiatives and policies put forward by European countries have been widely criticized as being impracticable, insufficiently resourced or indifferent to the human suffering experienced by migrants and refugees. In these circumstances it would be reasonable for governments to work in partnership with international organizations that have specialist knowledge of the interrelated challenges associated with missing migrants with a view to implementing effective solutions to this humanitarian, rule-of-law, political and moral issue.