New year, new cities, new welcoming places?

I’m about to embark on a lot of travelling to different cities that have designated themselves as ‘sanctuary cities’ and welcoming to migrants in 2019 as part of the Welcoming Cities project. I know that I am most definitely in one of the most privileged categories of migrants in these cities and therefore a lot of these policies and programmes aren’t targeted at me (at least explicitly) but it made me think of the city where I live (London) and where I feel welcome in public spaces (it would be difficult not to pick my own flat otherwise).

Regent's_Park,_Londres_-_panoramioMy mind was immediately drawn to parks (perhaps because of the academic work done on parks such as Clare Rishbeth and Sarah Neal; the way conversations can flow while walking around parks; or perhaps because of childhood memories of feeding the ducks with my big sister). Regent’s Park is my favourite park in London because you can see the camels in London Zoo at one end and modern sculpture exhibitions at the other (and there’s a good duck pond).

british libraryTo my embarrassment I realised I always feel comfortable in Pret a Manger (not very proud of that but sometimes I just want souper tomato soup, coffee and reliable WiFi) and the British Library which I now consider to be a second home for better or worse.


The other key place in London that I was drawn to was the Young Vic theatre. Not only does it purposely place different symbols of welcome on its balcony it seems to have some of the best outreach of any theatre. flags young vicPerhaps the most telling example of the Young Vic’s welcoming nature is an incident that occurred about 4 months ago in my local gym. I was wearing a Young Vic t-shirt that had been given to me by my partner (who was given it as a gift but it was too small). A man in the gym asked whether I worked at the theatre and proceeded to tell me how he used to be homeless but had got involved in an outreach programme at the Young Vic and it had turned his life around. This was a heart-felt account of a man whose life had completely changed as a result of the support and networks that the project had provided. I have never been so deeply moved in the gym. He clearly felt so comfortable with everyone in the theatre that he came up to me to ask me about it in a completely different environment.

This is not an advert for the Young Vic (although I now realise it might seem like one). I am really interested in what places in cities people feel are welcoming and why. In particular, if you have suggestions for San Francisco, Sheffield or Toronto I would really love to hear them. Or, even better, if you are in those cities in the next year – please get in touch. And if anyone would like to join me for a trip the theatre when I’m back in London also let me know. Hope you all have a very happy 2019 and find many new places where you feel welcome as well as enjoying all the old ones.

Rebuilding cities through narratives

41786112471_49ded251f0_bHow do cities remake themselves through narration? This was the key question that shaped the international conference in Science Po Lyon on 27th and 28th November 2018 where I was invited to talk about the Welcoming Cities project. We know that cities do far more than just translate national or federal policies and are actively engaged in creating urban identities. But how do we trace these narratives when they are often discursive and unfathomable.

Some of dimensions of narratives include the importance of economic development; the ability of cities to be collective actors and make claims; the role of cities in global governance; framing cities as vectors of urban, national and international networks; and presenting cities as being welcoming and hospitable to migrants and minorities (including LGBTQI+ rights).

These dimensions were approached in four different themes. The first explored focusing on actors to open the ‘black box’ of city making. Questions arose such as which contexts to urban narratives emerge? What are their salient features and aims? Is there a diversity of narratives behind strong common themes? The session highlighted the role of key actors in the remaking of a city narratives including museums (Lyon), the university (Newcastle) and key industries in the city even if it may be controversial (erotica in Detroit). In particular the role of a city narrator, such as Aaron Foley in Detroit has made a crucial difference to the remaking of the city.

The second session focused on scales of cooperation and governance within the city. Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin (University of Sorbonne Nouvelle) provided a portrait of the city level narratives in Lyon and Minneapolis-St Paul focusing on the differences for city-level narratives when operating within federal and centralised administrations. Crucially she asked should we be talking about the rescaling of the state (Brenner) or are these processes just a new form of localism (Katz and Nowak)?


The issue of localism and regionalism was evoked by Danny MacKinnon (University of Newcastle) who charted the policy narratives across different Labour and Conservative Governments. He showed the particular effect this had on empowering the north through devolution. He focused on the role of The Northern Powerhouse as a spatial economic narrative. The role of business leaders ran throughout this session more broadly. In particular, Christophe Parnet explored how the debate about metropolitan governance in Marsailles led to the integration of a business elite (from all political parties) within the metropolitan authorities. It emerged that scales vary according to different national contexts and this provides different opportunities and constraints for differentially positioned actors. While some discourses foreground the importance of cooperation and the ability of cities to act as collective actors, this may also ignore and minimize the exclusion of different stakeholders. Institutions therefore play an important role in drawing borders.

The third session focused on Welcoming Cities. It has been well noted that for much of the twentieth century improvement in the situation of disadvantaged communities was a focus for urban public policies. The ideological triumph of neoliberalism has caused the allocation of spatial, political, economic and financial resources to favour economic growth at the expense of wider social benefits. Cities have self-declared (or been labelled) ‘sanctuary cities’ ‘welcoming cities’ ‘immigrant friendly cities’ ‘just cities’. These declarations open space for local decision makers to focus on equity and material well-being with considerations of diversity and participation to foster a better quality of urban life within the context of a global capitalist political economy. Younes Ahouga (University of Geneva) focused on the growing role of cities in migration management (Ghosh 1997). He explored the rising role of cities since the IOM conference on Migration and Cities. He argued this conference was a turning point as it represented the first global event directed at local actors and incorporated the local scale through neoliberal space-times.

Stacy Harewood (University of Utah) presented the case of ‘Welcoming Dayton’ to highlight the complexities and contradictions of welcoming. She argued that ‘welcoming’ in the USA is aspatial. She charted the spatial segregation in the city which is split between a largely white and affluent east side and a largely African American west side. The growth narrative in the city is focused on the east side, which includes the activities of ‘Welcoming Dayton’, and a wilful neglect of the west side. The welcoming narrative is tightly scripted and offers no room for those who are not benefiting from the investment in the city to raise their concerns. Stacy ended with a question that resonated throughout the conference ‘how do we create a human urbanism that doesn’t get lost in economic narratives?’

Finally the fourth session brought together non-academics and practitioners to tackle the questions: ‘what is a metropolis’ and ‘what is the core identity of a city’. Alternative narratives were analysed and conflicts emerged about how to define the borders of metropolises and their identities. The gaps between official narratives and residents were brought to the fore in this session. In particular Frederic Barbe presented the work in Nantes to create an indigenous tourist guide (le Guide indigene de détourisme de Nantes) which aimed to utilise and promote self-publishing and the high levels of literacy in the city. Jérôme Cochet performed part of his theatre groups ‘protocol’ for describing the city of St Etienne entitled #Villes. The aim of the project is to provide residents with an opportunity to define and be part of representing their city through engaging with theatre makers and artists over a one month intensive period. The protocol includes art workshops, interviews, walks around the city, a public choir, and a public performance.dav

The conference closed with more questions around the organisation of city narratives and perhaps most importantly, can we (and what is the value of) measuring the impacts of dominant urban narratives. These questions and conversations will undoubtedly carry on in the future. If you want to get involved in the conversation please contact me @Rachel_humphris or


Is anthropology legal?*


Have you been inundated with emails asking you to resubscribe to contact lists lately? That’s the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

I spent an afternoon with fellow anthropologists at SOAS University of London on 9th May to discuss what it might mean for us as a discipline, and for our research practice. Is anthropology in danger of being legislated out of existence?

Anthropologists (and other ethnographically inclined researchers) have long been finding their way through forests of conflicting demands in terms of policies and guidelines at different institutional levels that often contradict each other. Institutions, researchers and informants form a triangle of demands and interests that need to be balanced. The codes used to guide us are designed for data protection, marketing and social media – not anthropology. The GDPR will force us to rethink how we go about our research.

What is the GDPR?
The new EU-wide data protection regulation will replace the current UK Data Protection Act (1998) when it comes into force in the UK on the 25th May 2018.

The stated aims of the GDPR are:

  • To enable data subjects to have greater control over their personal data whilst also modernising and unifying European data protection rules.
  • To strengthen and enhance previous rights that data subjects hold under the Data Protection Act.
  • Data controllers (often the University) and processors will be required to provide clarity and transparency to data subjects about how and why their personal data is being processed.
  • The GDPR permits EU member states to make specific domestic provisions for particular aspects of the GDPR. The UK Government is seeking to achieve this through the Data Protection Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament. The GDPR applies to all data or all researchers from and within the EU (there is no information as to how Brexit will affect this).

The specifics of the GDPR have not yet been formalised and the UK Data Archive has not yet released guidance, although it is apparently working on it. However, the UK Data Service does provide useful principles relating to the processing of personal data and how this will shape our research practice. These include:

  • Processing is lawful, fair and transparent
  • The participant is informed of what will be done with the data and data processing should be done accordingly
  • Keep to the original purpose
  • Data should be collected for specified, explicitly and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with those purposes
  • Minimise data size
  • Don’t collect information you don’t need

At the moment, some of the main aspects of the GDPR that we need to consider are:

  • Who will receive or have access to the personal data (including information on any safeguards if the personal data is to be transferred outside the EU)?
  • The period of retention for holding the data and the criteria used to determine this
  • The right of the participant to request access to their personal data and the correction (rectification) or removal (erasure) of such personal data
  • A reminder that the participants have the right to lodge a complaint with the Supervisory Authority
  • From the discussion at SOAS, it emerged that the use of consent forms is going to be key in our compliance with the GDPR. We will need to have ‘granular’ consent, which will, for example, detail exactly what people are giving consent for such as videos, photos and interviews. If the purpose of our research changes we also need to renegotiate consent with our informants. Consent needs to be broken down into 3 stages:
  1. Taking part
  2. Use of information
  3. Future use and reuse of the information by others (this is particularly important for the data sharing and archiving regulations if funded by a research council)

As well as ethical committees, research management and governance, legal frameworks, and organisational guidelines, what remains central to me is our own moral reflexive research practice. This does not seem to be given much weight in the current discussions and it is here that I think three main contradictions and conflicts emerge between anthropological practice and the GDPR.

Sharing is hard
First, these new guidelines may turn fieldwork into something that we weren’t trained to do – share. We are used to thinking that field notes are our own. We may have to get used to writing field notes (or some kind of record of our fieldwork) that can be archived for others to read and use.

The difficulties in doing this are manifold. Writing field notes for someone else might change the whole notion of field notes. Field notes take many different forms and may not often reflect the experiential process the field work that has taken place. Field notes often have a dialectical relationship with our memory – can anyone else use them? The process of sharing field notes has the danger of shifting what is fundamentally considered to be anthropological ‘data’.

While it is not entirely clear (yet) whether field notes will have to be shared (this also depends on your data management plan), some form of record of fieldwork will need to be archived for research funded by research councils. Therefore, we need to rethink who we are writing for and what we are writing down. This provokes further reflection on how to orient ourselves as researchers and what we are doing in anthropological research. This would seem to be an ongoing relationship that occurs at many different levels and will affect how we train the next generation of ethnographic researchers.

Do no harm
ASA guidelines state that we must always be anticipating harms to our research participants and we must constantly negotiate consent. For qualitative researchers involved in fieldwork, consent is not a one-off event and therefore the requirement to renegotiate consent if the scope of the project changes should not be novel. However, previously these harms have been all about proportion. For example, we could ask how much harm is there in someone knowing this information. Under the GDPR this is no longer the case.

Intellectual property rights are also a key concern for anthropologists. If all data needs to be anonymised we may no longer be able to identify and therefore acknowledge the intellectual property of our research participants. Therefore, we are not upholding our ethical requirements to minimise harm. This is a key legal and ethical duty that has not been resolved.

Anonymisation – for whose benefit?
Anonymisation is perhaps the thorniest issue in reconciling the GDPR and the principles that underpin anthropological research. If we anonymize field notes our participants and the descendants of the participants may not be able to identify themselves or their kin. The GDPR also does not address what happens when participants refuse to be anonymised such as activists, collaborators or artists.

There has been a long-standing debate on why or whether anthropologists should anonymise data. A strong argument has been made that it is as much to do with protecting researchers as it is protecting research participants. Anonymisation could be described as an engine of detachment, a cutting of the network that maintains an ethnographic fiction. As Nancy Shepherd-Hughes puts it, ‘anonymisation makes rogues of us all’. In order to assuage some of these fears, we need to fully understand why people are engaging in our research. This may help us to disentangle some of the conflicts between ethics and the legality of conducting field work, but it certainly doesn’t solve them.

There are those who argue that GDPR is an opportunity to give informants and the subjects of our research their power back and therefore we should embrace it. There are others who argue that GDPR will take away rights from informants (to be named and recognised for example). Whatever side of the debate, what is clear is that there is no longer the time to debate the pros and cons. The GDPR is upon us and we must find a new way to negotiate these regulations.

Useful documents:

European Research Council – Ethics for Ethnography:
Association of Social Anthropologist – Ethics guidelines:

*This title was the title of the SOAS workshop and also the title of Ed Simpson’s provocative article: Simpson, E. (2016). Is anthropology legal?, Focaal, 2016(74). Retrieved May 9, 2018, from

On not helping refugees


Refugees Fence Shield Welcome Note Announcement

Refugee Week offers us the opportunity to reflect on the ways that we can better support refugees. For me, there are three critical points to consider when looking at how we can welcome and help those often badged as ‘others’:

Why are we so needy?

Professor Veena Das posed the question ‘why are we so needy?’ when discussing the critical concept of conviviality at a seminar at Birkbeck on 4th June. This question begins to open up sharp questions about liberal conceptions of welcome (Muelebach 2012). By thinking about how we welcome refugees, we are also involved in producing expectations (and also parameters for their belonging – however they are defined).

Rather than think about the ways that we think we can help refugees and what we expect from them, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind why and how we have come to think about ‘welcome’ in the first instance. It also draws attention to what Lisa Maalki (2015) has eloquently described as ‘the need to help’. She eloquently describes how Norwegian citizens and international workers engage and draw meaning from ‘the domestic arts of international humanitarianism’. She points to a similar critical question: what do we gain from ‘helping’ refugees? And what are the structural societal conditions through which we provide this help?

‘Who are we to come to you, who are you to come to us’

This quote from Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s deeply affecting poem entitled ‘Writing the Camp’ written as part of the Refugee Hosts project highlights another essential point about welcome. It assumes a static state that strangers are being welcomed into. Although the UK may not have the extreme constellations of different types of mobility, as those documented in such fine-grained ethnographic detail, as Baddawi refugee camp, it again draws attention for us to interrogate our own assumptions before we begin to think about how we can help ‘others’. It also unsettles an idea that we enter into linear and one-way relationships – that we will help them.

No hospitality without hostility

Derrida explored:

“I want to be master at home, to be able to receive whomever I like there. Anyone who encroaches on my ‘at home’, on my power of hospitality, on my sovereign as host, I start to regard as an undesirable foreigner, and virtually as an enemy. This ‘other’ becomes a hostile subject, and I risk becoming his hostage.” (2000 [1997]: 53-54).

Hospitality and welcome do not take place without hostility – they are always relative and draw their meaning from comparison with the other. In the UK we are living in an explicitly hostile environment which doesn’t just affect refugees or migrants but, as Bridget Anderson (2014) has noted, all those on a scale between ‘non-citizen’ and ‘failed citizen’. The system of auditing and the salience of ‘proof’ that are evident in the UK migration and social security systems are designed to punish and deter all those who do not belong whether they are welfare claimants, homeless people, migrants etc. Rather than focusing on welcoming refugees, I suggest we think of ways that we can build solidarities with as many different people as possible to work on issues of social equality. As the Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s said:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”

Hope, hospitality, hostility in Cities of Sanctuary



On the train on the way to the City of Sanctuary (CoS) AGM on 15th May I read an article about a new type of sanctuary city – a sanctuary for gun owners. While the context in the USA is completely different, reading this article on the way to the CoS AGM certainly put me in a funny frame of mind. What does sanctuary really mean? When we talk about ‘welcome’, ‘sanctuary’ and ‘hospitality’ I kept thinking – for who? And on what terms?

For me, I certainly received a very warm welcome from everyone at the conference. I didn’t necessarily expect it. If a researcher rocked up an event and said their research was turned on me I don’t know whether I would feel particularly welcoming. Maybe it was because there were three other researchers there. Or maybe by now the CoS team are used to people coming along and having a look at what they’re doing. It is an attractive proposition – a potential light in the dark of the hostile environment. And by all accounts they are growing – spurred by the media publicity of the Syrian civil war and the continued interest (good and bad) in all things migration.

There were people attending from Glasgow to Dover, Norwich to Swansea. Every city seemed to have their own sanctuary trajectory, with some starting from grassroots organisations and making petitions to local authorities, while others such as Cambridge where I was told ‘everything happened at once’ as part of the outpouring of feeling provoked by the photo of Alan Kurdi in 2015.  Devolution was also thrown into the mix with stark contrasts – Wales is bidding to be the first nation of sanctuary while England is fighting off the worst effects of the hostile environment and the manifold problems with the proposals of the ‘Integrated Communities’ Green Paper.

Some groups were brimming with ideas, events and getting all manner of institutions involved – sanctuary services (policy, fire services); sanctuary theatres; sanctuary museums; sanctuary churches; sanctuary cathedrals; sanctuary schools; sanctuary universities – someone on my table joked that there would be sanctuary tapas bars next (which I didn’t think was a bad idea). Some groups didn’t even have refugees or asylum seekers living in their towns but they wanted to enact a culture of sanctuary anyway. In some cases this was an open call for refugees to come and live in their town – (#penrithwelcomesrefugees) reframing refugees as agents of change. The Leeds group also displayed photos from a sanctuary project:

#refugeeswelcome in parks was also being shared (thanks to Clare Rishbeth).

While there was a lot of discussion about being inspired and sharing good practice the event was framed by the national hostile environment. Speakers also drew on the global context and the figures from the UNHCR that there are more than 65 million people on the move across the world. Conversations changed from inspiring good practice to the challenges and the scale of the work. The problems with austerity, the problems with only helping Syrian refugees, the problems with slum housing and irregular work – the list went on and on. At one point the compere asked how many people felt overwhelmed and response was resounding – everyone. It was clear to me that the hostile environment is not confined to those subject to its policies (see also OHCHR report). It was also clear that the hostile environment is deeply affecting all those involved in this sector, many of whom also have a migrant background.

There was a discussion event at the conference about safeguarding for volunteers as well as clients. I began to wonder whether the whole conference was a form of safeguarding for those engaged in this kind of work and if it wasn’t – whether it needed to be. This also seemed to be the purpose of the City of Sanctuary timeline – hope. The increasing activities, the constant calls for action, the widening scope to different institutions and places all created this feeling. Hope for what, is yet to be seen.




What does integration mean for today’s young migrants in Britain?

adults-black-and-white-casual-1374542This blog was originally posted on the blog on 16th March 2018.

The Integration green paper places much emphasis on integrating young people in its proposals especially in relation to education. Dr Rachel Humphris and Dr Nando Sigona consider the factors that may determine success and failure of integration policy for this diverse cohort.

What does integration mean for a young migrant in Britain today? To what extent do young people’s aspirations meet the expectations of the British government? The answer to these questions is less straightforward that it may seem. Let’s take for example young unaccompanied minors. While resilience and capacity to adapt to a new society and build social connections may seem obvious candidates of a successful integration, it also happens that these very criteria are used by the Home Office to argue in asylum appeal hearings for the forced removal of unaccompanied asylum seeking minors to places like Afghanistan. The argument goes a bit like this: this young person has shown a great capacity of adaptation during his/her stay in Britain, and therefore can be expected to successfully reintegrate into the Afghani society if returned to Kabul, even if Kabul is not where they came from.

Leaving aside these questions for now, research shows that the successful integration of young people in the UK may depend upon a range of factors, including their age, gender, whether they migrate alone or accompanied, and the circumstances surrounding their movement.

However, our research shows that a primary, if not the most important, factor shaping the integration of young people in the UK is the security of their migration status, and the process through which this was achieved. For example, young people may not have a legal residency status (undocumented) or have failed in their asylum claim (either in a family group or as the primary claimant if migrating alone). Migration status will dramatically impede their ability to integrate into UK society until their legal status claim is resolved for practical reasons such as being unable to access resources to fund further or higher education and issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing. Children who have been detained or are in fear of being detained will also suffer impediments to integration. In our study on transitions to adulthood of formed unaccompanied migrant children (Becoming Adult), we found out that a protracted, delayed, tortuous pathway to secure status, even if this is ultimately achieved, can have long term negative impacts on young people’s wellbeing and their capacity to integrate into society.

In light of this, emphasis should be placed on securing young people’s legal status earlier rather than later and on ensuring the process is ‘best interests’ proofed before. All public services should adhere to the legal binding principle that migrant children are children first and make decisions in accordance with a child’s ‘best interests’ according to the UN Convention for the Right of the Child.

To promote young people’s integration education and involvement in school and learning environments play central roles. Effort should be placed on providing additional support for young people to learn English as quickly as possible. Routes to further and higher education should be made available to them.  Ensuring young people’s right to dream about meaningful and successful future should be a priority in state policy.  School’s may not only be key to children and young people’s integration but can also act as a key contact for a new migrant family to become acquainted with the administrative systems in the UK and a place where English language can be practiced in a supportive environment.

In addition to schools, youth clubs and groups may provide important spaces for young people to meet and engage in activities that are crucial to ensure they are positively engaged in their local communities. This is reflected in the government green paper which acknowledges that ‘youth social action is a valuable bridging activity through which young people play an important role in helping to establish the norms of cooperation and reciprocity in their communities and to make positive use of their skills, knowledge and capabilities’ (page 31).


Research highlights

Chase, E. and Sigona, N. (2017) ‘Forced returns and protracted displacement’, Becoming Adult Research Brief no. 7, London: UCL

Sigona, N., Chase, E., Humphris, R. (2017) ‘Understanding causes and consequences of going ‘missing’, Becoming Adult Brief no. 6, London: UCL

Sigona, N., Chase, E., Humphris, R. (2017) ‘Protecting the ‘best interests’ of the child in transition to adulthood’, Becoming Adult Research Brief no. 3, London: UCL


Six new research briefs on unaccompanied children

20181013_083625.jpgThis was originally posted on the Becoming Adult blog.

The Becoming Adult team has launched today six new research briefs. The briefs are available in pdf in the Resources page and address some key issues affecting unaccompanied youth.

  • Protecting the ‘best interests’ of the child in transition to adulthood (no. 3)
  • Transitions into institutional adulthood (no.4)
  • Health and wellbeing (no. 5)
  • Understanding causes and consequences of going ‘missing’ (no. 6)
  • Forced returns and protracted displacement (no. 7)
  • Unaccompanied minors and secondary migration between Italy and the UK (no. 8)

Outrage Over Unaccompanied Minors Highlights Massive E.U. Data Gap

DREF food and aid distribution on Lesvos

This blog was originally posted on Refugees Deeply.

Early in 2015, the E.U.’s law enforcement agency, Europol, denounced the disappearance of 10,000 unaccompanied minors with a warning that they may be victims of criminal networks. Despite questions over the validityof this figure, it sparked a moral outcry. The “killer number,” as charities and aid agencies privately referred to it, was too powerful a call to action to bother deconstructing.

Valid numbers, however, do matter.

A more rigorous scrutiny of the available data can improve our understanding of the phenomenon of “missing” children and its main structural causes, and help refocus policy efforts to address the actual situation of child migrants.

Child migration to Europe is diverse. While unaccompanied minors are prominent in the public debate and official data, other children – particularly undocumented minors or those with asylum-seeking parents – are often invisible in data and policy.

Over 1 million people reached Italy and Greece by sea in 2015. The large majority of them are young men and women, including 250,000 children. According to data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration, 94 percent of these children came to Greece, while a far smaller contingent – around 16,500 – arrived in Italy.

A closer look at the data on children arriving in Italy and Greece shows remarkable differences in their countries of origin and whether the children traveled alone.

The overwhelming majority of minors from Egypt – 98 percent – and Gambia – 96 percent – traveled alone on the treacherous sea crossing from North Africa. The opposite was the case for the young Syrians.

In Greece, where Syrians and Afghans make up the largest national groups of migrants arriving by sea, Syrian children are more likely to travel with someone responsible for them, but this is not the case for Afghan minors.

Top five nationalities and travel arrangements of under-18 arrivals in Italy in 2015. Elaboration: Nando Sigona; Source: IOM

Sea arrivals should not be conflated with asylum data. Not all migrants arriving by boat apply for asylum, and not everyone applying for asylum came on a boat. E.U. asylum data shows that 1.26 million first-time asylum applications were lodged in 2015, and 365,000 of the applicants were under 18 years old. Only 90,000 of them were recorded as unaccompanied minors.

Yet, there are substantial differences in international, European and national definitions of unaccompanied children. These definitions are important because different categories provide different levels of protection in law or in practice.

Some countries, including Italy, Spain and France, afford protection to unaccompanied children mostly on the basis of age and separation from relatives, leaving the consideration of the child’s asylum claim as secondary. In other countries, the status of the child’s asylum claim is paramount and is initiated at an early stage. This can lead to the quick dismissal of claims made by minors from so-called safe countries. There have been attempts to achieve some coherence at the E.U. level, but these have not always been successful.

There are also significant differences in the way data are collected on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and how identification occurs. In the U.K., each of the four nations differs in the way they collect and publish their statistics.

Data on unaccompanied minors in the E.U. is aggregated from national statistics. As children may be moving between European countries, this process paradoxically can produce two opposite results: double counting and missing children.

A child may be recorded as unaccompanied upon arrival in Italy, for example, and then join family members elsewhere in Europe and lodge an asylum application as an “accompanied” minor. The paradox here is that a child can be counted as missing in Italy, reappear in another and then be counted again under a different bureaucratic label. This phenomenon may be more widespread than many assume.

This can happen even within countries. Evidence from the research project Becoming Adult, for example, shows that double counting of unaccompanied minors is common in Italy.

E.U. data collection has struggled to adjust to the rapid movement of people across European borders. For example, age and gender are not often disaggregated for children arriving at the E.U.’s southern borders, in all transit countries, or for all dependents in asylum claims.

Disaggregated data would reveal the hitherto invisible children in Europe who are identified as “accompanied.” This is crucial because the majority of migrant and refugee children who reach Europe by sea are accompanied.

There is also an absence of data on family reunification and deficiencies in data on detention and return, particularly those who arrived as unaccompanied minors but have since reached 18 years of age.

The Europol announcement was far too appealing for well-meaning NGOs, advocates and politicians who were genuinely concerned with the plight of this invisible army of potential slaves. While the existence of cases of exploitation and trafficking is unquestionable, scrutiny of the data raises questions over the magnitude of the phenomenon and how Europol reached its figures.

Better data can improve our understanding of what drives unaccompanied children to go missing and help us to refocus our efforts to address the structural causes of the phenomenon, not least the E.U.’s policy and practices towards these children, in order to improve the situation of lone refugee and migrant children.

A full breakdown of this analysis of comparative data is available here.

Children and Unsafe Migration into Europe: Understanding the Evidence base



It is estimated that over 250,000 child migrants crossed irregularly into Italy and Greece in 2015. For Italy, of 16,500 child migrants, over 12,000 (72 percent) were unaccompanied. For Greece, no official distinction between accompanied and unaccompanied is made at entry for the purposes of data collection, although the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that at least 10 percent arrived without parents or guardians.

“Child migration into Europe is diverse and often invisible in data and policy. European States consider children as “accompanied” or “unaccompanied” differently.  This not only affects the rights and entitlements they receive, but how they are counted in the data,” notes GMDAC Director, Dr. Frank Laczko.

The Briefing, written by Dr. Rachel Humphris and Dr. Nando Sigona of the University of Birmingham, UK, highlights the gap between available data and public debate, showing the limitations in data collection and inconsistencies in terminology. Although in some cases data are collected daily on arrival in Greece and Italy, there is a lack of detail.

“When children are identified as “accompanied”, the data are not disaggregated by age or gender.  Children remain invisible in the figures and the true numbers are unknown,” note Humphris and Sigona.

According to the researchers, not only are there gaps in data coverage, but also children are “double-counted”. This occurs when different recording mechanisms aggregate, rather than consolidate, their data.

Most attention has focused on the number of “missing” children. The briefing shows that children can be counted in more than one jurisdiction and may be recorded as “missing” at various points throughout their journey. “This double-counting is an important consideration when mapping child migration,” note Humphris and Sigona.

To download the report, please visit:…

Mapping unaccompanied children in England


The aim of this Research Brief is to report on data collected via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to all local authorities in England concerning unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC). The request asked for local authority statistics from the previous three years (March 2012 to March 2015).

Key findings

  • Increasingly children are accommodated outside the local authority with statutory responsibility to support them
  • Receiving local authorities are rarely informed of these transfers and keep no record of unaccompanied minors placed from other LAs
  • Figures of missing children from Local Authorities do not match the one provided by the Home Office.
  • Definitions of ‘missing’ children vary considerably across England casting doubt on the comparability of data across local authorities
  • Data on care leavers are extremely patchy and inconsistent across Local Authorities. As a result, little is known about what happens to young people after they reach 18 years old.

Download ‘Mapping unaccompanied asylum seeking children in England‘, Becoming Adult Research Brief, no.1/2016