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 E.U.country 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: https://publications.iom.int/books/global-migration-data-analysis-centre…

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

Immigration bill and unaccompanied children – update


This was originally posted on Becoming Adult blog.

The Immigration Bill is continuing to roll through UK Parliament. On Tuesday 12th April the House of Lords gave the Bill its third and final reading, ready to send back to the House of Commons [1]. Amendments to the Bill will be considered by the House of Commons before Royal Assent [2].

At the same time, the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee continues to hear evidence for its inquiry into ‘unaccompanied minors’ in the EU [3]. Oral expert evidence was heard on 13th April and written evidence was published yesterday, 18th April [4]

Tomorrow, 20th April 2016, selected Government Ministers will give evidence regarding their actions to support separated children in the UK. This can be watched from 10:30am here.

They will address:

  • The number of unaccompanied minors the UK, and how they differ in terms of age, gender and nationality
  • Whether England should adopt a guardianship scheme for unaccompanied minors
  • How proposed legal changes under the Immigration Bill will affect unaccompanied minors
  • Family reunification for unaccompanied minors in the UK
  • The challenges facing unaccompanied minors throughout the UK and other EU Member States
  • Individuals and organisations that the Children’s Commissioner cooperates with in order to provide advice and assistance to unaccompanied minors and the effectiveness of this


[1] http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/immigration/stages.html

[2] See the Immigration Bill stages here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/immigration.html)

[3] http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-home-affairs-subcommittee/inquiries/parliament-2015/unaccompanied-minors-in-the-eu/

[4] All documents can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-home-affairs-subcommittee/inquiries/parliament-2015/unaccompanied-minors-in-the-eu/unaccompanied-minors-in-the-eu-publications/

Against all odds: resettled separated children and the Immigration Bill


The UK Government announced on 28th January 2016 that they will ‘lead a new initiative to resettle unaccompanied children from conflict regions’ [1]. After mounting pressure, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated that separated children will be resettled if it is considered ‘in their best interests’ and in ‘exceptional cases’ [2].

In addition, the Government statement asserts: ‘significant efforts… will be made to review current practice and consider how local authorities and the Department for Education can strengthen capacity’ [3].

However, this commitment seems to be at odds with recent amendments to the Immigration Bill. On 21st January 2016, the Government introduced changes that would curtail the capacity of local authorities to care for children who have reached the UK. The amendment limits the availability of local authority support for certain categories of migrants. This affects destitute families with children as well as children in local authority care who turn 18 years of age, if they don’t have leave to enter or remain and are not asylum seekers.

Of particular concern are the changes regarding the support that local authorities are able to provide for unaccompanied asylum seeking children who leave care without immigration status [4]. Paragraph 2 of the new Schedule (amends paragraph 1(1) of Schedule 3 to the 2002 Act) states ‘adult migrant care leavers who have exhausted their appeal rights and have established no lawful basis to remain here are prevented from accessing local authority support for care leavers under the Children Act 1989’.

The recent amendments have yet to be debated in the House of Commons. It remains to be seen how local authorities can strengthen their capacity to care for resettled children when the Immigration Bill seeks to curtail this capacity.


[1] http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2016-01-28/HCWS497/

[2] Media reports and NGOs have criticised the statement for vagueness; lack of concrete goals; and crucially, because it excludes children who have already made the journey to Europe

[3] http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2016-01-28/HCWS497/

[4] Home Office (2016) Reforming support for migrants without immigration status. The new system contained in Schedules 8 and 9 to the Immigration Bill January 2016 para. 67 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/494168/Support.pdf

Unaccompanied children and adulthood: categories and more categories


Whatever their reason for being in the UK, if a child or young person is not a British or European Economic Area (EEA) citizen, they need permission to stay in the country. They are subject to immigration control and will require ‘leave to enter or remain’ [i]. The immigration status of children can greatly affect their rights and entitlements.

Here is a brief summary of the existing types of status most relevant to separated children and young people [ii] and the associated rights and entitlements.

The Home Office defines an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child(UASC) as a person who:

  • is under 18 years old when they submit their asylum application
  • is applying for asylum in their own right
  • is separated from both parents and is not being care for by an adult, who in law or by custom, has the responsibility to do so [iii]

Most children who arrive in the UK apply for asylum. There are a number of different decisions that the Home Office can make when assessing a separated child’s asylum claim. The Home Office can grant refugee status if they decide the child meets the definition of refugee under the United Nations (UN) Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) [iv].

A person granted refugee status will be given leave to remain for five years. After five years people with refugee status or humanitarian protection can apply to stay permanently. Permanent status is also called ‘indefinite leave to remain’. Few separated children who apply for asylum are currently granted refugee status in the first instance. Between 2009 and 2013 less than 20% of the total numbers of asylum decisions were granted refugee status [v].

Humanitarian protection may be granted where an asylum seeker is refused refugee status but it is considered to be too dangerous to return them to their country. Very few separated children are currently granted humanitarian protection.  Between 2009 and 2013 less than 1% of initial asylum decisions granted separated children humanitarian protection [vi].

The most common status granted to separated children is ‘UASC leave’. Until April 2013 this type of leave was referred to as ‘discretionary leave’ however new Immigration Rules incorporated the Home Office policy of granting leave to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children [vii]. If requirements are met, limited leave is granted for a period of 30 months or until the child turns 17.5 years old, whichever is shorter (this was changed from three years or until they reach 17.5 years old in July 2012) [viii].

This becomes important for children approaching their 18th birthdaywho have not yet received a decision regarding their asylum claim. If the Home Office makes a decision on an asylum claim when a child has turned 18 and the asylum and humanitarian protection claim is refused, the Home Office will not grant the child limited leave as an unaccompanied child [ix]. Delays in the system can therefore prevent them from being treated as a child and from being granted limited leave as an unaccompanied child. This can be referred to as ‘ageing out’.

All children identified as UASC are accommodated and ‘looked after’ under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Before 2003, children could also be supported but not accommodated under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. This is no longer the case due to a landmark ruling that has come to be known as the Hillingdon Judgement [x] . However, there were reports that there was still some ambiguity regarding how to support children after this judgement [xi]. In policy and statutory guidance a ‘looked after child’ is a child who is being supported under section 20 of the Children Act by a Local Authority. These children may also be referred to as ‘eligible children’ if they have been looked after by a Local Authority for 13 weeks.

This duty comes to an end when children reach their 18th birthday. Those who were previously considered ‘eligible children’ (i.e. were ‘looked after’ for more than 13 weeks before their 18th birthday) qualify for support (under sections 23C – E and 24 of the Children Act as amended by the Children Leaving Care Act 2000). These young people may also be referred to as ‘care leavers’ or ‘former relevant children’. This support should be provided until the young person is 21 [xii] years old or 25 years old if enrolled in further or higher education [xiii].


[i] Section 3 of the Immigration Act 1971

[ii] I use the term separated children following the Statement of Good Practice for Separated Children in Europe

[iii] Immigration Rules 352ZC to 352ZF

[iv] http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html

[v] Immigration Statistics – June 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/348583/asylum3-q2-2014-tabs.ods  (Table AS_09)

[vi] Immigration Statistics – June 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/348583/asylum3-q2-2014-tabs.ods  (Table AS_09)

[vii] Home Office (2015) Asylum Policy Instruction: Discretionary Leave v. 7.0 August 2015  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460712/Discretionary_Leave_2__v7_0.pdf

[viii] Coram Children’s Legal Centre Migrant Children’s Project Factsheet. Limited leave for unaccompanied asylum seeking children http://www.childrenslegalcentre.com/userfiles/limited_leave_unaccompanied_children_04_13.pdf

[ix] See Home Office (2015) Asylum Policy Instruction: Discretionary Leave v. 7.0 August 2015 para 7.2 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460712/Discretionary_Leave_2__v7_0.pdf[accessed 4th November 2015]

[x] R (on the application of Berhe) v Hillingdon London Borough Council [2004] 1 FLR 439



[xii] Section 23C(1) Children Act 1989

[xiii] Section 23CA(1) Children Act 1989

Separated, unaccompanied, UASC: a glossary


This was originally posted on the Becoming Adult blog

Many terms are used to describe people who are under eighteen years old who move across countries[i]. In addition, countries around the world have developed many different definitions for ‘child’, ‘unaccompanied children’, ‘unaccompanied minors’ and ‘separated children’ as they apply within the context of their immigration, asylum, child protection and criminal justice systems. For example, many countries appear to be using definition within the UN Convention on the Rights to the Child (CRC). However, even where the same words are used, interpretation and implementation may provide children with vastly different rights and entitlements in practice.

At the international level, the CRC defines a child as every human being below the age of 18 years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier. Unaccompanied children are defined as children 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 (Article 22). Separated children are children who have been separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives (Article 9).  These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.

At the European level, the Statement of Good Practice for Separated Children in Europe[ii] states that it utilises the term ‘separated children’ rather than ‘unaccompanied children’, as it better defines the essential problem that such children face without the care and protection of their parents or legal guardian. In addition, they maintain that it more accurately expresses the social and psychological suffering that can stem from this separation.

European Union immigration systems use the term ‘unaccompanied minor’. EU asylum instruments define the term minor as ‘a third country national or stateless person below the age of 18 years old’[iii]. An unaccompanied minor is defined as a ‘minor who arrives on the territory of the Member States unaccompanied by an adult responsible for him or her whether by law or by the practice of the Member State concerned, and for as long as he or she is not effectively taken into the care of such a person; it includes a minor who is left unaccompanied after he or she has entered the territory of the Member States’.

In the UK, the term unaccompanied asylum seeking child (UASC) is used. The Home Office defines an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) as a child who:

  • Is under 18 years old when they submit their asylum application
  • Is applying for asylum in their own right
  • Is separated from both parents and is not being care for by an adult, who in law or by custom, has the responsibility to do so[iv]

Although the United Kingdom utilises the definition of a child held within the CRC, for the purpose of an asylum application the Immigration Rules state ‘a child is a person, who is under the age of 18 or, in the absence of any documentary evidence, appears to be under that age’. Age assessment procedures have created great difficulties for children seeking asylum. This has arisen particularly in response to the perception that asylum seekers may be trying to access specialized services and protections only available to children. A great deal of research and advocacy has focused on the contested problem of age assessments in the UK[v]. New practice guidelines for social workers have recently been issued by the Association of Directors for Children’s Services in order to provide clarity on this controversial issue[vi].

In the last decade in the UK there has also been a shift in the reason children become categorised as ‘unaccompanied asylum seeking children’ (UASC). The vast majority have ‘absent parents’. However, there are other reasons a child might be categorised as ‘unaccompanied’ and recent Home Office statistics indicate these children are increasing. For example, in 2006, less than 1% percent of UASC were looked after due to ‘acute distress’ or ‘dysfunction’ in the family. In 2015, this had risen to 10% of all UASC who are looked after in the UK[vii]. This raises a further question regarding the term ‘unaccompanied asylum seeking children’. Rather than arriving alone, as the term might imply, increasingly children are separated from their family when reaching the UK.


[i] Some examples include: unaccompanied and separated children (Australia); unaccompanied minors (European Union); separated minors (Finland); unaccompanied minor asylum seekers (Netherlands); protected juveniles (United Nations); unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin (United Nations); unaccompanied alien children (United States of America); unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UK)

[ii] Separated Children in Europe Programme, SCEP Statement of Good Practice, March 2010, 4th Revised Edition , available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/415450694.html [accessed 7 November 2015]

[iii] Reception Conditions Directive; Asylum Procedures Directive; Qualification Directive; Dublin Regulation; Directive on Residence permits for victims of human trafficking; Family reunification Directive. For more information see http://www.connectproject.eu/glossary.html

[iv] Immigration Rules 352ZC to 352ZF https://www.gov.uk/guidance/immigration-rules

[v] Office of the Children’s Commissioner, The Fact of Age: Review of case law and local authority practice since the Supreme Court judgment in R(A) v Croydon LBC [2009], 2012;  Refugee Council, Not a Minor Offence: unaccompanied children locked up as part of the asylum system, 2012;  Welsh Refugee Council, Young Lives in Limbo: the protection of age disputed young people in Wales, 2011; Refugee Studies Centre, Negotiating childhood: Age assessment in the UK asylum system, 2010; Immigration Law Practitioners Association, When is a child not a child? Asylum, age disputes and the process of age assessment, 2007

[vi] ADCS Practice Guidance on Age Assessment http://adcs.org.uk/safeguarding/article/ground-breaking-practice-guidance-on-age-assessment-published Refugee Council response: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/latest/news/4453_ground_breaking_practice_guidance_on_age_assessment_published

[vii]Home Office (2015) National Tables (SFR34_2015) Table A3: Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children looked after at 31 March by gender, age at 31 March, category of need and ethnic origin https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464757/SFR34_2015_National_tables.xlsx