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EU states are denying child migrants essential services

Asylum seeking children are entitled to access education, healthcare and child protection, but governments across the EU are failing to fulfil their responsibilities

Almost 90,000 unaccompanied children applied for international protection (pdf) in EU member states last year. This has presented an unprecedented challenge for social services in the countries dealing with the highest numbers – such as Sweden, Germany, Hungary and Austria – and exposed the absence of a coherent and coordinated strategy in every relevant public policy area across Europe.

Although numbers may for now have peaked, and the story may have slipped from the headlines, it remains essential that all countries receiving asylum-seeking children – including the UK – take steps to increase the number of foster families and specialist social workers, to improve professionals’ language skills and training on the asylum application process and to reinforce specialist support such as post-traumatic stress disorder services.

The response to last year’s sudden rise in child migrants – a fourfold increase on figures for 2014 – has become a key focus of our work at the European Social Network, which promotes the exchange of knowledge among local public social services to contribute to effective policy development.

We had already been engaged in a three-year review of policy and practice on children’s services. Our new report, Investing in Children’s Services - Improving Outcomes, makes clear that asylum-seeking children are entitled to access education, healthcare and child protection. Yet the reality is too often very different.

Problems can begin as soon as unaccompanied minors arrive in Europe after perilous journeys across land and sea. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), a lack of appropriate shelters for children in almost all reception facilities on the Greek islands means that children are kept in police custody before being transferred to open reception facilities on the mainland.

Further on, host countries’ facilities are typically overwhelmed. Speaking at the launch of our report at the European parliament, Graham Owen, of the Swedish association of social services directors, admitted that services had been “playing catch-up” in trying to meet the needs of the 35,300 asylum-seeking children who arrived in Sweden in 2015. There were too few interpreters, social workers and foster families; schools had lacked the capacity to respond and services such as dental care had struggled to meet demand.

Shortage of foster care has been the biggest difficulty in Germany: earlier this year, the city of Hannover had to issue an urgent appeal for carers for 180 unaccompanied children, mainly boys aged 13 to 17.

The most worrying aspect of this picture is that because of the inadequate and disjointed response by government agencies, children who flee poverty and war are falling prey to traffickers and smugglers. Social services do not always have the capacity to follow up on suspicions of violence or distress at the private family homes or children’s homes where asylum-seeking children live. Many have simply disappeared.

According to the FRA, as many as 25% of unaccompanied minors in Sweden have gone missing from their accommodation centres. Europol, the EU police intelligence agency, speaks of 10,000 or more children who have vanished since they arrived in Europe.

Countries like Sweden and Germany have at least been proactive in seeking to protect unaccompanied minors. With so many disappearing off the radar, it is essential that governments across the EU – and that still includes the British government - fulfil their responsibility and support other member states in relocating these vulnerable children.

Alfonso Montero is policy director of the European Social Network