Safety on the Move: Protecting Asylum-Seeking Children in Europe

The recent agreement between the European Union and Turkey on how to handle asylum seekers reaching Greece will exacerbate the risks facing people seeking protection in Europe, particularly the risks facing asylum-seeking children. The deal seeks to stop asylum seekers from sailing across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. At the core of the agreement is a controversial one-to-one exchange of people: asylum seekers in Greece whose claims are deemed ‘unfounded’ or ‘inadmissible’ will be returned to Turkey; for every person returned, the European Union will accept one Syrian refugee in a Turkish camp for resettlement.

Many have questioned the legality and morality of the agreement. The Greek legal system—already strained by the country’s economic crisis—will struggle to guarantee each asylum seeker’s right to an individualized determination of her claim. If decisions are fast-tracked, then the risk of a person’s legitimate claim being rejected as ‘unfounded’ increases. More troubling is the potential for categorizing a claim as ‘inadmissible’. An inadmissible claim does not mean that the claim is without merit; rather it means that the government will not assess the claim.

There are two main grounds of inadmissibility that apply to asylum seekers reaching Greece: if the person has received refugee status in Turkey, or if that person could have applied for asylum in Turkey. The latter ground is referred to as ‘safe third country’.[1] Human rights organisations have condemned the designation of Turkey as a safe third country, noting that the Turkish government has forcibly returned refugees to war-afflicted areas and many refugees in Turkey cannot access basic services, including adequate housing, work opportunities, or education. Returning asylum seekers on inadmissibility grounds could amount to mass expulsions of people seeking protection in Europe.

On a practical level, blocking one of the major migration routes will not stop people from seeking safety in Europe. Most asylum-seeking children in Europe entered the EU by boat from Turkey to Greece. With borders closing and immigration regimes becoming more punitive, children seeking protection will turn to more dangerous routes. Combined with the already limited legal pathways into the EU, this agreement will place children at heightened risk of abuse and exploitation.

By 2015, at least 337,000 children were registered as asylum seekers in Europe. UNICEF estimates that 90,000 of these children are unaccompanied or separated from their families. Europol—the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency—reported in January that 10,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have ‘disappeared’ after arriving in Europe. We do not know what has happened to these children, but it is feared that some have been targeted by criminal organizations. Some children may have left care placements due to poor conditions or to reunite with family members in other parts of Europe. Others may have left to find work opportunities in order to repay debt they or their families incurred in funding the migration.

Migrating children, particularly unaccompanied children, are vulnerable to trafficking, violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, and extortion from smugglers. Children often spend long periods in reception or transit centers that lack basic sanitation facilities, child-friendly spaces, and decent healthcare. Children in need of money to fund their onward journeys are at risk of sexual exploitation, while others are sexually abused in camps and transit centers. Those that ultimately reach their destination countries face continuing insecurity—many countries do not have a legal guardianship scheme for unaccompanied children and children are often unable to critical services.[2]

We know that safety requires more than protection from physical harm. For asylum-seeking children, and their adult counterparts, legal status in a safe country is the foundation upon which safety is built.[3] Research suggests that children who are granted asylum then predicate feelings of safety upon finding predictable patterns of living, accessing education, receiving medical attention, and finding adults and peers that are trustworthy and reliable.[4]

Similarly, research into the experiences of trafficked and sexually exploited children in foster care suggests that ‘safety’ is multi-dimensional. Safety encompasses physical, relational, and psychological safety. Children enjoy relational safety when they are able to develop warm and trusting relationships with their carers. A child enjoys psychological safety when she develops a source of self-identity outside of abusive relationships and experiences.[5]

In a more perfect world, legal routes to an asylum-granting country would obviate the need to consider the child’s safety during migration. But we know that children, by the thousands, take irregular and dangerous migration routes because there are very few options for legal migration. If migration itself puts children at heightened abuse and disrupts all forms of stability within the child’s life, then what does ‘safety’ look like and mean for children on the move?

For migrating asylum-seeking children, safety can be conceived of as a process involving safe passage during a migration route, legal security in a safe destination country, and then access to meaningful services that will facilitate their relational and psychological safety.[6] At present, non-state actors—from UN agencies to volunteer-led grassroots initiatives—are working to safeguard migrating children under constrained circumstances and are able to provide children with a minimal level of safety.

UNICEF and UNHCR are working jointly to expand their ‘Blue Dot’ initiative, which places special support centers along known migration routes. In these centers children can play and access medical, legal, and psychological support. Save the Children works across Europe to meet the immediate needs of migrating children. The organization has established child and family-friendly centers where children can access legal advice and other support, registration centers that seek to reunite children separated from their families, and various distribution points where children can obtain food, blankets, clothes and other essential items.

In the camps of Calais in northern France, international and NGO presence is virtually non-existent. A recent census conducted by Help Refugees concludes that there are 651 children living in the camps, of which 423 are unaccompanied. Volunteer-led initiatives have stepped in, providing safe spaces and accommodation for unaccompanied children. Children of Calais is launching a mobile school bus for children to continue their education while living in the camps. Jungle Canopy recently converted caravans into living spaced for unaccompanied children. Networks of volunteers have also coordinated the deployment of youth workers to the camps and created a women and children’s center. However, French authorities recently demolished one of the youth centers.

Efforts to provide safe spaces and material goods to children, while laudable and critically important, can only provide basic safety. And even then, the sheer numbers of migrating children, their varied migration routes, and the efforts of European states to stop migration mean that not all children can access these limited services. The European Union continues to prioritize border protection over child protection. The ‘problem’ of migration and child migration will not cease in the near future. At a minimum, asylum-seeking children need access to legal security. The efforts of volunteers, social services, NGOs and humanitarian organizations cannot effectively meet a child’s safety needs until that child has the right to remain in a safe country.


[1] I have drawn from the thorough legal analyses of Steven Peers and Emanuela Roman. For more information on the legality of the recent agreement, click here. For more on whether Turkey constitutes a ‘safe third country’, click here.

[2] This paragraph summarizes some of the findings in the 2016 report Safety and Fundamental Rights at Stake for Children on the Move by the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children, available here.

[3] Ravi S. Kohli, Working to Ensure Safety, Belonging and Success for Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking children, Child Abuse Review (volume 20), pages 311-323 (2011).

[4] Kohli (note 3).

[5] This paragraph is based on the work of Dr. Lucie Shuker at the University of Bedfordshire. Lucie Shuker, ‘Constructs of Safety for Children in Care Affected by Child Sexual Exploitation’ in Critical Perspectives and Child Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking (Jenny Pearce and Margaret Melrose, eds) 2013.

[6] This assumes that children receive refugee status in a destination country. The fate and security of children whose claims are denied is another issue.