Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

The long and lonely search for Europe’s missing refugee children

Lack of co-ordinated search means thousands of migrant children are missing.

ATHENS // In the eight months since he last saw them, Ghulam Haidar has tried everything to find his missing wife and children. His last, horrifying image of his wife, Shila, their daughter Zahra, aged eight, and three-year-old son Behzad is of them disappearing into the dark waters of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. Mr Haidar managed to keep hold of his seven-year-old son, Shahzad, but lost sight of the others as the small wooden boat carrying the Afghani family and some 50 other passengers was swallowed by the high waves.

Since arriving in Turkey, he has contacted coast guards, immigration officers, international aid groups, hospitals and the authorities in both Greece and Turkey, all to no avail so far. But as no bodies have been recovered, he remains convinced his lost family are still alive.

Mr Haidar is far from the only one searching for lost loved ones, but it is a lonely task, often with little help. In January, the EU’s criminal intelligence agency Europol said at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees had vanished after arriving in Europe.

Many missing or unaccompanied children are thought to be in Greece, the EU country that has become the staging post for refugees and migrants hoping to reach wealthier northern Europe. With Greek detention facilities overstretched, the nightmare scenario is that lone children end up living on the streets where they could be preyed upon by people-traffickers.

In Athens, volunteers from Zaatar, a group which runs a shelter for unaccompanied minors and vulnerable families, discovered a group of Syrian boys, aged between 16 and 12, smoking cigarettes outside a brothel. The founder of Zaatar, who wanted to remain anonymous, accused the bigger humanitarian organisations of failing in their duty to rescue and protect the most helpless.

“The big agencies are not doing their work — either they don’t want to or they don’t have the means — so we try to be a good influence on them.” Zaatar gives the children phones so that volunteers can stay in contact, making sure they stay safe.

According to the European Commission, missing unaccompanied children are the responsibility of individual EU member states. What no one seems to be clear about is: which member state? And which official body in that member state?

A report by Missing Children Europe, published in February, highlighted a “clear lack of ownership.”

“As an example, children from refugee backgrounds tend to aim for Germany. So if a child is reported missing in Greece, authorities will assume that traffickers have taken them to Germany via Austria,” said Shalev-Greene, co-author of the report. “There has to be a decision as to who is responsible because this is happening so frequently.”

Europol maintains that finding missing children is not within its remit. “Our role is to support law enforcement authorities in different member states. We don’t have any powers to act alone,” said spokeswoman Tine Hollevoet..

The International Committee of the Red Cross has launched an online tracing project, Trace the Face, for parents looking for their children, and children searching for family members. The information is shared with staff from national Red Cross societies along migration routes and, if families give their consent, with the authorities in countries where children may have gone missing. There are about 300 unaccompanied children on the Trace the Face database.

The Greek children’s charity, Smile of the Child, has also run a tracing service for the last decade with Missing Children Europe. It has been effective in finding missing European children but has had much less success with finding missing refugee children. Out of 13 cases the service took on in 2015, not one resulted in locating a child. “We follow the same procedures with refugee children as with EU nationals, but the circumstances are harder — there’s less information about them,” said Athanasia Kakarouba, who co-ordinates the hotline in Athens.

Then there is the “Search and find your family for refugees” page on Facebook, where Ghulam Haidar posted a photograph of his two missing children. All are commendable efforts by all concerned, but as Delphine Moralis, head of Missing Children Europe points out, it hardly amounts to the well coordinated, Europe-wide system that is needed to trace children who are moving from country to country.

So for now, Mr Haidar must continue to this lonely search, from aid agency to immigrant officials to hospitals. It is all he has. “I’m just living to find my family,” he said.

*Thomson Reuters Foundation