Members' Research Service By / May 23, 2023

Disappearance of migrant children in the EU

The number of migrant children has been growing, both globally and in the European Union (EU). According to 2020 estimates, 35.5 million children worldwide (1.5 million more than in 2000), were living outside their country of birth.

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Written by Maria-Margarita Mentzelopoulou.

Between 2018 and 2020, over 18 000 migrant and refugee children were reported as missing in Europe. It is feared that many may have been exploited and abused for sexual or labour purposes. The European Parliament has repeatedly stressed the need to address the disappearance of migrant children in the EU. The conflict in Ukraine and the subsequent mass displacement of people have only made the situation worse, creating fertile ground for criminal networks to take advantage of vulnerable people, especially children.


The number of migrant children has been growing, both globally and in the European Union (EU). According to 2020 estimates, 35.5 million children worldwide (1.5 million more than in 2000), were living outside their country of birth. In 2021, Lost in Europe, a journalism project investigating the disappearance of migrant children, reported that more than 18 000 migrant children had gone missing in Europe between 2018 and 2020. According to Missing Children Europe, migrant children are considered missing ‘when they are registered with state authorities and go missing from the reception/accommodation centres provided for them’. While most missing migrant children are understood to be unaccompanied minors (UAMs), they also include separated children and children that were travelling with family. According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), UAMs missing from first reception facilities are a major concern in many EU Member States. However, incomplete and inconsistent reporting makes it difficult to fully grasp the picture. The importance of data collection and sharing has been confirmed by several studies on missing migrants; a single contact point would arguably make it much easier to search for and find information about such people. In fact, registration is particularly relevant in the case of children, as it lessens the risk of them going missing while also helping families reunite. In addition, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been reports of children disappearing after having arrived in EU countries from Ukraine. Overall, the reasons for children’s disappearance include: poor reception conditions; a lack of child-friendly information; inefficient family reunification and guardian-appointment procedures; fear of detention or deportation; the desire to join family or friends in another country; and violence and abuse, including illegal adoption and trafficking.

EU action to protect children in migration

In recent years, the EU has adopted a series of policies relevant to children in migration. In February 2007, the European Commission adopted a decision requiring EU countries to reserve the telephone number 116000 as a hotline for reporting missing children, including UAMs of third-country origin. The hotline has been implemented gradually at national level and is now active in 32 countries.

In a communication from 2017, the European Commission laid out a list of priority actions aimed at contributing to the protection of children in migration. Moreover, in its 2020 communication on a new Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Commission stressed that ‘the reform of EU rules on asylum and return is an opportunity to strengthen safeguards and protection standards under EU law for migrant children’. It furthermore identified children’s rights as a priority to be taken into consideration as part of a broader range of initiatives, such as those set out in the 2020 action plan on integration and inclusion 2021-2027 and the 2021 EU strategy on voluntary return and reintegration. In 2020, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on EU Member States to do ‘whatever is necessary and required in the best interests of the child’ to avoid the disappearance of thousands of child refugees and migrants globally.

More recently, the 2021 EU strategy on the rights of the child stressed the vulnerability of migrant children, who are often deeply traumatised by what they have had to endure in their country of origin or on a migratory route. The strategy notes that migrant children are more likely to be victims of abuse and violence, and that the risk of going missing increases ‘when children travel unaccompanied or are obliged to share overcrowded facilities with adult strangers’. Additionally, several directives look at the specific situation of migrant children, with a view to preventing them from going missing and falling victim to criminal networks. For instance, Article 24 of the Reception Conditions Directive and Article 25 of the Asylum Procedures Directive envisage the appointment of guardians for UAMs, while Article 14 of the Anti-Trafficking Directive requires Member States to provide specific assistance and support to child victims. Moreover, AMBER Alert Europe aims to achieve zero missing children in Europe by increasing the technological and human resources that are mobilised in searches for missing children.

In focus: The situation of missing Ukrainian children
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Magnolia has recorded more than 2 100 children as kidnapped, abducted, forcibly disappeared or simply missing inside Ukraine. Similarly, NGOs and public authorities have been warning about the risk of violence and trafficking facing children outside Ukraine too, stressing the importance of proper registration. The Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) has likewise warned of the danger faced by people fleeing Ukraine of falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation. Moreover, the Office of the European Parliament Vice-President, and EP Coordinator on Children’s Rights, Ewa Kopacz, cooperates with a number of stakeholders on the issue of missing Ukrainian children, while continuing to keep awareness of Ukrainian children high on the Parliament‘s agenda. In March 2022, the Commission presented a 10-point plan for stronger EU coordination on welcoming people fleeing the war against Ukraine. The plan envisages strengthening children’s protection by developing ‘standard operating procedures and uniform guidance for the reception and support of children, as well as specific procedures for the transfer of UAMs‘ and measures on recording and exchange of information. The plan also underpins the development of an anti-trafficking plan, while also supporting the ‘Safe Homes’ initiative. Finally, during the first joint mission of the Parliament, Commission and Council to Kyiv focusing on the protection of Ukrainian children under institutional care, Parliament’s Coordinator on Children’s Rights, Ewa Kopacz, met with First Lady Olena Zelenska and the Presidential Commissioner for Children, Daria Herasymczuk, to discuss the concerns for children illegally deported or retained in Russia and the Russian-occupied territories.

European Parliament position

The need to tackle the disappearance of migrant children has featured in several Parliament resolutions in recent years. In a November 2014 resolution, Parliament stressed that many UAMs had disappeared or absconded after their arrival in the EU, and insisted that more should be done to ensure that the rights of migrant children were fully respected across the EU. In a December 2016 resolution, Parliament called on the Commission to ensure that UAMs do not disappear and to design a strategy for that purpose and for the purpose of identifying the whereabouts of missing children. In another December 2016 resolution, Parliament recommended reinforcing the existing tools for finding missing children and noted that children’s rights and the best interest of the child needed to be taken into account and assessed in all EU policies and actions, including migration and asylum.

In May 2018, Parliament called on the Member States to place all children and families with children in non-custodial, community-based accommodation while their immigration status is being processed. Parliament also stressed the need to host UAMs in separate facilities from adults to avoid any risk of violence and sexual abuse. In November 2019, Parliament called on the Member States to improve the situation of children in migration and stressed the importance of child protection as a fundamental principle for the EU. In March 2021, Parliament stressed that the EU strategy on the rights of the child needed to include measures to improve the situation of children in migration and protect their interests at every stage of asylum procedures. In April 2022, Parliament adopted a resolution on the protection of children and young people fleeing the war in Ukraine, which stressed the need to identify vulnerable groups and to move swiftly to appoint guardians for UAMs. Most recently, Parliament also highlighted the risk of children falling victim to human trafficking in relation to the situation of Ukrainian migrant- and displaced children.

This updates an ‘at a glance’ note by Micaela Del Monte and Maria-Margarita Mentzelopoulou published in September 2022.

Read this ‘at a glance’ note on ‘Disappearance of migrant children in the EU‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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