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Why are so many refugee children traveling alone?

There are ever more unaccompanied minors among refugees arriving in Germany. And there is much speculation as to the reason why. Is it a tactic used by human traffickers?

The search for traces begins in Hamburg. In this one city alone, the number of unaccompanied minors, that is children and youths under the age of 18 traveling without parents or family, has quadrupled in just one year. In 2014, there were 650 such new arrivals in the Hanseatic city. So far this year 2,800 have been registered.

Of course the number of refugees coming to Germany has risen drastically on the whole; however, refugee workers in Hamburg say that this alone does not explain the rise in unaccompanied minors. More than that, not all these children and adolescents have lost their parents during the journey. Hence, they must have embarked on their trek alone. Most come from Afghanistan, Syria or Eritrea. Many of these unaccompanied minors are picked up by the police.

Guess how old I am

Joachim Lenders, Chairman of the German Police Union in Hamburg, says that many of the minors, 90 percent of whom are young men, have no identification papers. Authorities are thus dependent upon their own powers of observation in verifying age and origin.

Beyond that, the only thing authorities have to go on are the statements offered by the refugees themselves. Lenders says, "A lot of cheating goes on there." No one wants to be 18, and thus be processed as an adult, for which asylum criteria are much stricter. It is not unusual for forensic doctors to be asked to provide age assessments. Word has apparently gotten out that unaccompanied young refugees enjoy a special amount of protection in Germany, that they are less likely to be deported and also receive more comprehensive help. Is that why so many young people are coming on their own? "There are rumors that there is a system behind the phenomenon. But it cannot be proven," explains Lenders. Human traffickers may brag about giving such travel tips, but Lenders is not buying it.

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The number of young refugees traveling alone has skyrocketed

Fleeing with a clear mission

Currently, in the Bavarian district of Rosenheim, some 2,100 underage refugees are being cared for. The federal police have gathered their own experiences there: "16 and 17-year-olds come straight here, and as soon as they arrive they ask about how to get their families here as well," reports federal parliamentarian Daniela Ludwig of the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria. Ludwig deals with the issues of asylum and migration as a member of the Internal Affairs Committee in the German parliament.

It seems that above all, young men are sent off to Germany in hopes of establishing a foothold, allowing the entire family to follow them at a later date. Such family reunions are regulated by a refugee's residency status. "I know several men from Afghanistan," says Daniela Ludwig, "who are here because an entire village put all of their money together to pay a human trafficker to smuggle them in. Those in the village decide that a particular young man has got what it takes to make the journey, that he'll make it to Germany, and that they'll profit from it at home as well when he does."

Such youths are called "anchor children" by 'Germany's child protection services (CPS) charged with looking after unaccompanied underage refugees. Johannes Fischer, director of the regional CPS office in Rosenheim, confirmed that such cases occur again and again.

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These refugee children are fortunate to be getting language training

Youths are sent to Germany to establish residency, thus insuring the well being of the family. But, he says, it is impossible to tell just how many of the minors that are here now came for that reason. Information is not collected from refugee interviews, nor from the authorities that care for them. In light of her experiences, parliamentarian Daniela Ludwig says: "We will continue to observe the situation and will probably have to do something about it."

Hopes for a change to asylum law

Andrea Lindholz (CSU), also an MP from Bavaria and member of the internal affairs committee, is well acquainted with the subject of "anchor children" and warns against rushing to hasty judgements. "We cannot say whether this is a trend or not." One has to look at overall refugee numbers and compare them to the numbers of unaccompanied minors. "One cannot say that there is a targeted rush." The total challenge is much bigger. The problem in Germany is simply the high level of care and support devoted to child welfare. "The abuse of such benefits is quite minimal," says Lindholz, who also brings ten years of experience as a family judge to the discussion.

Soon it will also be more difficult for unaccompanied youths to manipulate their age, due to changes in the asylum laws that go into effect at the end of the year. Forensic data regarding the true age of refugees will carry more weight. And according to Andrea Lindholz, the distribution of unaccompanied minors across the entire country will be regulated more justly than has been the case thus far, freeing up capacities for CPS offices and allowing them to more adequately monitor the refugee situation and attend to the needs of minors more efficiently.

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