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Deutschland Flüchtlingskinder
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

The lost refugee children

Helena Baers / gro
April 12, 2016

Almost 6,000 young refugees are missing in Germany. Most of them have just continued their journey but what about the others? Child protection organizations demand more support for the young people.


The figures are alarming: In the past year, 5,835 refugee children have been reported missing in Germany. The Interior Ministry of Germany released the numbers as a response to a parliamentary inquiry. Among the missing are 555 children who are younger than 14 years of age. "The missing unaccompanied minors come mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Morocco and Algeria," states the ministry's report.

But where have the children disappeared to? The government does not respond to this question. "It is scandalous that the Interior Ministry cannot state any reasons. Where are these children? For example, we know of specific cases," criticized Barbara Kuppers, a child rights expert from the organization Terre des Hommes.

They took their lives in their own hands

Most of the young people and children have probably just continued their journey, for example, to Sweden or Denmark, says Kuppers. Even within Germany, some have made their way to relatives who live in a city where the children were not registered. They just hit the road on their own.

Österreich Spielfeld Grenze Flüchtlingsfamilie
Many Syrian families are separated in their flightImage: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Scheriau

However, some of the missing children have been victims of crime. "We have also seen cases in which youth welfare institutions suddenly face smugglers demanding money from the young people," says Kuppers. As a result, the children do not trust anyone and drop off the radar to earn money, for example, as street prostitutes. Kuppers cannot say how many such cases exist.

BKA: Few findings

In an interview with DW, the German Federal Criminal Office emphasized: "There is no concrete evidence that some of the refugee children missing at the beginning of the year have fallen into the hands of criminals."

A spokeswoman confirmed that unaccompanied minors often leave their reception centers to find their relatives or acquaintances. Some of them have also been registered several times because they were traveling without documents or there are different spellings of their names.

"When children or young people safely reach their destination, German authorities rarely receive this information, so they cannot be removed from the files," she said. The search for a missing refugee child is different in each case.

Deutschland Minderjährige Flüchtlinge verschwunden
Some minors leave the reception centers to find their relativesImage: Colourbox/O. Mikhaylov

The State Criminal Police Office (LKA) of North Rhine-Westphalia shares this view. There is no reliable information on children and young people who have fallen victim to smuggler rings or criminal gangs. An LKA spokesman told DW that families are often separated during the escape to Europe and then later, the children travel alone to the place where relatives live. The search for missing children is difficult. "The unaccompanied minors and adolescents have no base here in Germany," said the spokesman and thus, there are no places or people that can be used as clues for searches.

Europol: Criminals recruit children

The sudden disappearance of refugee children is not only a German problem. Earlier this year, the Chief of Staff of the EU police agency Europol, Brian Donald, admitted in the British newspaper "The Observer" that thousands of underage refugees in European countries were registered but later lost without a trace. Conservative estimates reveal that 10,000 children are missing.

Europol's Donald comes to a different conclusion than the German police. He warns that some missing children may have fallen prey to criminals. Europol has evidence that some children and adolescents have been sexually abused during their travels. Criminal structures benefiting from the movement of migrants have developed, says Donald.

Politicians must react

At the end of March, several members of European Parliament pointed out in a letter that pan-European gangs may be abusing lost refugee children. These children may be victims of sexual violence, labor exploitation or organ trafficking. No one knows how many young refugees in Europe have just continued their journey and how many have been abducted or enslaved.

This must change, says Barbara Kuppers from Terre des Hommes. "Politicians have still not woken up." The easiest thing to do is to receive the young, unaccompanied refugees directly at the external EU border and facilitate a safe journey to the place they want to reach. "Then, for several thousand kilometers, they are not in danger of falling into the hands of smugglers, exploiters or traffickers."

Refugee children: Alone in Germany

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