The number of lone migrant children applying for asylum in Europe dropped by a third in 2016, according to the European Union’s statistics office, but child rights advocates said many unaccompanied children are not reflected in official figures and remain at risk of abuse.
Eurostat this week said 63,290 lone children applied for asylum in the EU in 2016, falling from 96,465 in 2015 at the height of Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War Two.
Eurostat’s figures refer specifically to asylum applicants “considered to be unaccompanied minors”, meaning EU states accepted the youngsters’ declared age or established it themselves through age assessment procedures.
But the U.N.’s children agency, UNICEF, said many lone migrant children move undetected through Europe without applying for asylum and are not included in official data, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from smugglers.
“Many of these children, including the ever-increasing numbers of unaccompanied children, are not even reflected in these numbers,” Sarah Crowe, a UNICEF spokeswoman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“National asylum systems have experienced backlogs, children continue to move throughout Europe on their own and some don’t apply for asylum at all.”
Children rely on human smugglers, often under a “pay as you go system”, making them prone to exploitation including rape, forced labour, beatings and death, says UNICEF.
“Children face tremendous hurdles at every step of the way and even they once they arrive in Europe it is just the beginning of another journey – many continue to be at risk of trafficking, violence and exploitation and often do not have even their basic rights met,” said Crowe.