On October 25th, Europe celebrates its annual Justice Day by reminding of all injustices that merit attention. The celebration of this day was established to bring the notion of justice closer to citizens, to inform them about their rights and to promote the work of the Council of Europe and the European Commission in the field of justice. Through stimulation of procedures and information sessions the EU wants to pay attention to those who still experience injustices in the EU at large and its Member States; members of the LGBTIQ Community, undervalued workers, disabled persons, the old and the young, women, ethnic minorities, to name a few.

In order to bring justice into practice, however, a first and foremost condition is that people are recognized and are seen and heard in their needs for justice. A second condition is that their interests are represented by agents, whether these are (supra)national governments, institutions, NGOs or citizens. In the context of this year’s Justice Day, I want to pay attention to a category of the most vulnerable people that live in Europe, unrecognized and unrepresented: unaccompanied migrant children that have been registered as asylum seekers but have left the refugee centres that were supposed to protect them. The European Law Enforcement Agency (EUROPOL) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimate that the number of such children was at around 10.000 already in 2015. This means that in the EU a huge number of minors are at risk of becoming victims of exploitation, sexual abuse, living in the streets without shelter or getting involved in drugs crimes. It also implies that despite all efforts, as well as many guidelines and directives by the European Parliament and the European Council on the protection of unaccompanied minors and children’s rights, Member States are not able and sometimes not willing to protect the most vulnerable children looking for shelter in our countries. These missing children that migrated to our continent are lost, have disappeared and are most likely at great risk. They are without any protection and security, and without future perspective. What is most striking is that alarm bells ring and are public notions of concern when a native child is lost (which should be evaluated as progress on behalf of the rights of children); however, at the same time the loss of children looking for refuge in Europe, and even of those who had to flee from war, hardly receive any media attention or consideration from the institutional constituencies that should protect their interests.

How is it possible that we are sleeping well in the awareness of so many children dwelling around without protection? How do we not have nightmares when thinking about what might happen to them?

It happened that on October 22nd and 23rd, the days before the European Justice Day, I was involved in a ‘data bootcamp’ on missing migrant children in Europe. The project called ‘Lost in Europe’ was organised by ‘Verspers’ and ‘Lighthouse Report’, two Dutch organizations for investigative journalism in cooperation with the Dutch broadcasting organisation VPRO, with the BBC and Newsweek and with investigative journalists from Belgium and Italy. This network of mainly young journalists aims to put the issue of lost children at the forefront of the European agenda and with the help of citizen participation seeks to find out how these children could get lost in the first place, and where they might be now.

I was invited to support them by making clear outlines of EU regulations and the implications for Member States on the rights of unaccompanied migrant children that the journalists could refer to. These two days of hard work with an interdisciplinary team of journalists, economists and experts in migration law were inspiring and challenging. Most interesting to me was that none of these mainly young journalists doubted the moral issue of protecting migrant children. For them, it was evidential that justice should be done and that a first step in this process is to recognize the needs and interests of these children. In evaluating the reasons for the children’s disappearance all options were weighted: arguments for example included: they could have been sent by their families to reach the UK for drug transports and other Member States were only stations to pass; in their country of origin they were recruited for sexual business; the procedures for getting a permit were delayed to such an extent that it would pass their age of maturity; they were seduced by people who offered them a better future and more immediate money than via the long route of following official integration procedures.

The young journalists did not take any of these arguments as an excuse for the lack of protection or the easy-going attitude of the official institutions in reaction to the disappearance of these children from the refugee shelters. No argument can legitimate that Member States and their institutional forces neglect the disappearance of these children, who are minors that have a right to be protected as if these were our own children. That was precisely what made the Lost in Europe project so warm-hearted: it represents justice in Europe by actively getting involved in the lives and needs of an invisible, neglected, dismissed and extremely vulnerable group of people who are denied by being declared non-existent.

Moreover, Lost in Europe is promising. In these two days the network succeeded in tracing routes of immigration where the children disappeared; they traced criminal networks that played a role in the disappearances – which is not without danger: they found out the locations from which most children have disappeared and networked well with EUROPOL agents, who supported their targets and declared that this bottom-up initiative should be supported by the police. For more information on Lost in Europe, see: https://verspers.atavist.com/lost-in-europe

by Trudie Knijn, Utrecht University