18th Mar 2018

EU to find missing migrant children with fingerprinting

  • The commission has suggested registering fingerprints and photographs of children as young as six - down from the current age of 14. (Photo: Alan Levine)

One year after Europol estimated that 10,000 children have gone missing in Europe, leading EU lawmakers say that better registration of migrant children entering the EU could make it easier to find the ones that are unaccounted for.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos recently told the European Parliament that there is a need to "fully" use the existing instruments to report and record child disappearances, suggesting they were currently not.

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He said missing children should be recorded in the Schengen Information System (SIS), which is the only EU database used for the purpose of recording missing persons. He also proposed that photographs and fingerprints should be attached to SIS entries.

This means that SIS would be linked to Eurodac, another database storing fingerprints of people who apply for asylum or who are found migrating to Europe irregularly.

The EU institutions are currently working on an update to Eurodac rules, and the commission has suggested registering fingerprints and photographs of children as young as six years old - down from the current age of 14.

Eurodac rapporteur, Romanian conservative MEP Monica Macovei, told EUobserver she agreed with the proposal.

Preventing abuse

"We need to have a system that allows to trace the children, reunite them with their families and protect them from being abused by traffickers and organ smugglers," she said.

But Omid Mahmoudi, the founder of Ensamkommandes Forbund, an association for unaccompanied minors in Sweden, told EUobserver that increased fingerprinting could be counterproductive.

"It's the same kind of argument as saying that closing the borders would prevent children from drowning. Children go missing because they are fighting to survive," he argued.

Mahmoudi, who came to Sweden as a lone minor, said he paid smugglers so they would bring him to safety without being stopped on the way.

"Instead of asking why children disappear, we are creating further measures that scare them. Children are afraid of being fingerprinted, even six-year-olds are afraid of being deported if they are caught," he said.

"Besides, we already have fingerprints for most missing children, and nobody is looking for them," he said.

When the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), was asked for a legal opinion on Eurodac last year, it said most of the missing unaccompanied children are already in the system but this doesn't stop them from disappearing and they are rarely traced if they do go missing.

The FRA said however that registration is a fundamental component of international refugee protection in general.

Macovei, the Romanian MEP, said she included safeguards in her report to protect the best interests of the child.

"These safeguards include that information should be presented to children in a child-friendly manner, and that they should always be accompanied by a guardian or legal representative," she said.

Europol problems

In a bid to step up search and rescue efforts for missing migrant children, the Romanian MEP also wants to extend the powers of Europol to look for missing children, by giving them greater powers to access Eurodac.

At present, the European police agency can only see if a person's fingerprints appear in the system ("hit-or-not"), but then have to ask national police for access to that person's file. In practice, it means Europol, whose headquarters is located in The Hague, needs to turn to Dutch authorities.

"In practice, the security standards are so high that Europol cannot share information," Macovei said.

Some claim this will not be enough to stop children from going missing.

The FRA noted the commission's proposal to reform Eurodac only aimed to apply the Dublin asylum system, combat irregular immigration and fight serious crime.

"For the following reasons and given the evidence available it seems difficult to conclude that the processing of fingerprints for children as young as six years of age is necessary and proportionate," the agency said.

The rights agency then suggested expanding the scope of the report to "expressly pursue a child protection objective".

Malin Bjork, a Swedish MEP who serves as shadow rapporteur for the left-wing GUE group, said the best way to stop children from going missing was to "make them feel safe".

"The only way to stop them from absconding is to create good conditions and guarantee them a good future among us. That's where we should put the money, not on coercion of little children," Bjork added.

The Swedish MEP tabled an amendment to Macovei's report, in a bid to bring the minimum age of fingerprinting back to 16 again.

The civic liberties (LIBE) committee will likely vote on the report in April or May.

This article was independently created by EUobserver's editorial staff and is part of a series about unaccompanied migrant children. Costs for producing this article was funded in part by the Destination Unknown initiative.

Report: EU failing migrant children

Just under 90,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the EU last year, up from around 13,000 in 2013. A UK report said many were treated with "suspicion and disbelief" by authorities.

Child migrants endure 'abysmal conditions'

The Council of Europe's special representative on migration and refugees released a report that says minors in Europe are enduring "abysmal conditions".

EU billions had 'limited' effect in Turkey, audit finds

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