At least 18,000 unaccompanied child migrants have disappeared after arriving in European countries including Greece, Italy, and Germany.
An investigation by the Guardian and the cross-border journalism collective Lost in Europe found that 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – equivalent to nearly 17 children a day.
In 2020 alone, 5,768 children disappeared in 13 European countries.
Most of the children who have gone missing over the past three years came to Europe from Morocco, but Algeria, Eritrea, Guinea, and Afghanistan were also among the top countries of origin. According to the data available, 90% were boys and about one in six were younger than 15.
The investigation, which collated data on missing unaccompanied minors from all 27 EU countries, as well as Norway, Moldova, Switzerland, and the UK, found the information provided was often inconsistent or incomplete, meaning the true numbers of missing children could be much higher.
Spain, Belgium, and Finland provided figures only up to the end of 2019. Denmark, France, and the UK provided no data at all on unaccompanied missing children.
The findings of the investigation raise serious questions about the extent to which European countries are able or willing to protect unaccompanied child migrants.
Federica Toscano, head of advocacy and migration at Missing Children Europe, a non-profit organization that connects grassroots agencies across Europe, said the data was “extremely important” for understanding the scale of the problem in Europe.
“The high number of missing children is a symptom of a child-protection system that doesn’t work,” she said.
She said unaccompanied children were among the migrants most vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and trafficking.
“Criminal organizations are increasingly targeting migrant children,” said Toscano, “especially unaccompanied ones and many of them become victims of labor and sexual exploitation, forced begging and trafficking.”