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Towards a Common European Asylum System which places children’s safety and wellbeing at its core

Marta Welander of Refugee Rights Europe shares the plight of displaced children in Europe to make a case for the reform of the European asylum system.

Marta Welander, Founder and Executive Director at Refugee Rights Europe

The EU Summit on 28-29 June 2018 is an historic opportunity for European leaders to start reforming the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) into a framework which not only ensures responsibility is shared more equally between EU member states, but one which better upholds the right to asylum for displaced people seeking protection on European soil, and importantly, a system that honours internationally adopted child rights.

More children are in displacement today than any time since World War II. According to UN agencies, 29,000 displaced children arrived in Europe in 2017, a considerable number of whom were unaccompanied or separated from their families during displacement. While the EU has policies and laws in place to safeguard children under the current system, the de facto implementation of the same is largely unsatisfactory. Many children reportedly face a culture of disbelief and suspicion, and are often subjected to invasive age assessment tests which are largely unreliable.  At this stage, legal advice and support is often lacking, and children’s development risks being impaired and their needs neglected.

Displaced children in Europe often “fall through the net” and may not enter the asylum system for extended periods. Many unaccompanied children are reported to have disappeared from hot spot camps as they give up due to overcrowded and unsafe living conditions and long waiting times characterised by a lack of transparency and information about what’s happening to them.

In other places, there are not enough spaces or capacity to receive children and guide them through the system. For instance, UNICEF and REACH published a report relating to protection risks faced by unaccompanied minors in Ventimiglia in February 2017, finding that children are left without recourse to international protection, stranded in Ventimiglia for considerable lengths of time in conditions characterised by high levels of insecurity. These children are highly likely to take matters into own hands and travel through dangerous routes and make attempts at taking potentially lethal, unauthorised border crossings, often in order to be reunited with family or relatives.

Several independent reports from the field have indicated that displaced people, including children, are oftentimes encouraged by authorities to carry on to another European country to avoid taking responsibility for their asylum claims. According to a testimony by an expert witness in the UK Parliament in 2016: “Many countries along the transit route to northern Europe adopt a 'wave through' approach where they're turning a blind eye to unaccompanied minors. They're not registering them. They're effectively encouraging them to keep going.”

Other times, illegal push-backs of minors have been recorded, most notably at the French-Italian border in the town of Ventimiglia.

Under the Dublin III Regulation, when a child claims asylum in a European member state, the authorities should find out if the child has family in another European country, and if so, the asylum claim should be processed in that country instead. However, according to many field reports, this rarely happens. Once again, children therefore often escape official processing centres and try to take things into own hands. For instance, one 17-year old Eritrean boy in Calais, France explained to Refugee Rights Europe in April 2017 why he had left a state-run accommodation centre for children and was living in destitution in the woods instead:

“They said they [would] process our family reunion but only took 10 people out of 50 and left the rest of us. I didn't have any option but to leave after.”

Another child explained: “They didn't do anything for us, they didn't tell us anything. I spent four months [in the accommodation centre] and I didn’t see any hope.”

The same study suggested that the average time children in Calais had spent in Europe was a whole 7.85 months. A whole 19% had been in Europe for a year or longer, much of which time would have been spent in complete destitution in hiding. Only 16.9% said they have access to information about their rights and possibilities to change their situation. A similar percentage, 4.8%, said they have access to information about European immigration laws.

Tragically, the current Common European Asylum System (CEAS), which intended to ensure an orderly processing of asylum applications and which sets out provisions to protect children, has proven a failure for member states and displaced people alike and often contributes to the enormous suffering experienced among children on the move. The EU Summit in late June 2018 is an historic opportunity to bring about much-needed change, and we desperately hope that Member States will set their difference aside and seek a humane solution anchored in the European tradition of human rights, and internationally adopted child rights obligations.


Marta Welander is the Founder and Executive Director at Refugee Rights Europe which documents the situation for refugees and displaced people seeking protection in Europe. Refugee Rights Europe became a Eurochild member in 2017.