Thousands of unaccompanied minors migrated illegally to Europe, the United States, and other world regions during 2012. Children are a uniquely vulnerable migrant population, traveling alone to rejoin family members abroad, to escape persecution at home, or as victims of trafficking, smuggling, or gang recruitment.
Unaccompanied Minor Migration Rises Sharply in the United States
Typically, an estimated 8,000 unaccompanied children arrive each year in the United States and come to the attention of authorities. Beginning in October 2011, however, arrivals of unaccompanied minors have increased significantly, straining the current child custody system. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency in charge of the care and custody of unaccompanied minors, had 10,000 children in custody last summer, with up to 15,000 anticipated by the end of 2012. With the number of unaccompanied minors outpacing the government-contracted shelter and foster home capacity, ORR temporarily turned to a military base in San Antonio, TX, to house 200 children last April.
Most unaccompanied minors come from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico; they are on average 14.5 years old and about 75 percent are boys. Those estimates will likely change when new data from 2012 are analyzed, with preliminary reports suggesting a growing number of girls in the mix, and a higher percentage of children under the age of 14.
Unaccompanied Minor Arrivals Steady in European Union, Increasing Concerns about Migration Channels
The numbers of unaccompanied minors reaching European countries have been more stable. According to Eurostat, 12,225 asylum applicants in EU-27 countries in 2011 were considered to be unaccompanied minors, a figure similar to 2010 levels. The top countries receiving such applications were Sweden (2,655), Germany (2,125), Belgium (2,040), United Kingdom (1,275), and Austria (1,005).
However, a much higher percentage of unaccompanied children are believed to be entering Europe illegally, or being smuggled or trafficked. The highest proportion of unaccompanied minors was comprised of boys ages 14 to 18, and countries of origin varied substantially among Member States, with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, sub-Saharan Africa, Albania, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan being the most commonly identified countries of origin.
The treatment of unaccompanied minors has been on the European Union (EU) agenda for three years, almost single-handedly brought to the fore by Save the Children, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that promotes children's rights and protection. Migration of the very young is not a new occurrence in the European Union but one issue is emerging: secondary movement, whereby children are moving within the European Union to find family members or as trafficking victims.
Discussion has ensued in the United States and in many European countries over whether these migrants should benefit from some special immigration law or procedures in light of their status as minors. Yet specific proposals have spawned controversy.
EU countries are putting forth concerted efforts to address the status of unaccompanied children in immigration policymaking; to reduce children’s time in custody; and to investigate further the many root causes of migration of minors. The European Commission in 2010 adopted an action plan to increase the protection of unaccompanied minors entering the European Union, with a focus on ensuring the best interests of the child regardless of migration status. A mid-term assessment of that action plan released in September found that the European Union has made progress but has more work to do, and called for improved efforts at both national and European levels regarding the treatment of unaccompanied minors.
Unaccompanied minors, for example, are sometimes detained in overcrowded facilities with adult asylum seekers, and have difficulty gaining access to legal and medical care.
As EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström noted in an op-ed that accompanied the mid-term assessment: "Today's report from the European Commission demonstrates that we have a long way to go. Reception conditions are still very poor in many places around Europe."