By Bernhard Senkerik
While it should be logical that members of the European Union are exchanging information leading to convictions of criminals, the reality isn’t as simple as that. As the EU is still a relatively new construct of independent states, there remains a distrust to exchange information too freely. While the same has happened at the beginning of the United States with Pennsylvania having to be connected to Lake Erie or Australia, with New Zealand not joining the union and the Northern Territory still not being a state, the transnational structure of criminal organisations has increased dramatically over the last decades and demands much faster changes than in the past. As we have recently seen with the insufficient information exchange between Germany, France and Belgium with regards to the bombings in Paris and Brussels, such inactions and secrets can lead to disaster.
With missing children on the rise, open borders across large parts of Europe, a child that runs away, is kidnapped or trafficked can be in a different country that is completely unaware of the situation within hours. There have been big steps in the right direction and one organisation that is creating a network is Missing Children Europe. Developed from its Belgian member and co-founder, Child Focus, in 2008, the organisation has established a pan European network to bridge the information gaps. Ms Delphine Moralis, Secretary General of Missing Children Europe, is explaining the work they are doing and their views on the current situation.
TRAFFICKING.TODAY: Obviously the work that is needed to protect and find missing and exploited children is tremendous. What are the areas your organisation is particularly focusing on?
Ms Moralis: 250,000 children are reported missing each year in the EU, including children who have run away from home or from an institution, children who are abducted by a parent, children who arrive in Europe unaccompanied and go missing from reception centres, criminal abductions and lost injured or otherwise missing children. Many others are not being reported and remain absent in available data.
The moment of disappearance of a child is intimately related to the individual child’s psycho-social well-being, family environment, sociocultural community and socio-economic context. It can be the result of a heightened family conflict, a phase in a specific migration path, a response to abuse, bullying or neglect faced by the child at home or in his/ her school environment –and often leads to serious and continued harm.
Overall, up to 25% of the cases of missing children reported to hotlines are cross-border in nature and require a cross-border response. Missing Children Europe therefore brings together grassroots organisations from across Europe, that work together over and beyond national borders. Together, we aim to contribute to the development of child protection systems that prevent, support and protect children from any harm, abuse or neglect that may either be caused by, or result from them going missing.
TRAFFICKING.TODAY: Child protection is high on the agenda on most governments. Do you feel that there is still much to be done or are the current laws sufficient?
Ms Moralis: While legislation to protect children has developed considerably over the past decade, further measures are needed to prevent and protect children from going missing or becoming a victim of exploitation. Laws establishing the member state‘s responsible for the examination of an asylum application should, for instance, foresee that the best interest of the child always prevails, and that unaccompanied children be given the possibility to apply for international protection in the country where they are located. Efforts are also needed to make sure the current policies and laws are implemented effectively, and that European principles of child protection are translated into sustainable operational practices on the ground.
TRAFFICKING.TODAY: With the recent increase of unaccompanied minors, what are the new challenges and what needs to be done to avoid them becoming victims of exploitation?
Ms Moralis: While the problem of missing unaccompanied children is one that had been flagged by grassroots organisations for years, the current situation with more than 89,000 unaccompanied children arriving in the EU in 2015 clearly calls for further action. Europol reported in January that 10,000 unaccompanied children have disappeared within hours upon arrival. In February, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency reported rates of up to 90 – 95% of disappearance in some countries. Missing Children Europe’s “SUMMIT” research recently highlighted the urgent need for improved training, coordination and cross-border cooperation between the different actors involved in order for the issue to be tackled effectively.
TRAFFICKING.TODAY: As we have seen with EU member states being overwhelmed to find a common ground about how to proceed with the European refugee crisis, are there similar problems with intergovernmental communications regarding missing children or is the cooperation working overall?
Ms Moralis: Responses to the problem of missing children have advanced rapidly over the past 10 years. Major developments have included the establishment of hotlines for missing children, operated through the same telephone number ‘116 000’ in 29 European countries, the revision of the Schengen Information System, gradual coordination between national child alert systems and more. They have helped to tighten the net of protection for missing children at national level, and to continue the search beyond national borders. It is however clear that persistent challenges in training, capacity and resources need to be tackled for these responses to be sustainable.