2 September 2020 - Brussels

Over 200,000 lone child migrants left to uncertain fates in Europe

Terrifying moment when desperate refugees and migrants fall in the water from an overcrowded wooden boat in the central Med 2017

Five years since the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, Save the Children is warning that Europe has failed to address the needs of migrant and refugee children. 

Some 210,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Europe over the past five years, fleeing conflict, persecution or violence, a new report by Save the Children said today. The total number of children arriving is likely to be much higher, with many being forced into an existence in the shadows of Europe, at risk of exploitation and abuse.

In the same period, more than 700 children, including babies, lost their lives trying to reach European shores[i], during perilous journeys by sea.

While some of the children have been offered safety and protection, many struggle to get a refugee status, live in constant fear of being deported or detained, and are unable to reunite with family members living elsewhere in Europe’ , the report Protection Beyond Reach by Save the Children reveals.

Children, travelling alone or with their family, have unique needs and must be offered safety and protection, yet the EU responded with increasingly restrictive and dangerous measures, Save the Children said.

“It is five years to the day since Alan Kurdi lost his life just off the Turkish coast, becoming a tragic symbol of the ‘refugee crisis’. European leaders were among the first to say: ‘Never again’, but ever since, they have only made routes more difficult and dangerous for refugees and migrants”, said Anita Bay Bundegaard, Director of Save the Children Europe.

The way Europe has treated the most vulnerable children in their hour of need is unacceptable. On any given day since August 2019, an average of 10,000 children were stranded on the Greek islands, 60% of them are under 12 years old. While some efforts were made to relocate children out of Greece, thousands have been abandoned due to the unwillingness of some European countries to take in and care for some of the most vulnerable children in the world. Children continue to die on the EU’s doorstep while European leaders look the other way”, Bay Bundegaard continued.

Many children are fleeing from countries facing ongoing or protracted crises. With the conflict in Syria in its tenth year, half of the country’s eight million children have known nothing but war. The conflict in Afghanistan – where most unaccompanied children in Europe are from – remains among the deadliest for children, who make up almost a third of all casualties in the country[ii].

Many European countries responded to the migrant crisis by shutting their borders, facilitating detention of children or making it nearly impossible for children to be reunited with their parents - in Greece alone, some 331 children were in detention in March 2020.

Ahmed, a 15-year old boy who fled Syria and is now in Belgrade, Serbia, said: “When we try to cross the borders we get beaten by the police, badly. They are often very rude. I think they want us to feel afraid to try again. I haven’t seen my family for a long time now, I left to go to Europe because there was nothing for me in Syria, or Lebanon, or Turkey."

Children suffer nightmares and other symptoms of trauma and depression, including self-harm because of their experience in their country of origin and the arduous journey, their permits of stay being under constant review and their fears of being deported[iii].

While some improvements have been made,[iv] these are overshadowed by harsh border policies and measures to prevent vulnerable children from entering Europe altogether. Europe needs to draw lessons from the past. New migration policies should not come at the cost of children’s lives”, continued Anita Bay Bundegaard.

Based on data compiled by organisations such as Eurostat, UNHCR and IOM Save the Children found that:

  • Most of the 200,000 unaccompanied children come from Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea and end up staying in Germany, Greece, Italy and Sweden[v]
  • Out of a total of about 35,000 asylum seekers relocated from Greece and Italy in the last five years, only 823 were unaccompanied children[vi]
  • Sea arrivals to Greece nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019 (from 32,000 to 60,000 people)[vii]

Ahead of the EU’s announcement on new measures on asylum and migration, Save the Children is calling for the rights of children to be at the heart of those decisions and for the EU and its leaders to ensure that steps are taken to keep vulnerable children safe. They must ensure that children can immediately access asylum and protection once they arrive to Europe, instead of being pushed back. More and better legal migration pathways, including swift access to family reunification, could prevent more children from dying on their way to Europe.

For enquiries, feel free to reach out:
Karen Mets (Brussels), Karen.Mets@savethechildren.org  / +32 499 11 86 35

Anna Rauhanen (London), anna.rauhanen@savethechildren.org

The 24-hour press office in London: media@savethechildren.org.uk / 0044 7831 650 409


[i] See report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, children in migration in 2019 (p.6): https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2020-children-in-migration_en.pdf

[ii] According to Eurostat, in each of the last five years, Afghan has been the main citizenship of asylum applicants considered to be unaccompanied minors. In 2015 this was 51%, in 2016 38%, in 2017 17%, in 2018 16% and in 2019 30%.

[iv] Good practises include the ‘Zampa law’ in Italy, a comprehensive legal framework protecting unaccompanied children, and the European Commission Communication on the Protection of Children in Migration from 2017

[v] Combined numbers from Eurostat 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, plus an average of 10,000 children who have arrived in Europe since August 2019, UNHCR compiled numbers from September 2019, see example here: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/78207-2.pdf