REUTERS – Children who flee poverty and war zones without their parents are falling prey to traffickers and smugglers once they arrive in Europe because of a disjointed response by governments, a group of British parliamentarians said on Tuesday.
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The European Union committee in the House of Lords said in a report it was alarmed by a lack of strategy to cater for the needs of unaccompanied migrant children, with police and governments avoiding taking responsibility for them.
"There appears to be a culture of suspicion at every level ... questioning whether the children are telling the truth," said Usha Prashar, a member of the upper house of parliament, who chaired the research panel.
"Yes, these children may be unaccompanied migrant children, but they are children first and foremost," Prashar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Around 90,000 unaccompanied children, many fleeing conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, sought asylum in the EU's 28 member states last year, more than three times as many as in 2014, according to Eurostat, the EU's data service.
Many of those who survived perilous journeys to Europe found themselves housed in poor conditions - either placed in prison cells or centres ringed with barbed wire, the United Nations found, while others simply disappeared.
At least 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children have gone missing since they arrived in Europe, according to the European Union police intelligence agency, Europol.
With so many children disappearing off the radar, the report singled out the British government for its "reluctance" to help other EU member states relocate a number of them.
"We deplore the failure by EU Member States, including the United Kingdom, to take urgent action following the announcement of Europol's latest figures," the report said.
Britain has agreed to receive more than 20 migrant children from Europe since new immigration laws were passed this year and most of them have already arrived, a Home Office (interior ministry) spokeswoman said.
There were more than 3,000 claims for asylum in Britain by unaccompanied children last year, the spokeswoman said.
Home Office officials were in "active discussions" with the United Nations and the Italian, Greek and French governments to strengthen and speed up mechanisms to transfer children to Britain, the spokeswoman said.
Yet while some countries badly needed to revisit their pledges to relocate unaccompanied migrant children, Germany and Sweden were "notable exceptions" because they proactively integrated and protected child migrants, the researchers found.
The report also highlighted that data collection on child migrants was limited, with many being counted more than once, hindering authorities' powers to trace them and increasing their vulnerability to criminal groups.
"Children lose trust in the authorities and that is when they become vulnerable to smugglers and human traffickers," Prashar said.
The committee said better data, improved child protection systems and more robust legal advice were essential to ensuring unaccompanied migrant rights were protected.