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Although official figures on the phenomenon are lacking, it is clear that children arriving in the European Union (EU) are often accompanied by persons other than their parents or guardians. Such children are usually referred to as ‘separated’ children. Their identification and registration bring additional challenges, and their protection needs are often neglected. On arrival, these children are often ‘accompanied’, but the accompanying adult(s) may not necessarily be able, or suitable, to assume responsibility for their care. These children are also at risk of exploitation and abuse, or may already be victims. Their realities and special needs require additional attention. The lack of data and guidance on separated children poses a serious challenge.
FRA evidence – as of December 2016 – indicates that Member States do not collect data on separated children, and relevant information is very scarce. Separated children are legally considered unaccompanied children, though in practice their treatment may differ. This reality – and the general lack of guidance – makes it challenging to establish how Member States respond to these cases. Practice may also vary depending on the region or city, and from case to case.
Separated children are children who have been separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary care-giver, but not necessarily from other relatives. These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members. The accompanying adult(s), who could also be unrelated, may not necessarily be able to, or suitable for, assuming responsibility for their care.
In contrast, EU law defines unaccompanied children as children who arrive unaccompanied by an adult responsible for them, whether by law or practice of the Member State concerned, and for as long as they are not effectively taken into the care of such a person; it includes children who are left unaccompanied after they enter the territory of a Member State. The legal status of separated children does not differ, but they form a special sub-group of children among the unaccompanied ones that requires specialised protection.
The treatment of children in both categories – separated and unaccompanied – should be similar, despite often involving different circumstances. Separated children are especially vulnerable as they may be accompanied by an adult who is abusive, a smuggler or a trafficker, or unable to effectively take care of them.
Separated children are entitled to protection under a broad range of international and regional instruments. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), guided by CRC Committee General Comments No. 6 and 14, and the Hague Convention for the Protection of Children. According to Article 24 (2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (the Charter), the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions affecting children, including separated children in the asylum and migration context. All EU Directives relevant to unaccompanied children are also applicable to separated children, such as the Directive on Reception Conditions, the Dublin Regulation and the Asylum Procedures Directive.
This thematic focus concentrates on separated children, as well as on safeguards concerning family reunification and monitoring arrangements that are applicable to unaccompanied children in general.