1,600 children disappeared from asylum care

Edition 28 June, by Seringe S.T. Touray

While irregular migration continues to be a major topic in Europe and around the world, more than 1,600 children seeking asylum in the Netherlands are reported to have disappeared from asylum reception centres over the past four and a half years. This shocking figure was mentioned in a report by the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) and Nidos, an independent government-financed organization which has custody and responsibility for unaccompanied, underage asylum seekers. The figure was announced after a request made by newspaper NRC, after the disappearance of asylum-seeking minors became more apparent.

Tin Verstegen, director of Nidos, expressed the thoughts of his organization: “every child is one too many”. Both Nidos and COA have come acknowledged the need for a thorough investigation into the disappearances, especially considering that they involve children walking out of asylum care, where they should be protected in an already vulnerable situation. According to NRC, a substantial number of runaway asylum-seeking minors comes from Morocco (325), Algeria (190), Afghanistan (167), Syria (114) and Eritrea (114). Children from the first three countries generally barely stand a chance at obtaining a residence permit, while those from Eritrea and Syria have more favourable chances. This is because Morocco and Algeria are both considered “safe” countries. While some children abscond from asylum reception centres to go and live with relatives in neighbouring countries (Germany, Belgium, France, etc.), others fall prey to local criminal networks which exploit them, reports from the centres indicate. Social workers at Nidos say they have encountered many children with shopping lists that include clothes and perfumes, which they were told to steal by criminals they’re affiliated with. Some are also found to be addicted to Clonazepam – a medication used to prevent and treat panic disorders and seizures.

Due to problems arising from the reported disappearances, police in Rotterdam and elsewhere regularly pick up children and return them to the central housing centre for asylum seekers in Ter Apel, but to no avail. Either they refuse to return to the shelter, or leave as soon as they can. In 2018, police were called to respond to incidents involving asylum seekers 4,600 times throughout the Netherlands, according to the annual Ministry of Justice and Security report on asylum seekers. Police also responded to cases of physical abuse, threatening behaviour and property damage. Other incidents include suicide attempts and threats of suicide and violation of asylum reception centre rules. Although there were about 600 asylum seekers of Moroccan nationality in 2018, Moroccans and Algerians accounted for a significant number (almost half) of all reported incidents, especially shoplifting or pickpocketing. A pi- lot strategy is therefore being implemented at Nidos aiming to prevent Moroccan children in particular from running away from shelters and descending into greater vulnerability. NRC further reports that at least 61 underage asylum seekers of Eritrean nationality were victims of human trafficking between 2013 and 2017. In her research, Professor of Human Trafficking and Globalization at Tilburg University Conny Rijken revealed that social workers notice scantily-clad girls walking in and out of the reception centres, at times feeling and looking exhausted. Some are discovered to be in possession of new cell phones, which they should not be able to afford from their allowance. The fact that the girls also express the need to always be reachable by phone leads to suspicion that they have been recruited for illegal sex work.

Concerned by the problem, the national reporter on human trafficking Herman Bolhaar called for an international investigation into these alarming disappearances, given that nobody knows where exactly these children end up. There is every chance that they are put to work and disappear into illegal prostitution or other organized crime, which others have been found to engage in. According to Bolhaar, these children are particularly vulnerable due to their age and immigration status, not to mention they may by traumatized by their experiences. When Bolhaar raised these concerns in March, a majority of the House of Representatives was in favour of launching the proposed investigation.