Author: Anna Ammann (Vienna Master of Human Rights)
Unaccompanied minors (UAM) are refugee children and adolescents under the age of 18 who arrive in the territory of an EU member state without their parents or any other adult who is responsible for them. UAM fled from their home countries and find themselves alone in a foreign country. In need of money (for example to send home or to pay smugglers) UAM tend to accept any kind of work, even when illegal, dangerous or below minimum wage. I think it goes without saying that UAM are among the most vulnerable.
It is estimated that since 2015, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors went missing in the EU. When UAM disappear and get off the authorities’ radar they become even more vulnerable. In many cases the whereabouts of missing UAM remain unknown. Many are feared to have been trafficked for purposes of labour or sexual exploitation.
The most critical phase in my opinion is the period upon arrival. According to different reports, the majority disappear before having filed an asylum application or during the asylum procedure.
Recently, the European Migration Network hosted the webinar ‘Missing unaccompanied children in the European Union’, where speakers from Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg presented and discussed the situation of UAM in the EU. All speakers and participants agreed that a major reason why UAM disappear are lengthy admission procedures and ineffective guardianship systems. Conversely, the quick appointment of a trusted guardian plays a major role in preventing UAM from going missing. For example, Anne Kayser, reported that the disappearances in Luxembourg diminished after the guardianship procedure was improved in 2018.
Voices asking for a more effective guardianship system have been becoming louder, and not just on EU level. In Austria, different NGOs as well as UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF have been advocating for an improvement of the protection of UAM.
Besides many other important aspects, let’s keep the focus the guardianship system. One of the key points that need to be addressed in Austria is the different treatment of UAM under 14 and UAM between age 14 to 18.
UAM under the age of 14 are immediately taken into the care of the youth welfare office (in German: Kinder- und Jugendhilfe), they are accompanied to appointments and interviews and a legal guardian is appointed without delay.
UAM between the age of 14 and 18 on the other hand are often left on their own. The youth welfare office does not set any actions until the UAM is admitted to the asylum procedure. This process may take several weeks or even months during which UAM have to wait in federal reception facilities with limited care and supervision. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, this process might take even longer. Especially in this time period UAM are often left in limbo and are extremely vulnerable.
The different treatment depending on the age of UAM does not have a legal basis. All UAM have the same rights as national children and are protected by the Convention of the Rights of the Child.
I think it is important to raise awareness about this issue and not give up hope for a reform. In its program for 2020-2024 the Austrian government planned to guarantee a timely appointment of guardians and the consideration of the best interest of the child in the asylum procedures. Let us all hope that these are not just empty words and that government actually takes action in this matter soon. By doing so, the government hopefully keeps in mind that all UAM should primarily be treated as children, not as refugees or migrants. It should not be a question whether UAM receive adequate protection and support in order to prevent them from going missing and potentially becoming a victim of exploitation and abuse.
About my internship
From 1 November 2020 until 28 February 2021 I am interning at UNHCR Austria.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950, during the aftermath of the Second World War, to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes. In the following decades, UNHCR’s mandate has been prolonged and expanded to worldwide assistance for refugees, internally displaced people and stateless persons. In 2020, UNHCR celebrated its 70th anniversary. In its lifetime UNHCR has helped well over 50 million refugees to successfully restart their lives.
In Austria, UNHCR closely monitors the government’s compliance with international standards of refugee law and drafts legal statements with regards to the Austrian asylum framework. For these purposes, UNHCR closely co-operates with NGO legal counsellors, lawyers, the Austrian asylum authorities (BFA) and the courts. UNHCR advocates for swift access to fair and efficient asylum procedures but cannot exert any influence on the proceedings which are conducted by the Austrian authorities. UNHCR is also active in raising awareness for refugee topics and works together with NGOs, schools, youth organisations etc.
As intern in the legal department of the national office in Austria my main tasks are:
- Assisting the office in handling requests regarding individual refugees and asylum-seekers from various countries of origin, especially by taking calls and receiving incoming emails, researching relevant background information, analyzing available file contents and providing detailed case overviews and communicating with asylum-seekers and refugees as well as with refugee counsellors, lawyers and other supporters.
- Conducting research and drafting legal memoranda on various asylum-related issues of public international law, European Law, and Austrian law such as the cessation of refugee status, subsequent asylum applications and grounds for manifestly unfounded asylum applications.
- Monitoring the decision practice of the Federal Office of Immigration and Asylum (BFA), the Federal Administrative Court (BVwG), the Supreme Administrative Court (VwGH) and the Constitutional Court (VfGH) and summarizing findings.
- Assisting in the assessment of individual cases submitted to UNHCR Austria by the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum (BFA) in the context of the so-called “Airport Procedure” – an accelerated procedure for asylum applications filed at the airport – by case-specific legal analysis as well as research concerning the human rights situation in countries of origin on the internet.
- Monitoring and summarizing parliamentary requests concerning asylum and refugee related issues.
 The Webinar was held on 3 December 2020. The recording is available under https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uxQLViHMp0&feature=youtu.be.
 See Anne Kayser’s talk about Luxembourg under https://www.emnluxembourg.lu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/A.Kayser.EMN-intervention-children.pdf.
 See for further information (in German) https://www.unhcr.org/dach/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2019/02/AT_UNHCR_Obsorge-für-unbegleitete-Kinder-und-Jugendliche.pdf.