Detention of Migrant Children A Goal for Some EU Members, Investigation Finds

A father and child in Dobova, Slovenia where thousands of refugees travel through on their journey to safety in Europe (Photo: Meabh Smith/Trócaire)

A recent investigation has found that certain Member States spearheaded by France were actively lobbying to include a hardened clause in the new EU Migration Pact that would make it possible for authorities to detain child migrants at borders, investigative group Investigate Europe found.

Investigate Europe was able to obtain confidential documents that show how the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Malta, the Czech Republic, and other countries put pressure on negotiators to include harsher provisions in the Migration and Asylum Pact. Protesters and the UN warned that these policies might be in violation of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which all EU member states have signed.

Months of discussions behind closed doors culminated in the deal that was announced on December 20. The main forum for the discussions was the Coreper, a committee made up of ambassadors from every EU nation that negotiates new laws.

Investigate Europe was able to obtain the minutes from these meetings, which reveal how several governments worked behind closed doors to soften and change the proposals.

At a 15 May 2023 meeting the French representative welcomed a decision to remove age limits on when authorities could detain arriving migrants. “France thanks the EU presidency for abolishing the exemption for minors under the age of 12 and their families.” The Netherlands, Denmark and Czech Republic were also early supporters of the French stance, according to Coreper minutes accessed from May until December 2023.

An 18 December meeting noted that at least 11 member states “continue to reject a general exemption of minors”. At a meeting a month earlier, Malta said excluding minors from the border procedure was “impracticable due to the susceptibility to abuse (claiming to be a minor) and is therefore viewed with great scepticism.” The Dutch position was similarly explicit: “Netherlands rejects blanket exemptions from the border procedure for minors and their family members”.

Germany, however, said removing the exemption was “not acceptable”. Portugal, Ireland and Luxembourg expressed similar concerns, with a representative for the latter saying: “The detention of children is completely out of the question”.

However, those concerns were disregarded in the December proposal. Investigative Europe has obtained a copy of the text, which is scheduled to be presented to the EP Civil Liberties Committee on February 14 and ultimately put to a vote by MEPs in March or April. If accepted, families with kids of any age may be able to spend months in legal detention at border centres alongside adults while their asylum claims are being handled.

Children who arrive at borders by themselves may also suffer negative consequences.

Although it is dangerously common, detaining unaccompanied minors is illegal today. Planned laws stipulate that unaccompanied minors may be detained at border facilities for up to three months if they pose a “danger to national security”—a determination made by individual states.

France again was a driving force. “Exempting unaccompanied minors from border procedures represents a major risk for the protection of our borders”, its representative said at the 15 May Coreper meeting, adding that an exemption could embolden “the trafficking of minor migrants”. Moreover, if a child is suspected of providing “misleading information”, comes from a “safe country” or where the proportion of people granted asylum is 20 percent or less their claim could now be accelerated by states. This could increase the chance they are swiftly returned to their country of origin.

The numbers of unaccompanied minors coming to Europe is increasing. Around 25 000 arrived in 2021 and this had risen to 39 000 in 2022, according to Eurostat.

The reforms, which have been fought over for years could now be passed by April.

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