The case of a five-year-old Syrian boy featured on a BBC Panorama program after he was discovered in Serbia with a black eye and a broken jaw and crying for his mother, has highlighted the soaring numbers of child refugees travelling in Europe without their parents as a result of the continent's refugee crisis.
The boy, Azam, had been sleeping on the ground when he was hit by a taxi in early September. He received some medical treatment for injuries in Belgrade, but disappeared before medical authorities could give him the proper treatment he required in a hospital. He vanished with an adult who claimed to be his father, although the boy said that his real father was in Syria.
After the program aired, the hashtag #FindAzam became a trending topic on Twitter. This week, it has been used more than 8,000 times in places including Austria, Germany, France and Sweden. At the time of publishing, Azam has still not been found.
Azam is one of thousands of children traveling without parents, and who often go missing from camps or refugee centers. According to the latest available data from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, 23,160 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in 2014, and 2,240 of them were less than 14 years old. However, this figure does not take into account the numbers of children who do not apply for asylum or are not registered.
According to UNICEF, a total of 110,000 children sought asylum in Europe between January and July 2015—an average of over 18,000 children every month. The figure marks an 80 percent increase from the same period in 2014.
"There is a huge [number] of children arriving on their own in Europe right now," Delphine Moralis, secretary general of Missing Children Europe, a group which helps missing and sexually exploited children, tells Newsweek. The organisation, which represents a network of 30 NGOs in 24 countries in Europe, says an estimated 50% of unaccompanied migrant children go missing from reception centres within the first 48 hours after their arrival, and many of these children are never found again. Some intentionally leave the centers because they have a very specific migration plan in mind or have agreed to meet someone in a different country, explains Moralis. Others have met traffickers outside of the centers, and some are simply wary of lengthy and tough asylum application procedures and so run away.
"Azam's case is just one of many cases, one of many children who go missing. It's on the increase and it's very challenging and worrying," says Moralis. It's particularly worrying, she says, because unaccompanied children are vulnerable to trafficking, forced labour and even sexual exploitation.
Many of the children are fleeing the ongoing war in Syria. Over four million Syrians—half of them children—have fled the country since the conflict started nearly five years ago, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).
Moralis explains that some of the children leave their home countries on their own, often sent by their families who hope they will reach safety and the chance of a better life. Moralis says she has heard stories of parents who have sold their houses in order to pay for smugglers to take their children to Europe.
The journey to and through Europe is dangerous and harsh. The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported in September that three children, all under the age of 10, had been temporarily blinded by tear gas during clashes with Hungarian police, while another was reported as suffering a head wound on the Serbian border.
"These children are obviously very scared," says Carolyn Miles, president and chief executive officer of the charity Save the Children, who is currently based on the Greek island of Lesbos. She is working to reunite a nine-year-old Syrian who was separated from his family on the Turkish-Lebanese border, and turned back by Turkish authorities.
Last month, the FRA urged European leaders to address the situation, calling on member states—especially frontline states receiving refugees—to "mobilise their national child protection systems and provide them with additional emergency resources to ensure the well-being of all refugee children."
"As FRA has pointed out over the years, there is a need to ensure that member states uphold their duty to care for and protect children, especially now as so many are arriving at the EU's borders," a statement from the agency read. The FRA wants authorities across Europe to strengthen and harmonise child protection systems across the EU, as well as guaranteeing adequate care and minimum reception standards at all times.
But Miles says that the number of unaccompanied children is only going to rise this year. "Now you're seeing a huge flood of refugees in Europe just in the last year, so there will be more and more unaccompanied children because they got lost, or their families say they should leave Syria and go on their own. Those numbers will definitely go up this year."Try Newsweek: Subscription offers