Alarms ring over refugee children

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At least 43 unaccompanied refugee children have gone missing from various asylum centers in Norway this year alone, and 25 have died since 2006. Several of those missing were as young as nine years old, and the numbers of refugee children in Norway are now increasing dramatically.

Around 4,000 refugee children are currently living in asylum centers in Norway. Alone and vulnerable, the refugee children risk being exploited but asylum centers are not locked institutions so their residents can come and go. Concerns are rising over how the asylum centers can better protect those who are the youngest.

Simply disappeared
On a Thursday in early November, for example, a 16-year old boy who arrived alone from Afghanistan disappeared from the Torshov Asylum Reception Center in Oslo. Sometime during the evening the boy had packed his things, made his bed and vanished. No one has seen him since.

Even though the boy’s sudden disappearance was disturbing, it’s far from the only one among unaccompanied refugee minors recently. So far this year a total of 43 children have been reported missing by Norwegian authorities. Seven of these were under the age of 15 and were, at the time, under the protection of the state child welfare agency Barnevernet. The remaining 36 children were placed in asylum centers around the country.

Once outside the relative safety of the centers’ walls, the risks for the children are many. The assistant director of Kripos, The National Criminal Investigation Service In Norway, told newspaper Aftenposten that  “known sexual convicts” had been seen near the asylum centers, both near those housing all age groups and those designated for unaccompanied refugee minors. Vigleik Antun of Kripos worries the minors can end up in the hands of criminals: “Some of the children probably travel on, but there’s good reason to fear that cynical adults with links to drug dealing, human trafficking and child labour will exploit them. These children are alone, insecure and vulnerable.”

Struggling to provide housing and care
Norwegian authorities are struggling, though, to ensure the safety of the youngest in the refugee crisis. By the end of October, more than 3,800 unaccompanied refugee minors had arrived in Norway. State immigration agency UDI estimates that 5,000 could arrive by the end of the year. A vast majority are boys from Afghanistan, followed by minors from Syria and Eritrea. State officials are trying to house them in the specially designated asylum centers, but demand for accommodation is exceeding capacity. Many Norwegians are also opening their homes to take in child refugees and serve as their guardians, but it’s a challenging prospect and again, there are far more refugees than homes ready to take them in.

Of those confirmed to have died in Norway, newspaper Klassekampen reported recently that four were murdered and six drowned. UDI registers deaths of asylum seekers but not always  the cause of death, meaning Norwegian authorities often lack detailed information about why and how the minors died.

Anne Karin Mullaly, an official at the state agency responsible for the youngest of the refugee minors (Bufetat), is surprised that not even more children have gone missing. “Considering the huge increase in arrivals, we view this as a relatively low number,” Mullally told Aftenposten.

Norwegian charity organization Redd Barna (Save the children) is worried that the missing minors risk being forgotten. “The big worry is if no one is worrying,” Thale Skybakk of Redd Barna told Aftenposten. “If a Norwegian child disappears, everyone does all they can to search. The police will help out if they see children on the street, or if they get solid leads to find the children. But no one is actively looking outside the asylum centers once a refugee-minor is missing.

“Unfortunately it is that way because we look at these children first and foremost as asylum seekers, not as children.” Johnson