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Data gaps and mixed migration between West and North Africa and Europe

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Since 2015, around 1.5 million people of mixed migration movements have travelled to Europe. Whether they are escaping violent conflict, internal displacement or climate change; or seeking to reunify with family, get a better education or to find a job to support their family back home, they are united in the hope for a better life. UNICEF estimates that around 400,000 children were among those taking the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from 2015-2018 – or 1 in 4 of the migrants arriving in Europe.

Most migrants and refugees travelled to Europe via the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes (EMR and CMR), but an increasing number of people are using the Western Mediterranean route (WMR) to Spain. UNHCR estimates that some 28,000 people went to Spain in 2017, marking a steep threefold rise as compared to 2016. This rise in the total number of migrants pales in comparison to the almost sevenfold increase in the number of children arriving in Spain between 2016 and 2017 (from 569 to 3,880). In 2017, these children mainly came from Morocco, the Syrian Arab Republic, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea.

The estimates give a sense of the scale of children travelling the WMR, but the data we have on these children are incomplete, forcing us to rely on a patchwork of sources. For example, while UNHCR estimates the number of people arriving in Spain both by land and by sea, the Spanish government counts only those arriving by sea. As a result the true number of child migrants arriving or currently residing in Spain will remain unknown – and these data gaps severely obstruct our ability to provide children with the care and protection they need.

Data to protect

The lack of data is a global problem: Data on migrant and displaced populations are generally of poor quality, and UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM, Eurostat and OECD recently released a joint Call to Action: Protecting children on the move starts with better data to address this issue.11 The call asks States and key stakeholders to invest in better data to help provide the protection that children need in order to live up to their full potential and contribute to the societies they live in.

To devise an adequate protection response and to better estimate child migrants’ vulnerabilities, needs, and how migration and asylum policies may affect them, we should ideally know children’s ages and sex, where they come from, where they are going, why they move, and whether they move with their families or alone. Most importantly, however, any and all data on children must be collected in full compliance with child protection standards and be used for the purpose of protection only.

Data gaps and vulnerability

The lack of adequate data challenges our ability to protect. This is particularly worrying given the dangers and vulnerabilities that children face on the journey. In 2017, UNICEF and IOM found that children were far more likely than adults to experience violence and exploitation on the CMR and EMR, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa, those travelling alone or those with little education. Research among adults conducted on the routes going through Niger and Mali identified similar protection needs, including sexual and physical abuse, detention, bribery, and robberies.

These data on children’s experiences on their journey are particularly crucial given the high number of unaccompanied or separated children (UASC) making their way to Spain. Currently, more than 6,000 UASC receive protection services in Spain, but the total number of UASC in the country is likely much higher. Many of these children will have made similar experiences during their journeys as the children arriving in Italy or Greece.

Not all of these children remain in Spain; some travel on to other countries in Europe often on their own and in acute danger of becoming victims of trafficking networks. A recent UNICEF study also found that those groups of children who have little chance of receiving international protection upon turning 18, choose to live underground making them even more vulnerable.

A Call to action for protection through data and research

Given the acute protection concerns and the meager data availability - in Spain and worldwide – it is paramount that States redouble their efforts and invest in data and research on migrant and forcibly displaced children. This will allow us to better live up to our commitment to ensure children their rights as they are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

6 action points for better data on children:

  • Disaggregate data by age and sex - Cover key issues relating to children affected by migration and displacement - Make better use of existing data, and share it - Coordinate data efforts within countries and across borders - Make special efforts to collect and analyze data on children - Collect data in compliance with child protection standards and use it for the purpose of protection