Without help, families face lonely search for Europe's missing refugee children

At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees had vanished after arriving in Europe, at risk of falling prey to trafficking gangs.

A Syrian refugee child looks on, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Syrian refugee child looks on, moments after arriving on a raft with other Syrian refugees on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ATHENS - After losing its way in the dark waters of the Aegean between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos, the small wooden boat carrying Ghulam Haidar, his young family and nearly 50 other passengers was hit by strong winds and waves.
As the boat sank, Haidar managed to save his seven-year-old son, Shahzad, but he lost sight of the others. For the past eight months he has been in Turkey searching for his wife Shila, his daughter Zahra, 8, and his three-year-old son Behzad.
"I'm just living to find my family," said Haidar, who is from Afghanistan. He has contacted coast guards, immigration officers, international aid groups and the authorities in both Greece and Turkey. But so far, he's found nothing.
His two missing children smile cheekily in a photo posted on the Facebook page "Search and find your family for refugees".
The page posts photographs and information about missing refugees, and has dealt with 172 cases of missing children since September, said its Austria-based founder Jimmy Nagy.
It was through this page that the Thomson Reuters Foundation made contact with Haidar, but so far his pleas for information have answered none of his questions about his missing family.
"I've searched all the hospitals but I've found no sign of them or their bodies. That's why I believe they are alive," Haidar said by phone from Istanbul.
Like Haidar, many other families who have fled war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, are searching for missing children. Without help, they are left to conduct their desperate investigations alone.
In January, the EU's criminal intelligence agency Europol said at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees had vanished after arriving in Europe, at risk of falling prey to trafficking gangs.
Many missing or unaccompanied children are thought to be in Greece, the EU country that has become the staging post for attempts by refugees and migrants hoping to reach wealthier northern Europe.
With many camps and detention facilities in Greece full, Karen Shalev-Greene, director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth, believes that hundreds of children are living in squats or on the street - making them vulnerable to exploitation.
In Exarcheia, an Athens neighbourhood plastered with anarchist posters, an old school building is being used as a squat. Toddlers weave around bags of rice donated by a Chinese charity in a building now home to over 300 refugee and migrant families.
It was near to here that volunteers from Zaatar, a group that runs a shelter for unaccompanied minors and vulnerable families, discovered a group of Syrian boys, between 12 and 16, outside a brothel, smoking cigarettes.
Keeping track of unaccompanied children is a tough job, particularly in an area known for its people smugglers.
"These kids are very vulnerable," said Zaatar's founder, who asked not to be named.
"The big agencies are not doing their work - either they don't want to or they don't have the means - so we try to be a good influence on them." Zaatar gives the children phones so volunteers can stay in contact, making sure they stay safe.
According to the European Commission, missing unaccompanied children are the responsibility of individual EU member states.
But a February report by Missing Children Europe - an umbrella group of some 30 child protection groups - highlighted a "clear lack of ownership" in cases involving missing, unaccompanied children who often slip through the cracks.
"As an example, children from refugee backgrounds tend to aim for Germany. So if a child is reported missing in Greece, authorities will assume that traffickers have taken them to Germany via Austria," said Shalev-Greene, who co-authored the report.
It was then unclear whether Germany, Austria or Greece would be responsible for the case.
"There has to be a decision as to who is responsible because this is happening so frequently," she said.
Europol said finding missing children did not fall within its remit. "Our role is to support law enforcement authorities in different member states. We don't have any powers to act alone," its spokeswoman, Tine Hollevoet, said by email.
In an effort to plug the gap in protecting vulnerable children, the International Committee of the Red Cross in collaboration with national Red Cross societies has launched an online tracing project, Trace the Face, for parents looking for their children, and children searching for family members.
Lucile Marbeau, a spokeswoman for the ICRC delegation in France, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation there were some 300 unaccompanied children in the Trace the Face database.
The information is shared with Red Cross staff along migration routes, and, if families give their consent, with the authorities in countries where children may have gone missing.
The Greek children's charity, Smile of the Child, also runs a tracing service in collaboration with Missing Children Europe.
 In a cool, dark room in Marousi, a northeastern suburb of Athens, three social workers and psychologists talk quietly into headsets as they answer calls made to the 116 000 hotline.
To trace missing children, Smile of the Child staff contact national and international police, hospitals, forensic services, NGOs, embassies and other hotline centres in Europe.
Although the hotline has been effective over a decade in finding missing European children, it has not been so successful working with missing refugee children - in 2015 the Greek hotline handled 13 cases and is yet to claim one success.
"We follow the same procedures with refugee children as with EU nationals, but the circumstances are harder - there's less information about them," said Athanasia Kakarouba, the hotline coordinator, in her Athens office.
Such efforts do not add up to a coordinated effort to trace and protect refugee children alone in Europe, activists say.
"As so many of these children move from country to country, it's clear that there needs to be coordination at European level," said Delphine Moralis, head of Missing Children Europe.
So for now, Haidar is left to search for his family alone. He has approached every authority and international agency he can think of for help, but has heard no news.
"I fear they will keep me waiting," he said.