Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010
Big rise in Afghan child migrants

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News

When an asylum seeker fleeing the world's deadliest conflict zones arrives in Europe, their chances of being granted refugee status differ drastically from country to country.

Afghan migrants at a makeshift camp in Paris, 20 December 2009
Migrants often seek temporary shelter before moving on

With the European Union struggling to unify it policies across member states, this uneven approach has hampered efforts to deal fairly and efficiently with applicants, experts say.

"It's what we refer to as the asylum lottery," says Bjarte Vandvik, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

"If you get to Finland then you get to stay. If you get to Greece, then you have no chance."

The overall number of asylum requests in the EU has dropped sharply since the early 1990s. But conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Somalia still drive up numbers from certain countries.

One particularly vulnerable group affected by uneven policies in the EU is that of unaccompanied Afghan children, whose numbers have risen sharply over the past two years.

Graph showing numbers of child asylum seekers in EU in 2008

Campaigners from human rights and refugee agencies acknowledge that not all of these children should be granted asylum in the EU.

Some may have fled for economic reasons, or may have invented or embellished their story - often at the suggestion of smugglers.

But the campaigners also say Afghans do tend to be fleeing situations of generalised violence, misrule or abuse, and that under the current system they are not being given a fair hearing.

"We have a lot of children coming from extremely volatile situations to Europe who are not always being treated as what they are, and that's children on their own in a foreign country without any safeguards," says Mr Vandvik.

"That should be the focus for how European governments, individually and collectively, approach this."

The EU says it is working to correct this, and an action plan on unaccompanied minors is expected under the current, Spanish EU presidency.

Tobias Billstrom, Sweden's minister for migration and asylum policy, says that under the Swedish presidency in the second half of 2009 the bloc built on earlier efforts to forge a common migration and asylum policy.

"If we look at the differences five years ago or 10 years ago, there has been clear progress," he told the BBC.

'Irrational' movements

One practice that differs from country to country is age determination for young migrants. This is needed because under-18s are given certain automatic protections under national and international laws.

Because of this obligation to protect, it is in the interests of countries wanting to limit migrant numbers to be able to prove the age of those who are 18 or over.

But there are no agreed, accurate methods for doing so. Asylum requests may be turned down because the applicant is suspected of lying about his age, even though this cannot be proved.

Other concerns over child migrants include their detention, the lack of common procedures for assigning a guardian, and a growing emphasis on returning children to their country of origin.

Finland: 95%Netherlands: 52%
Sweden: 49%
UK: 30%
France: 16%
Greece: less than 1%

Greece, which is the first point of entry into the EU for many migrants, has been accused of widespread abuses, including secretly sending some children back across the border to Turkey.

With Greece's recognition rate for asylum cases close to zero, most try to move on quickly to other states.

But they may later be sent back under EU rules, which try to prevent "asylum shopping" by allowing adult applicants to be returned to the country through which they first entered the EU, and children to be returned to the first state in which they made an application.

Simone Troller, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that because of Greece's record some EU countries have decided to stop sending minors back there - though others, including the UK, have continued to do so.

Like some other observers, she rejected the idea that the minors target certain destinations from the start of their journeys, drawn in by a high level of protection.

"When I asked the question, 'where is the best place to go', I was asked the question back," she said of her interviews with Afghan children.

"Sometimes they move in an irrational way - I didn't get the impression that they were very clear about what the benefits were."

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