When Refugee Children Disappear

About 60,000 underage refugees have arrived in Germany this year without their parents. An alarming number are disappearing from custody. Experts warn they are vulnerable to both human traffickers and Islamists.

These children are safe inside a refugee reception center in Berlin.
These children are safe inside a refugee reception center in Berlin.
Christian Eckl

REGENSBURG —In Germany, when children disappear, alarm bells start to ring: Facebook fills with pleas for people to keep their eyes open for the missing kid, loved ones share photographs, entire communities rally around the search.

But these cases are for German kids, or children of immigrants who have been in the country for a long time. Nobody on Facebook mentions the missing children of refugees — whether they came to the country with their parents or on their own.

The lack of attention comes despite the fact that cases of missing refugee children, mostly from youth centers where they are housed, are on such a steep rise that authorities can't seem to cope. The southern German city of Regensburg alone counts 85 missing children, and 50 more in the surrounding area. People wonder what has happened to these 135 children who have come to Germany without their parents, and then simply dropped off the radar?

Karl Mooser, head of the city's youth welfare service, says he and his colleagues traditionally have taken care of children at risk within their own families, already a difficult and costly undertaking. But since the beginning of the year, they have been overwhelmed supervising a reception center for underage refugees traveling alone, where 42 teen boys are now living. The young men there are disillusioned, and the youth welfare service is understaffed, which is one of the reasons that there have been several brawls there in the last few weeks.

Statistics don't match

Many refugees simply get lost. The youngest of the youths that Mooser has seen disappear recently was only 9 years old. "From the 50 cases we have reported to the police, we have received only one feedback from their side about what has happened to the child, concerning a boy who had been picked up in France."

There are no official numbers for how many children simply disappear. In some cases, their parents in Syria or Afghanistan have named a different destination than where they were actually staying. At least 60,000 have arrived in Germany this year. According to the German Federal Criminal Office, only 299 underage refugees have been reported missing as of Oct. 1. But how is that even possible if 135 are missing in the Regensburg area alone?

The problem is lack of communication among youth welfare services. "If a young, unaccompanied refugee disappears in one part of the country and reappears in another, it's not very likely that the initial youth welfare service gets that information," Mooser explains.

Before, at least in large cities such as Hamburg or Munich, underage refugees were rather safe, watched over by appropriate administrations and with structures to take care of them. Today, even in large cities, the number of missing people is on the rise.

Easy prey for Islamists

There are different reasons why children might run away. Some are given a specific destination by their parents and leave reception centers in search of them. But those who start to wander around in Germany on their own are in danger of falling into the hands of criminal elements.

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Foggy day in Regensburg — Photo: Mripp

Boys in particular are prone to becoming prostitutes. Youth welfare workers also suspect human trafficking is a reason for the mysterious disappearance of young refugees.

They are also easy prey for Islamists. In this context, it seems scandalous that top Bavarian government official Ilse Aigner wants to lower standards concerning unaccompanied refugees.

Officials at the German Federal Criminal Office claim that most of the children reported missing actually resurface after a short time. But does that apply to refugee children? Apparently not. "Most of the time, the missing children's location has remained unknown," a police spokesman from Regensburg says of the 135 cases.

Authorities often simply stop looking for these kids because of the chaotic situation. In Passau, for instance, one in three underage refugees has gone missing. At first, the missing children were being reported to the federal police. But that's no longer happening because the police don't have the personnel to follow up each case.

Refugees of all ages can risk dying an anonymous death trying to make it to Europe; for the youngest and most vulnerable, both the risks and anonymity don't necessarily end once they arrive.

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