Which countries treat children like children?

Over the last 6 months the Bureau has investigated how different countries in Europe treat unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. The data reveal stark inconsistencies between countries, and a large gap between a country’s policies and the reality of the children who find themselves caught up in the asylum system.

We have also spoken to unaccompanied children, and the people who support them, to create a snapshot of the situation in four countries across Europe: UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, and France.

The EU has rules for what member states should do when unaccompanied children arrive in their territory and seek asylum. There are guidelines for procedures such as age assessments.

However, it is up to the individual member state to decide how to implement the obligations into policies and laws.

According to data collected by the Bureau from the 15 member states, Norway and Switzerland, in 2015 at least:

Top 5 countries which have most applications for asylum in general (2015)











Top 5 countries which have most applications of UMs (2015)











Among top countries of origin for UMs






Countries with permanent v. temporary remain to stay

All EU countries have forms of permanent and temporary asylum. But differences between those systems make it difficult to keep track of the unaccompanied children.

For example, France, Italy and Spain don’t register asylum seeking children the same way as other countries, such as the UK. Lone youths rarely apply for asylum in France because all unaccompanied children are automatically under the protection of the state regardless of their asylum status. This expires when they reach 18 and they must then apply for permanent asylum or a temporary leave to remain.

Age assessments

EU rules say countries may use medical testing to determine an asylum seeker’s age as a last resort. There are a variety of medical tests used by member states and some can be quite invasive, traumatic, and inaccurate.

France for instance uses bone x-rays even though some of France’s most august scientific bodies say the tests are unethical and not scientifically valid.

Returning former unaccompanied minors to country of origin:

Only Sweden and the UK could provide the Bureau with data on how many former asylum-seeking children had been returned, or were in the process of being returned, out of the 29 countries asked.

In the past seven years, Sweden has returned at least:

while over nine years the UK has returned:

Responses from other countries varied, from Austria who said they didn’t think the data actually existed to Germany, who said it was impossible to distinguish former unaccompanied minors from general returns.

The majority of countries we contacted could not supply data on returns, some telling us this was because, upon reaching 18, unaccompanied minors were merged into the country’s general asylum database and therefore returns of former minors could not be isolated from returns of adults.

* These are the children who have applied for asylum. There are many more who are in the country illegally. Europol has reported at least 10,000 children have gone missing over the last two years. Often lost in the system, or trafficked.

** The Bureau asked 29 European countries for numbers of unaccompanied minors but only 17 replied.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simple reporting what they have told us.

United Kingdom

The figures also show an increasing number of younger boys making the journey to the UK alone.

Temporary leave to remain

Those who are given temporary leave to remain are placed in the care of the state until they are 18.

When they reach 18 they must try again to get asylum, but this time as an adult.

The Bureau has been investigating the situation in the UK for the past two years and has showed that thousands of lone children who sought asylum in Britain have since been deported to war torn countries that are in part controlled by repressive regimes such as the Islamic State.

Dispute cases

As the number of applications increased from 2014, there was also a significant increase of 141% in the number of age dispute cases, rising from 318 to 766.

When the age of an asylum seeking child is disputed, they are usually referred for an assessment by a social worker who determines age based on appearance and behaviour.

As such, this person has control over whether, going forward, a young person will be cared for by the local authorities or whether they will have to navigate the asylum system alone.


The bulk of the young people sent back over the last nine years - more than 2000 - were deported to Afghanistan. Removals to the country had been temporarily halted as lawyers argued the country was too unsafe but the courts ruled in March this year that returns could continue.

In November 2015 the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation wrote to the British embassy, saying:

Keeping the current situation in Afghanistan in mind, the ministry of foreign affairs expects the authorities and the general public in our friends’ country the United Kingdom to show tolerance concerning the return of Afghan citizens from the UK, in particular in cases where returnees are vulnerable individuals.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simple reporting what they have told us.


17, Syrian

Abdul Satar told the Bureau that aged 13 he and his family fled Syria to escape the war. They first went to Egypt and then Abdul Satar and his two older brothers travelled across Europe to the UK. Abdul Satar is now 17 and living in London.


“Someone must talk about us because no one is listening to us. There are a lot of children that no one is listening to.”

Abdul Satar is 17 years old and from Syria. In 2013 his family fled the war.

“I was 13 at that time in Syria...at 13 what can you do? You’re still considered a child but they arrest you anyway. Even if you’re underage, they take you to the army, they give you weapons and they put you on the frontline. So you either kill or die. You might end up killing your friend because both armies are Syrian, the independent Syrian army and the Syrian army of the regime. I have friends on both sides and I have family on both sides.”

His family arrived in Egypt just before the coup d’etat against then-president Morsi...

“We fled one problem to find another.”

..after two years Abdul Satar’s family decided it was too dangerous for them to stay in Egypt. Abdul Satar and his two older brothers decided to make the perilous crossing to Europe. They used social media to research their journey.

“I saw on Facebook and YouTube how people cross the mediterranean sea - and how some of them drown - but I wasn’t afraid, I just focused on escaping my problems.”

They made the boat crossing from Egypt to Italy ending up in a refugee camp in Milan

“We asked people who were there before us which country is the best to go to? Some people were going to Germany, others to Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands. I decided that the UK was the best choice for me.”

Abdul Satar and his brothers paid smugglers in Italy €500 each to take them to France. They spent two weeks in ‘the jungle’ - a refugee camp in Calais - and then jumped on a train to England. He arrived in the UK in July 2015, aged 16 - still a minor by law. Separated from his brothers he was caught by the police.

“When they saw that I was underage they called a social worker and took me to a place called Milbank, in Kent, where there were lots of other young people. After a few days, I got transferred to London. “

Abdul Satar was sharing a home with six other unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Syria before he was moved to another home. He doesn’t know why, or why his social worker was changed either.

“We were locked in a place with surveillance cameras and the people in charge ask you where you’re going all the time.”

He is hoping to get permanent residence in the UK before he turns 18 so that he can apply to bring his parents and younger brother over, but he believes that the British Government is delaying his application until he is 18. Meanwhile, his two older brothers have received asylum.

The Bureau has compared the rate at which unaccompanied children get asylum in the UK compared to the total numbers of asylum seekers in the last ten years. In every year except one, lone children were less likely to get asylum.

“I’m still 17, I need to learn and go to university. I can’t keep going from problem to problem I’ll waste my life.”

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us


Sweden’s interpretations of asylum standards are considered to be more liberal than neighbouring countries.

For example, there are no medical tests to determine the age of the unaccompanied minor. Lone children have access to free schooling and, unlike adult asylum seekers, free medical care.

Last year Sweden received more than a third of all applications from asylum-seeking children in Europe:

Sweden’s deputy prime minister and Greens member, Åsa Romson, broke into tears last November, as she announced tougher policies regarding asylum seekers.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, recently we have had a number of very difficult debates in my party about this situation. And in the past weeks, I have become convinced that the best way to help my party... is to do something about it.”

Unlike the UK, most of these are permanent residence permits as Sweden rarely returns children to their country of origin upon turning 18.

Future Policy Changes

Last year, the government suggested a series of policy changes regarding migration as it struggles to cope with the increasing amount of refugees. Border control has already been tightened with identity checks put in place which appears to have had an effect - the number of lone children arriving has fallen in early 2016.

The government also wants to expand the use of medical tests. While widely practiced in Europe, Swedish doctors have so far refused to perform them due to the margin of error in determining age.

Policies likely to be passed this year will also result in successful asylum seekers getting residence permits for one or three years instead of permanent asylum. The rules for family reunifications will also become more restrictive.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simple reporting what they have told us.


19, Afghan

Sher told the Bureau that he left his home in Afghanistan 5 years ago to escape recruitment by a local militia. Only 14 years old at the time he travelled alone, first to Iran and then on to Europe. Sher is now 19 and living in Sweden.


When Sher was 14 years old he left his home in Afghanistan for Iran. Six months later he decided to travel to Europe. It took him nine months to reach Sweden.

“I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know what to do. Some Afghan boys I met took me to the Swedish immigration authorities and they asked me questions about where my family was and my age.”

Before he left Afghanistan, Sher lived in Kabul with his mother, two small sisters and younger brother. The family had recently moved to the capital because they no longer had a home in central Afghanistan and their mother couldn’t find work. Sher had only been in Kabul a few months when he began to get visits from older men trying to convince him to join a Taliban faction.

“Groups of men with beards came to the house and harassed my mother and sister. They told me, ‘come with us, you don’t have to do anything, and in return we’ll give you good money to take care of your family’. I didn’t want to kill anyone, and every day there was greater pressure, so my mother told me ‘if you want to live, you must leave this place’. I took the decision to go to Iran to find work and send money home so that my family could come live with me.”

In Tehran, Sher worked illegally. He often didn’t get paid by his employers who knew that if he reported them to the police, he would be deported. Unable to see a future for himself, Sher moved on.

“I decided to come to Europe so I could study. Back in Afghanistan I was a good student. I thought, I can come and create a home for myself and my family without any war, where I can live a normal life... I didn’t know which country was best for migrants, I only knew that Europe was safe.”

Sher used all the money he had saved from working in Iran to pay a smuggler to take him to Turkey. From there, he hid behind a vehicle on a ship heading to Greece, and then in trucks and buses travelling across Europe to Sweden where he declared himself to the Swedish immigration authorities. After several months of interviews he was told he could remain in Sweden until he was 18 but that after his eighteenth birthday he would have to return to Kabul.

“When they gave me that answer, all my plans, all the aspirations I had made for my life, were destroyed...

When I turned 18, they gave me a plane ticket to Afghanistan but the night before I had to leave, I decided I wouldn’t go back .”

The night before his flight, Sher ran away and moved to Malmo, where he has been living illegally ever since, changing location frequently, sleeping on friends’ sofas, or sometimes on the streets, in order to avoid the police.

“All I do is sit and wait for time to pass. If I go outside, the police could catch me and send me back to the place I am trying to stay away from.”

The last time he talked to his mother was three months after arriving in Sweden. He has tried to find out what has happened to his family since then but they have vanished. Sher has no-one to go home to.

I’ve met good people here, they try to help others, but it is very hard to make plans for your life when you live illegally. There is no hope. “

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us


17, Afghan

Rahmat told the Bureau that he was just 15 when armed men kidnapped his father. He left Helmand in Afghanistan and travelled through Iran to Turkey, taking the boat crossing to mainland Europe. When he arrived in Sweden aged 16 the Swedish authorities claimed he was actually 23. He is currently challenging their decision.


Rahmat says he is 17 years old. He left Helmand, in Afghanistan when he was 15 after armed men broke into his house one evening and kidnapped his father.

“The night they kidnapped my father, all these person come and they have mask and they have kalashnikovs and after that they beat my father and my mother said to me ‘let’s go’ and ten days after that from Afghanistan go.”

He travelled to Iran and from there to Turkey where, like thousands of other children, he made the journey across the Aegean Sea.

“in the boat there was 65 person in one boat, and when we come in boat, the boat was down [sinking] and after that one ship coming and we all go to the police station and they give to us some food. “When we go out from Greece into Macedonia, we come ten days by foot on the train line.”

When he reached Hungary, Rahmat was registered and he was tested to make sure he was under 18.

“They also said to me ‘how old are you?’ and I said ‘I’m 16’ ... all boys who said ‘I’m 16’,’I’m 18’, they are all tested, they are taken and go for test. And they test my teeth and my hands everything and they said yes, you’re 16”

Conditions for asylum seekers in Hungary are poor and so Rahmat decided to move to a different country. He chose Sweden because he heard it was the best place to study and because in Sweden, he was told, they respect human rights.

On arriving at Malmo’s main train station, Rahmat went straight to the immigration authorities to claim asylum. He was taken into a room and questioned about his age.

“And I said ‘I am 16 years old’ and he said ‘no, you are not 16, you’re 23’ like that, and after that he said for me ‘you are Afghan?’ And I said yes I am Afghan and finished, ‘let’s go’.”

Rahmat had no document proving his age so it was hard for him to challenge the decision the official had made. They even gave him a new birthday: January 8 - the day he arrived in Sweden. They say he turned 23 on that day.

Because the Swedish authorities claim he is an adult by law they want to send him back to Hungary, the country where he first registered. Rahmat’s lawyer, Amanda Rose is helping him challenge that decision.

(Amanda Rose, Lawyer): “Hungary insisted that if Sweden thinks that he’s a grown up that they show some kind of evidence, like a medical assessment for example. They couldn’t, hence Sweden accepted taking over the responsibility for his asylum claim, but they didn’t change the assessment that he was obviously over 18 and that is very strange when another member state has assessed that he is 16 years old.”

But, Sweden - one of the countries that is most welcoming to Unaccompanied Minors - is adding restrictions to its asylum policy.

AR: “In April, everything changes and maybe someone who did have the right to bring their family here, like an Unaccompanied Minor, they won’t have the same right. So it’s a very stressful situation for many people. The difference between getting a permanent residency and having to live with the insecurity that you don’t know what it’s gonna be like a year from now.

Since Sweden has now declared Rahmat an adult he can’t study, nor can he access the benefits that other children can like free healthcare. Rahmat suffers from headaches and fainting fits and on several occasions he has been taken to hospital in an ambulance. Because he is deemed an adult, health care is not free unless it is deemed an emergency. He also suffers from nightmares.

“At night I can’t sleep. Every time I wake up and feel bad.”

Despite not knowing where his parents are, and whether it is safe for him to return to the country where his family were attacked, if Rahmat’s asylum application is rejected he could be deported.

“They can jail me, they can everything me here, but I don’t go to Afghanistan.”

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us


12, Iran

Hamid is 12 years old and from Iran. He told the Bureau he fled Iran after his mother was badly beaten by drug dealers. He got separated from his mother, and brothers and sisters, crossing the border into Turkey.


Hamid is just 12 years old. He arrived in Sweden, alone, last December and was placed in a camp. He was forced to leave Iran after his mother was badly beaten.

"My father was an unemployed drug addict who from time to time sold drugs. About a year after he had died a number of drug dealers came to our home and beat up my mother - she was bruised from head to toe. They said that my father had stolen their drugs and that they wanted them back. When we shouted our neighbors came to our home and the drug dealers ran away.”

Scared that they would return Hamid’s mother decided to leave Iran with Hamid and his four younger siblings but he got separated from them at the border between Iran and Turkey.

“While crossing the border between Iran and Turkey, suddenly someone started shooting at us, so everyone was running to escape and I got separated from them and the rest of the way I came with our smuggler. My mother and my siblings escaped in another direction together with a number of people without a smuggler.”

From Turkey he got on a boat to Greece...

“There was hardly any space, I was sitting next to the engine and it was very hard to breathe. The weather was so windy it was creating big waves and the boat was moving up and down. The driver didn’t know how to drive because the boat was spinning around at the beginning.”

In Greece he was taken to a camp with other migrants.

“They didn’t ask me many questions. They just asked me if I have parents, I told them that my father is dead and I lost my mother on the Turkish border. Then they took me inside, all my clothes were wet and I didn’t have any extra clothes, so they gave me clothes..”

But whilst he was at the camp, his mobile phone was stolen and his only link to his family was lost…

“I had my mother’s phone number and some pictures of my family on that my mobile.”

From Greece, Hamid travelled to Germany and for a while stayed in a camp there. He told them he wanted to go to Sweden but they said he was too young to travel alone and so he escaped.

“Before I lost my mum and my brothers and sisters, my mum told us that we were going to Sweden, so when I lost them I thought they must have gone there, and so I wanted to do the same.”

He arrived in Sweden by train and then was taken to another refugee camp. Hamid says he is happy in Sweden and he likes swimming in the pool at the centre. But he misses his mother and brothers and sisters.

“I hope that nothing bad has happened to them. My mother can’t take care of 4 children by herself. One of my sisters is only 6 months old……..[crying]”.

Hamid is now living with a Swedish foster family. He still doesn’t know the whereabouts of his family.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us


Most unaccompanied minors do not apply for asylum but claim institutional protection as children which allows them to stay until they are 18. Many come from Mali in West Africa, Morocco, and Afghanistan.

Many of the lone young people apply for temporary leave to remain at 18, which needs to be renewed every year.

Asylum claims have been under 1000 over the seven years up to 2014, when

However, this figure is deceptively low as it doesn’t include the thousands of lone children who come to France but don’t apply for asylum: between mid 2013 to the end of 2014, there were:

French police officers unsuccessfully try to send boys claiming to be under 18 across the Italian border, in the northern city of Ventimiglia.

Unlike adults, under the EU’s Dublin Regulations, countries should not remove unaccompanied children if they have registered in another country first.

From Republica.it

The French government says a bone-test - an X-ray of the hand and wrist - can be used to determine the age of those claiming to be under 18. The largest scientific bodies in France, such as the National Academy of Medicine, have stated the measures used are unreliable and unethical due to the potential harm by radiation.

France has returned former unaccompanied minors to their countries of origin, including Afghanistan, according to a French social worker. However, despite the Bureau’s repeated requests to the French government, we have not been able to find any data on this.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simple reporting what they have told us.



Renaud Mandel is a social worker and president of the ‘Isolated Foreign Minors Defence Association’ in France. He works in a centre which houses 20 migrant children helping them to be recognised as minors.


Renaud Mandel is a social worker and president of the ‘Isolated Foreign Minors Defence Association’ in France. He works in a centre which houses 20 migrant children helping them to be recognised as minors.

“It's becoming more difficult to be recognised as under 18. Even if they have some papers, a birth certificate for example, they have to pass through an interview which lasts half an hour/one hour, and they are asked many questions about how they came, which countries they crossed, about their parents, their families, if they went to school and also if they can present identity papers.”

“Most of them when they arrive here in Paris, they are around 16 or 17 years old, and there is a suspicion about the majority of them after this evaluation interview.”

If they are not believed, they can appeal but it can take six months to see a children’s judge. Whilst they are waiting they are not looked after by child services and have to provide for themselves - research shows around 60% of the young people claiming to be unaccompanied minors are excluded until their case is resolved.This group of young migrants often sleep rough or in emergency waiting rooms in hospitals.

“They are in the streets, or squats, facing insecurity, facing illness, facing all this.”

When cases are appealed one in two young people are legally declared under 18.

Those who aren’t often simply disappear from the system.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us



Richard Moyon is a secondary school teacher in Châtenay-Malabry, France. In 2004, after realising that some of his foreign students were sleeping on the streets, he helped found the network ‘Réseau éducation sans frontières’ which helps unaccompanied minors get access to education.


Richard Moyon is a secondary school teacher in Châtenay-Malabry, France. In 2004 after realising that some of his foreign students were sleeping on the streets he helped found the network ‘Réseau éducation sans frontières’ which supports isolated foreign minors’ access to education

“The main problem we have here in France is that children’s social services do the bare minimum. Legally, unaccompanied minors must be taken in charge, when minors arrive after 16 they are put in a hotel room and fed - that is all - no education, no help learning the language and at 18, put outside.“

He talks about a child from Mali he knew...

“He said, ‘I spent 15 months in a hotel, I did nothing there, I didn’t even learn the alphabet, and now you're kicking me out. I know no one, it’s freezing outside, what am I going to do?”“They live lives of misery. I met a boy who was 16 years old, three weeks ago he had bone tests declaring him to be an adult. He disappeared. The last conversation I had with him he was despairing and very angry.”

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us


From 2014 to 2015, the total number of asylum seekers rose by more than

The Netherlands tries to place under-15s with families but older children are placed in a housing unit with

a mentor

who takes care of their daily needs

a guardian

that takes care of the overall case

a lawyer

who handles the legal aspects

An expert in the Dutch asylum system has told the Bureau the country returns former unaccompanied minors, however the Dutch government couldn’t supply the Bureau with any data.

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simple reporting what they have told us.


18, Afghan

Amir is from Herat in Afghanistan. He told the Bureau that he was 15 when a smuggler helped him enter the Netherlands, leaving him stranded at the airport.


Amir arrived in the Netherlands, from Herat in Afghanistan, when he was 15 years old. He doesn’t like to talk about why or how he left...

“If I want sleep then I can’t talk about it... I won’t talk about it”.

Only that a smuggler took him to the airport and told him to wait there until he returned.

“I waited for him until it got dark, but he didn’t come back. I was just sitting there until a policeman came and asked me what I was doing there?”

“I was body searched. There was a translator who asked me if I had travelled by train before, and I said no. They gave me a train ticket and told me to take the train and get off at the last stop but when I arrived it was late at night and no one was there to help me. So I slept at the train station.”

In the morning Amir showed his train ticket to a policeman who asked Amir for the letter he had been given at the airport. He explained to Amir that he had got off at the wrong station, and took him by train to another one where he was transferred to a bus.

“I showed my finger to the bus driver. The driver understood that I was a refugee so he didn’t ask for money.”

“Then I was in a refugee camp for weeks.”

During his time in the camp Amir went to a nearby Mosque to ask for help.

“they told me to fill in a form and come back after six months. I said, ‘I need help now, not in six months’.”

The Dutch Government supported Amir for two-and-half years whilst his asylum case was under review. But when he was 17 they closed his case, stopped his financial support and told him to return to Afghanistan.

Then he met Kim who helped him appeal against the decision.

(Kim Tsai):
“I met this boy through the sports school and then was asked if I could look into his file and help him to get a grip on what was happening to him during his procedure because he had no one who was helping him to read the post, so he had many many unopened letters.”

Kim Tsai is a researcher looking into how the Dutch asylum system treats unaccompanied minors. She thinks the system is deliberately complex to encourage young people not to claim asylum.

KT: “A lot of them are completely misinformed or they don’t get help, adequate help with the procedures, they don’t understand the procedures. The guardians don’t explain well enough, the mentors don’t explain the procedures or don’t even know the procedures well enough, and the lawyer speaks on a different level.

Apart from being alone, and having to fit into a new schooling system, thinking about your future, not having any contact with your family, having traumas and stress, it’s the main thing which they tell me is the feeling of being uncared for, unseen and alone.”

Kim says PTSD is a big problem amongst the unaccompanied minors she works with, a problem the Dutch Government isn’t recognising.

KT: “The boy who lives with us [Amir] I think his interviews were stopped tens of times because he couldn’t cope during the interview. But before he came into contact with me, there’s absolutely nobody who had thought ‘well maybe it’s because of trauma that these interviews are going nowhere’. And so, yeah, they kept sending him back for the interview and stopping it and then restarting it, absolutely no attention paid whatsoever to his psychiatric condition.

The unaccompanied minors I’ve been helping were just moved around and shipped around and sent to different forms of housing when they got into trouble and the symptoms of PTSD were not recognised, they didn’t get any psychiatric help or psychological help. Authorities are very unwilling for people to get referrals to the real mental health services because of course that costs more money.“

Amir is now 18. With Kim supporting him he was able to appeal his asylum decision and was given a five-year stay. He is applying for permanent residence. Not every young person is as lucky.

KT: “I’ve had some cases of some boys in protected housing because they were not only UMs but they were also, or possible victims of human trafficking and despite all the guarantees that they were looking after them and that everything would be fine, the boy phoned me on a Monday, he turned 18 on a Friday, and on the Monday he was transferred to an adult asylum camp, never heard from his Guardian or mentor again.”

Although he has applied for residence, Amir is not happy in the Netherlands

“I think I feel homesick... it’s not my home”

He says some people treat him badly.

“Not all people but some people”

In spite of all this he doesn’t want to go back to Afghanistan - he doesn’t know where to go...

“I need to think about it, I don't want to go somewhere else and then regret it.”

Disclaimer: The Bureau has no way of verifying the full story given to us by our case studies - we are simply reporting what they have told us