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500% increase in migrant children arriving alone in Ireland claiming asylum

New investigation finds that more than 51,000 minors have disappeared after arriving in Europe between 2021 and 2023.

By Patricia Devlin

Noteworthy logo with the design for KIDS IN CARE project - Four children facing forwards in silhouette with houses in the background

IRELAND HAS EXPERIENCED a 500% increase in the number of children arriving alone to claim asylum.

Tusla figures reveal that in the last 15 months, 607 unaccompanied boys and girls were referred to the child agency’s Separated Children Seeking International Protection (SCSIP) service.

Of those, 243 minors arrived in the first three months of 2024 – more than half of the combined total for 2023. 

The staggering statistics were revealed by Lost in Europe, a cross-border journalism project which investigates missing child migrants. Noteworthy is the project’s Irish publication partner.

The cross-border team uncovered that 51,433 children have disappeared after arriving in European countries between 2021 and 2023.

The number of minors missing is likely higher as data was gathered from 15 countries, including Ireland, but was not available in some key states such as Greece and Poland, and others, including the UK, France and Hungary did not respond.

The country with the most registrations of missing unaccompanied minors, is Italy with a (22,899), followed by Austria (20,077). The data also reveals that at least 642 children went missing when they were 15 years of age or younger.

According to data provided by Tusla, 29 child migrants have disappeared in Ireland without a trace from State care between January 2021 and April 2024 – including at least one 13 year-old. 

Some of those still missing had sought protection after arriving from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan. 

The figures have been described as “deeply concerning” by MECPATHS, a non-profit group raising awareness of child trafficking and exploitation in Ireland.

“We are concerned that the vulnerabilities of these children have been identified by individuals or groups seeking to exploit them and that they may have been trafficked for criminal exploitation, sexual exploitation or other types,” network manager, JP O’Sullivan, told Noteworthy.

Tusla said it is “acutely aware of and shares” State and EU concerns about the increased risk of child and human trafficking or exploitation of vulnerable young people.

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Garda review into missing children

The latest revelations come just months after Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said that the Garda operation focusing on missing children is being reviewed.

He made the comments after a Noteworthy investigation found that of the dozens of separated migrant minors who have vanished from Tusla accommodation since 2017, are no longer being searched for by the child welfare agency – because they reached their 18th birthday while missing.

Our team uncovered that, in many cases, no public appeals for the missing children were made by An Garda Síochána.

Analysis of the gardaí’s national missing persons database found only 16 ongoing appeals for the whereabouts of migrant children who had disappeared over the last six years.

That’s despite Tusla records showing that over 60 boys and girls have gone missing and are yet to be located.

The latest figures provided by the child and family agency show that as of March this year, a total of 19 child migrants were categorised as “missing in care”.

Tusla said it had “no additional details”, including country of origin, about the latest young person reported missing from its SCSIP service.

The other 18 children range in age from 13 to 17. This includes 10 aged 17 and five 16-year-olds. Three are females and 15 are males. Most are originally from Africa and the Middle East. 

Across Europe, the highest number of missing unaccompanied minors (at least 19,250) are from Afghanistan, seeking refuge after the Taliban takeover. This accounts for 37% of all such missing children in the region from 2021 to 2023. 

In a statement, a Tusla spokesperson said “some” unaccompanied minors who go missing from care “communicate their intention to travel on to other countries to join family members”.

Others, the child and family agency said, “indicate that it was never their intention to remain in Ireland and leave soon after they arrive in the country”.

“Nonetheless, for those who do not subsequently make us aware of their whereabouts, these young people are counted as missing and AGS (An Garda Síochána) are notified accordingly,” the spokesperson said.

MECPATHS, which trains Irish frontline workers on how to spot signs of trafficking and exploitation, said the young ages of those migrants going missing makes it “unlikely that these children could self-navigate transport routes out of the Republic”.

“The alarming numbers of UAM’s (unaccompanied minors) missing across Europe, and here in Ireland, is deeply concerning,” O’Sullivan said. “Child trafficking victims account for 33% of all persons caught in worlds of exploitation and within an industry generating over $151 billion per year.

Unaccompanied minors are vulnerable targets of this criminal industry and can be easily moved across, around and within states who are unaware of their whereabouts.

Child protection emergency

Noteworthy asked the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) about the rising number of asylum seeking children going missing in Ireland.

In a statement, a spokesperson said it is currently awaiting a report with “actions and recommendation set out to support the SCSIP service with regard to children missing from care”.

“Tusla have continued to provide assurances to the Department that the SCSIP service continue to have robust measures in place for children missing in care,” the spokesperson said.

DCEDIY added that “all concerns of child sexual exploitation” regarding a child in care are notified to a centralised point in the Garda National Protective Services Bureau under Operation Cosnaím.

The garda operation was launched in 2020 to “protect, prevent and prosecute in respect of suspected sexual exploitation and trafficking of children in state care.”

Responding to Lost in Europe’s findings, Patricia Durr, CEO of anti-child trafficking group ECPAT UK, said: “This is a child protection emergency exacerbated by punitive border policies and the lack of safe and legal routes for children within Europe to move between member states safely.”

Echoing Durr’s concerns, Francesca Toscano, of Save The Children Europe, described the numbers of missing migrant children as a “child rights scandal”.

“This is more evidence that shows that migration management does not prioritise protection, and that authorities do treat children in migration differently than other children – their disappearance is treated with less concern, and this is an element of the child rights scandal that we are witnessing in Europe,” she said.

This is not the first time Lost in Europe collected data on this issue. In 2021, the project found a total of 18,292 registered missing minors across 10 countries in Europe between 2018 and 2020. The investigations raise serious concerns that the problem has got worse.

Speaking of this investigation, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson told Lost in Europe: “I can’t verify these numbers, but I can verify that we have a broken migration system that we are now healing with a new pact on migration and asylum.”

This pact, adopted by the EU Parliament earlier this month, strengthens “the protection of children, especially the unaccompanied minors”, according to Johansson. However, the pact has been criticised by NGOs who say it is a step back for human rights.  

Read more articles in this series >>


Kids in Care

Are children falling through the cracks of the care system?

Refugee child with hood up leaning on a goal post.

By Patricia Devlin of Noteworthy

Lost in Europe is a cross-border journalism project which investigates missing child migrants. Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and is the Irish publication partner for this report. 

Published as a follow-up to our KIDS IN CARE series which was proposed and funded by our readers with significant support from our investigative fund.

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