The migration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors to Europe is hardly a new phenomenon. However, the number of these minors, and the speed with which they are moving, certainly is. In 2007, the European Migration Network found that minors lodged a total of 8030 asylum applications across 22 European Union member states. (1) In 2015, nearly 90,000 lodged asylum applications in the European Union, almost quadrupling the region's 2014 figure of 23,000. (2) And these numbers, which tell only a small part of the story, (3) look set to increase. As North Africa and the Middle East continue to be beset by political instability, oppression and violence, the total number of asylum-seekers fleeing for Europe's shores is growing, while the routes they are taking become ever more dangerous.
In response to this, the European Union has attempted to supplement pre-existing international treaties and legislation with the development, modification and harmonisation of national and regional laws. In a landmark move in 2008, the European Union completely reformed the Common European Aylum System (CEAS), which underpins regional asylum law. Made up of five components, the new system establishes and clarifies the rights and entitlements that all asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors, should be able to enjoy throughout the asylum process. It attempts, in short, to guarantee the fair and consistent treatment of asylum applicants, especially children, irrespective of which member state they are in. Although the new measures, and other similar efforts, symbolise a step in the right direction, they are still in their infancy, and have frequently failed to translate into improved, or more cohesive, national practices among member states.
The way that unaccompanied minors are handled, from arrival at the border through to final decisions on their applications, differs enormously from state to state--with potentially life-threatening consequences. Unaccompanied minors may suffer neglect, face abuse or be unlawfully repatriated, simply because of where in the European Union they were processed. While this cannot--and should not--be justified or excused, it can be explained by five factors:
* the number of asylum-seekers entering the European Union;
* the European Union's historical treatment of minors;
* the European Union's power over immigration law;
* member states' different financial capacities; and, finally,
* the unequal distribution of unaccompanied minors across the region.
The total number of asylum-seekers presently entering the European Union is significantly greater than at any time since the Second World War, and has thoroughly overwhelmed the region's asylum systems. Thus, accommodating the specific needs of unaccompanied minors has presented an enormous challenge to member states, both practically and legislatively. A Eleanor Drywood has noted, even the most skilled and experienced of children's rights advocates' would struggle to provide 'a focused and coherent agenda in relation to young immigrants and asylum-seekers', given the 'sheer scale of the task confronting [them]'. (4) This is especially the case when we consider the second factor.
Historically, the European Union and its institutions have rarely intervened in the lives of young people. While the body of work looking at the effects of EU provisions on young immigrants and asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied...