Over 500 unaccompanied minors dropped off the radars of official Swiss agencies last year – a major increase on the previous year, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) has revealed, confirming a Swiss public radio (RTS) report.
The RTS report on Tuesday showed that 539 unaccompanied asylum seekers aged under 18 disappeared from official view last year – up from 94 in 2015. This represents a six-fold increase.
Most cases (324) were 16-17-year-olds, according to SEM figures, while 134 were aged 6-15.
After saying they want to claim asylum, many flee official reception centres and disappear from the authorities’ radar. A news report last year suggested that in some parts of Switzerland up to 90% of migrants allocated to reception centres to await the processing of their asylum application flee the centre shortly after arriving.
The migration office says it cannot really explain the big increase, adding that it is proportional to the high number of asylum-seekers in Switzerland.
So far this year, 310 minors have dropped off the SEM’s radar. There are currently some 5,000 unaccompanied minors living in Switzerland.
Valentina Darbellay of the non-governmental group Terre des hommes said there was a risk that many of these young people could end up victims of trafficking or as delinquents.
Reporting practices on this issue vary from canton to canton. She added that it was shocking that young migrants were not always reported missing, as non-migrant children would be.
Stopped at the border
Last year, a total of 9,416 refugees aged between 12 and 18 were picked up at the Swiss border. More than half were 17 or 18, and only one in seven was female.
The Swiss Border Guard said around half of the minors picked up applied for asylum and were handed over to the SEM. The other half were passed to foreign authorities – the clear majority to Italy, on Switzerland’s southern border.
The cabinet said these youngsters were turned away from Switzerland either because they didn’t fulfil entry conditions or because they wanted to travel through Switzerland [to another country] without applying for asylum.
The SEM recorded just under 2,000 unaccompanied minors in 2016. Of these, around half could not prove their age.
In August, the United Nations Refugee Agency published a series of asylum recommendations sent to the Swiss authorities, which included measures to improve the plight of unaccompanied minors who had fled to Switzerland without their relatives.
The UN agency said minors should benefit from welcome centres that were properly adapted to their age and protection needs. It stipulated that protected asylum sites should be considered that would include areas separated according to sex, while schooling should be adapted for minors. A contact person should be responsible for each youngster and only female officials should look after young girls, it said.
According to the United Nations, each year millions of children cross international borders, many to flee wars and other conflict zones. Those unaccompanied by an adult or guardian are especially vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and sexual violence.
Requests for asylum in Switzerland plunged by more than a third to 9,123 in the first half of 2017, after authorities closed the Balkan land route used by thousands to flee conflicts in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
The SEM reported a 36% drop in the first half of the year compared to the 14,277 requests during the same period in 2016.