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Unaccompanied, separated children trapped in the Balkans are being placed in extreme danger of exploitation, violence and trafficking due to unfit border policies and inadequate and overstretched child protection systems, a new report has found.

Around 1,300 children, some as young as nine, who are travelling without a parent or guardian are at risk of being forced into the arms of people smugglers due to national governments failing to recognise or act upon their vulnerable status. This could lead to people traffickers making them work to fund parts of their journey, and leaves them wide open to exploitation.

Authorities are also failing to provide suitable accommodation for vulnerable children, who can end up living in parks or abandoned warehouses, or swept into detention centres alongside adults they don’t know. Even housing provided by regional governments is not of the required standard, being frequently overcrowded and failing to provide segregated facilities for children older than 14.

Children travelling alone also face an increased threat of violence. They face abuse at the hands of both smugglers and border guards, with a child from Afghanistan telling how he was hospitalised for weeks after being attacked by police dogs when trying to enter Hungary.

Governments in the Balkans are failing to provide the quality care and assistance lone child refugees desperately need. Legal guardians assigned to represent vulnerable children are frequently overworked, undertrained, not properly vetted and lack the resources and ability to effectively care for and legally represent the child.

As a result of this, unaccompanied children often report that they do not have access to the information they need, or are unaware of the legal options available to them – leading them to believe their only choice is to travel below the radar.

The failure of national governments to collect accurate and useful information on lone child refugees and migrants is exacerbating these issues. It makes assessing what steps are needed to help these children extremely difficult, as determining the true number of children travelling alone and the assistance they need becomes impossible.

To stop lone children falling through the net, Balkan governments must prioritise children travelling alone when processing people entering their territory, provide proper resources and training to the guardians assigned to represent them and establish adequate shelters especially for unaccompanied minors.

All EU countries must also meet existing commitments and pledges to relocate unaccompanied child minors and migrant children, and allow them to be reunited with family members.

Finally, all governments must immediately cease detaining children while determining their migration status, and provide children travelling alone with competent guardians.

The report, Out of Sight: Exploited and Alone, was produced by 12 national and international level organisations, including Destination Unknown campaign member Terre des Hommes. It focused on the conditions lone child migrants and refugees are experiencing in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.

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