Authorities from European Union member states should never use force to obtain migrant children’s fingerprints and other biometric data, a new report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) said today.

The report, ‘Under watchful eyes: Biometrics, EU IT systems and fundamental rights’, also issues a stark warning against detaining children who refuse to participate in procedures to register their data on the EURODAC database. EURODAC is a database containing the fingerprints of everyone who has applied for asylum within the EU.

Rather than resorting to force, officers working to record this information should work to build a relationship of trust with the children they work with. The process of taking fingerprints and face scans needs to be carried out in a child-friendly fashion, with children informed about why their fingerprints need to be taken and how the process will work, in a language they understand.

Currently, research on how children are fingerprinted in the field has shown only minimal effort to inform them in a child-friendly manner about why it’s a good idea for them to provide fingerprints, face scans and other biometric information.

Taking fingerprints by force

Worryingly, FRA has instead encountered allegations of force being used to obtain children’s fingerprints by EU state authorities. One unaccompanied child in Spain told FRA that a police officer had shouted at him, while another had forcibly held his chin and wrist when biometric data was being taken.

In Berlin, instances where police have detained migrant children for six hours for fingerprinting and strip searches have been reported, with police officers telling children they would be detained for longer if they did not give their fingerprints. Children have reported instances of coercion in Italy, whereas in Belgium legal representatives have stated that authorities have refused to treat 15-17 year olds as children.

If true, these actions carry a serious risk of retraumatising children, many of whom have already experienced brutal conflict, violence and persecution, and must cease immediately.

Databases help find missing children

This is not to say that IT systems cannot be a force for good. According to a FRA survey, almost one in three border guards in EU countries have used a database to identify children who had gone missing in the last year, with some identifying more than fifty in that time.

But the use of force or coercion to obtain data for such databases can never be justified. It only serves to traumatise children, who in some cases resort to mutilating their fingers after being forced to give prints.
The threat of detention must also never be used to intimidate children into giving their biometric data.

Detention is never in the child’s best interests and can scare children into running away in an attempt to flee the system.

Databases have the potential to provide an extra layer of protection to migrant children who arrive in Europe. But the belief that coercing children to give up their biometric data is necessary to protect them from going missing or being exploited is misguided.

The most successful way to register children on databases such as EURODAC is by employing people trained in how to protect and care for children to explain their rights to them, and how storing their biometric data can help them. Evidence shows that children who understand the processes are extremely likely to take part without coercion being needed, removing any risk of them being subjected to additional trauma.

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