Tracing UMAs’ families (2006)


A comparative study of some European countries’ practices and experiences in tracing the parents or caregivers of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers.

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Tracing UMAs’ families. A comparative study of some European countries’ practices and experiences in tracing the parents or caregivers of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers (pdf, 577 kB)

Summary (english only)

In Norway, tracing the parents or caregivers of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers is politically anchored in chapter 8 of Stortingsmelding no. 17 (20002001) from (KRD 2001). The then sharp increase in the numbers of UMAs arriving in Norway, along with an understanding of UMAs as particularly vulnerable formed the point of departure when the Directorate of Immigration started a project aimed at developing efficient methods for the tracing of parents or caregivers of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. In July 2006, the Directorate decided to discontinue this project. Instead, a comparative study of different European countries’ practices and experiences in tracing the parents or other caregivers of separated minor asylum seeker was initiated. Norwegian Social research (NOVA) was commissioned to conduct the project in September.

The term «unaccompanied minor asylum seekers» (UMAs) in this report refers to children under the age of 18 who are separated from either parents or other legal or customary caregivers, and who apply for asylum in a foreign country. Our decision to make use of this relatively broad definition is based on the need to include all the different national definitions comprised by the present study.

From 2000–2003, approximately 13,000 UMAs applied for asylum in Europe (France and Italy not included, due to lack of comparable data). At the time, the number of new asylum seekers and the proportion of UMAs among them were already in decline. UMAs lodged approximately 4% of the total number of asylum applications in Europe in 2003. There were significant differences between the European countries. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom each registered approximately 25% of all asylum claims from UMAs in this period. There was a wide variety of countries of origin of the registered UMAs. While Finland registered Somalia as the country of origin for 29% and Afghanistan as the country of origin for 2% of all UMAs, in Hungary the picture was very different: 66% of all UMAs in Hungary were registered as originating in Afghanistan, and only 4% from Somalia. When it comes to gender, 2/3 of the UMAs were boys. This was the case for most countries. 2/3 of the minors were between 15 and 18 years of age
(UNHCR 2004).

In the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) it is stated as a main principle that it is in the best interest of the child to be together with his or her parents, although it is pointed out that there are exceptions to this. Some of these exceptions are especially relevant for UMAs. UMAs bring together two different fields: children’s rights on the one hand, and the politics of asylum on the other. Family tracing and reunification form an important issue, politically as well as a legally. Despite this, tracing and family reunification are not carried through for a majority of UMAs. The difficulties involved in family tracing should be viewed in the light of both sociopolitical and legal fields, ie. considering the best interests of the child as well as the best interests of the state. A widespread culture of disbelief surrounding the intents and truthfulness of UMAs can be explained as part of a process that conflates the interests of the receiving state with the interests of the child.

Family tracing and reunification work is a complex task that demands extensive cooperation, with nongovernmental organizations and other agencies and with the minor her/himself. Tracing work is both difficult and resourcedemanding, and the success rate is generally low. Furthermore, not all successful family tracing leads to family reunification.


The low success rates may be due to a variety of reasons, often in combination:

  • Fear of putting the child in danger
  • Experience from similar cases indicates tracing is not likely to succeed
  • The minor does not consent or cooperate
  • The minor has already been separated from parents or caregivers for a long time
  • The disappearance/departure of the minor before family has been found
  • Lack of local contacts or of knowledge of local conditions in countries of origin
  • Tracing may be successful but the parents are considered unable/ unsuited to take care of the child

Our main source of data about the different countries’ experiences and current practices has been an electronic, webbased survey containing just over 40 questions (cf. appendix). The questionnaire was sent to Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. France has not responded. The quality and fullness of the responses vary a great deal.

Our findings show that none of the countries have a separate tracing unit within the organization that is ultimately responsible for the tracing work. All countries cooperate with NGOs – mostly with the national offices of the Red Cross. Both Finland and Norway have cooperated with International Social Service, but in both countries this cooperation came to an end in 2006. Most countries cooperate with the NGOs on an ad hoc basis. Norway, Sweden, Slovakia and the UK also report that they cooperate with their embassies or other diplomatic missions in the UMAs countries of origin.


The UMAs originate in many different countries, but almost all of our responding countries report that they receive UMAs from Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The numbers of UMAs which the different countries receive vary a great deal. Approximately 2000 UMAs arrived in the UK from January through September 2006. Sweden received approximately 600, and  Norway has received more than 200 UMAs so far (November 2006). Finland had received about 90 and Denmark about 70 UMAs up to the time of reporting. Slovakia received 60 UMAs, but differs from the other countries in reporting that it is a transit country for UMAs. In many cases the minors disappear from Slovakia to other countries.

UMAs are considered to be a political important issue in most of the countries, while the tracing of family members is considered to be somewhat less important. When deciding whether family tracing should be initiated the minor’s age is very important. The younger the children, the more important family tracing and family reunification are. Although tracing is a relatively important political issue and has high priority in most countries, the results of their endeavors to trace and reunite the minors with their caregivers are largely negative.

In accordance with international recommendations, it is widely reported that family tracing is not initiated without the child’s consent. In particular the United Kingdom emphasizes this point.

Not all successful tracings lead to family reunification. The parents’ or other caregivers’ ability to provide appropriate care is in most cases taken into consideration. In the UK no unaccompanied child will be removed from the UK unless adequate reception and care arrangements are in place in the country to which the child is to be removed. One may note that neither Denmark nor Sweden emphasize the caring ability of the parents when reunification is considered. Sweden has succeeded in tracing the parents or
caregivers of 10–15 UMAs in 2006, while six to ten tracings have actually resulted in family reunification.

Even in those relatively few cases where successful family tracing leads to family reunification, this does not take place in the country where the child has applied for asylum. The country of origin or other country of residence of the parents or caregivers is where reunification takes place. Norway has traced care giving persons of 6 minors from Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. One is uncertain how many of these tracings have led to family reunification, but the estimate number is between one and five, all of which took place outside Norway. Even though Slovakia is considered to be a transit country, the authorities have succeeded in tracing the families of ten minors since they started the tracing process In 2003. This has led to between six to ten reunifications outside Slovakia. In 2005 Slovakia commenced to trace the families of 40 UMAs. Under a voluntary return programme, the UK between 2001 and 2006 reunited 16 minors with their caregivers in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Iraq.


Because the immigration authorities do not have separate tracing units within their organizations, little specific information is available through our survey on the methods used in the tracing process. The general answer is that it is necessary to establish a good relationship with the UMAs in order to achieve his or her consent and cooperation. Without this kind of cooperation it is extremely difficult to get the necessary and correct information from the minors. Some countries stress the importance of cooperating with
the embassies in the UMAs countries of origin. Especially Sweden stresses this point. Denmark has satisfactory results in using DNAtests to identify care persons when they are located in Denmark.

In most cases, if the countries do not succeed in their tracing attempts or adequate care is not available in the country of origin or a third country, the minor is given temporary or permanent residence in the receiving country. Slovakia and the Netherlands are exceptions to this. In Slovakia, the authorities report that they remove the minor to an orphanage in a third country. In 2001, the Netherlands introduced a new UMA policy which implied it would be less difficult to return UMAs to their countries of origin. The precondition that has to be met for their return is that adequate care should be available. The term «adequate care» has been redefined and is now measured against standards in the return country and not accordingto standards in the Netherlands.

If the best interest of the child is to be with a primary caregiver, there is considerable discrepancy between the intentions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children and the results achieved in this field. The issue of UMAs is important in the countries we have been in contact with. The authorities are generally concerned about the wellbeing of the UMAs that arrive in their countries. Yet, due to the great complexity of these issues, where policies and politics are intertwined with myths and feelings, no one has succeeded in developing satisfactory tracing methods. Our respondents generally report that they are unsure of both methods and costs involved in the issue of family tracing and family unification.

Utført av: NOVA

Bestilt av: UDI

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