Don’t accept to be powerless, don’t choose to be indifferent.
This is the story of Hamad. Hamad is one of the many unaccompanied children that have been reported missing in Belgium. His story is a story of struggle, indifference and frustration. But is also a story of hard work, and hope. Because, although many actors encounter troubles and issues in dealing with these cases, hotlines for missing children all throughout Europe can make a difference in the story of these young people.
Hamad is a 15 year old Afghan boy. 10 days after he goes missing from a Belgian accommodation center for unaccompanied children, his disappearance is reported to our 116 000 – hotline for missing children. His guardian felt it was very important that Hamad’s disappearance would not only be reported to the police, but also to Child Focus, the Belgian Foundation for Missing and Sexually Exploited Children. As with every missing child, a Child Focus caseworker contacts all the relevant actors, including the police, the shelter, Hamad’s guardian and the relevant governmental bodies. By doing so, we try to collect every piece of information that might be useful: how long was Hamad in Belgium? What is the status of his asylum procedure? Does he have any family in Belgium or elsewhere in Europe? Did anyone know he was thinking of leaving or were there any events that might have triggered his departure? … Even the smallest detail might be important for us to estimate whether or not his disappearance is highly worrying, which risks he might encounter and which actions could be taken to try and find him.
Hamad appears to have family in Germany, but it remains uncertain whether or not he left to join them. We transfer the relevant information to the Belgian police who tell us they will investigate the case. After a few days, we proactively contact the police to check on the progress of the investigation. We find out that the prosecutor did not conduct any further investigation. So we contact the prosecutor ourselves, who seems to think that Hamad is back in the accommodation center. We verify this information with the police who tells us that it isn’t the case! Hamad is still missing! So, we go back to the prosecutor who promises to reactivate the investigation.
A few days later, we contact the guardian to see whether he has had any news from Hamad, which he does. The boy has joined his family in Germany and is doing well.
Like Hamad’s case, our hotline receives at least 2 reports of missing unaccompanied children every week. This may seem a lot, but it is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Still today, there is no central point of registration nor a procedure for reporting unaccompanied children who have gone missing. We don’t have any idea of how many cases there actually are and the ones that are reported to us heavily rely on goodwill of individual actors or simply coincidence. Moreover, the time lapse between the moment a child goes missing and reporting of his disappearance is often much too long, as was in the case of Hamad. 10 days is a very long time and a lot can happen in this period. And last but certainly not least, the different actors in these stories do not cooperate well. Communication seems to be difficult, information is not transferred or shared correctly. The investigation does not go far enough and collaboration is often non-existent. How is this possible? A lack of procedures? A lack of ownership? Being powerless or even indifferent?
But there is a silver lining around this story. 116 000 hotlines can make a difference. First of all, we can be the ones who don’t let go of missing children like Hamad and many others. We can be the ones who continue to follow up on children, who make sure the case does not fall off the radar or does not remain untreated. But hotlines are also very well positioned to centralize all the information and to make sure everything is passed through to the right actors at the right time. With this information we cannot only make a difference in individual cases like Hamad’s but also on a national and European policy level.
Collaboration and exchange of information are crucial when it comes to finding or localizing children that go missing. Some of them are safe and sound but because we don’t share information, they remain missing officially in reports. This means time and energy are not used efficiently and it prevents us from focusing on the most worrying group of missing children: the ones who really left without a trace, of whom nobody has any news or idea where they might be. It is these children that are most likely to find themselves at risk of being smuggled, exploited and abused. We all have a role to play: hotlines, guardians, shelters, police, prosecutors, policy makers, governmental bodies and agencies. We can all play a part, no matter how small. Don’t accept to be powerless, don’t choose to be indifferent.