Eleven missing unaccompanied migrant children have triggered the concern of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cyprus, which urged local authorities to improve living conditions at the camps.
In a communication to the Financial Mirror, the UNHCR said it “is deeply concerned over reports of eleven unaccompanied migrant minors who have gone missing from the Pournara reception centre since 2019”.
“We have repeatedly raised our concern for the children at the centre, most of whom are unaccompanied,” said the UNHCR.
The UN refugee agency argued that the centre’s facilities do not meet the needs of unaccompanied migrant children who need specific care arrangements.
It called for more appropriate housing arrangements and enhanced guardianship to address the needs of an increased number of unaccompanied children at Pournara.
“While the authorities are looking into alternative accommodation for the children, the safe zones at Pournara can’t accommodate all children, and significant delays occur in releasing children from the camp,” said UNHCR.
It said the children remain without education or recreational activities.
“Thus, access to education, vocational and orientation programs is needed to enhance their self-reliance and livelihood opportunities of this particularly vulnerable group”.
UNHCR’s statement comes after the island’s Deputy Ministry of Social Welfare confirmed that eleven unaccompanied migrant children have gone missing since arriving in Cyprus over the last three years, all from the Pournara camp.
Earlier in March, Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Despo Michaelidou, lashed out at authorities over “appalling” conditions under which unaccompanied migrant minors are living there.
She launched a probe after being informed that 30 unaccompanied children left the centre to spend the night on the streets protesting their living conditions.
The Commissioner said she had instructed authorities to improve the living conditions of minors at the overcrowded camp.
Police confirmed they had received missing person reports for four children in 2019, three in 2021, and another four this year.
In response to criticism that police did not take the necessary action, Deputy Director of the crime prevention department, Kyriaki Lambrianidou, said the force had responded appropriately and was not dragging its feet.
Lambrianidou told the Financial Mirror the search for the missing children is ongoing, “no missing person’s case is closed until they are found”.
She said police are searching for five girls and six boys, with the majority (6) from Somalia. Three are from New Guinea, one from the Congo and Pakistan.
They were aged between 16 and 17 at the time of their disappearance.
“At regular intervals, we publish data and photos on social media; the same protocols and actions are followed, regardless of the country of origin of the missing person,” said Lambrianidou.
“All missing children are children to us. We responded immediately, sending out alerts to the public to help with searches.”
She added that all the children were placed on a stop-list, and authorities at exit points had been alerted, including Interpol.
Lambrianidou said many procedures and protocols were updated following the case of the serial killer Nicos Metaxas who murdered five women and two children.
The victims were initially reported missing, with the police coming under fire for not investigating properly.
She said that new protocols are in place, with the authorities employing technology, such as locating mobile phones the missing person could be carrying.
“Unfortunately, this is not the case with the majority of missing migrant children, as they do not carry mobile phones with them”.
Authorities take prints and photos of unaccompanied children, which are submitted to an archive to be used in case a child goes missing.
Lambrianidou said Cyprus had been caught unprepared to deal with large migrant flows.
She revealed that around 1,000 unaccompanied children make their way to other European countries from Cyprus every year.
“Interpol recently informed us that an unaccompanied minor, who was 17 when he went missing, was found in France, where he had applied for political asylum.
“According to information, the boy had crossed the green line to the occupied areas, making his way from there to France.
“Cyprus does not have the infrastructure to deal with large numbers of migrant flows and unaccompanied children.
“We understand that the authorities are working on upgrading facilities, but the numbers are overwhelming”.
Lambrianidou said 30-40 unaccompanied children are placed under the care of one social worker.
If a child does not show up to receive their food, a protocol for locating them is automatically activated, and the police are notified.