By Christina Okello
Activists have raised concerns about new EU plans to allow police to force migrant children to have their fingerprints taken. The aim is to prevent unaccompanied minors from going missing or ending up in the hands of criminal gangs. Critics say coercion is not the answer.
Under the proposal, EU member countries would be able to take the fingerprints of children as young as six, compared to the current age of 14.
An estimated 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children went missing in Europe between 2014-2016, according to the EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol.
"We have been pushing for lowering the age of taking fingerprints of migrant children from 14 to 6," Anna-Maria Corazza Bildt, an MEP with the right-wing European People's Party told RFI. "It's extremely difficult for law enforcement authorities to find them, to identify them and to protect them if they're not fingerprinted."
NGOs oppose coercion
The problem is how you take the fingerprints. Using coercion is not the answer, claim rights activists, who argue the move also undermines data protection, at a time where the EU is rolling out measures to boost privacy.
"When it comes to a child of six, how ready can he or she be to make an informed decision when it comes to having his or her fingerprints taken?" Marie Martin, a Migration & Asylum Programme Officer with the organization EuroMed Rights, told RFI.
Technically, the use of force would only be applicable to children aged 14 and not six, and only as a last resort. Even so, Martin is still unimpressed.
"Their rights would not be better protected if they're better identified," she reckons. "What's going to protect them is if you put in place safeguards and child-friendly measures, ie proper reception conditions."
Kids on streets
Not only would the measure be ineffective against criminal gangs, Martin adds, fingerprinting also won't solve the problem of missing persons.
"This measure is already in place for children from the age of 14. Those children are still wandering on the streets and are still lost, because they've absconded, because they want to escape, for some of them, from systems which are not respectful of their rights."
Europe has grappled with a massive influx of migrants since 2015, with many countries struggling not only with the challenge of taking in migrants but also of how to track them down.
"There was no consideration of any alternative means in the political debate at the Commission," regrets for his part Eric Topfer, a Policy Advisor for Human Rights Policies at the German Institute for Human Rights.
"If you’re interested in children's rights, there could have been an option to enter alerts on missing persons in the Schengen information system, which is also an EU wide database," he told RFI.
Proposing a new fingerprinting system when one already exists -- Eurodac which was set up in 2003 -- doesn't say much for the efficiency of the current model.
Supporters of the proposal argue an overhaul is necessary.
"In the current situation, member states have a free hand based on national law," says MEP Corazza Bildt.
If the new proposal goes through, "it would be much more restricted and with many safeguards on the way you would be able to take fingerprints," she insists.
Fifteen years after Eurodac was created, it's increasingly become a policing tool.
Topfer, from the German Institute for Human Rights, is concerned that the new proposal would embolden police to overstep their power.
"The police would immediately be able to access Eurodac to search for fingerprints of migrants and asylum seekers," he says, warning against a criminalisation of the migrant community.
"They are immigrants, they've done nothing illegal. Usually police only have access to databases where fingerprints are registered of people who are suspected of committing a crime. It's discrimination of a certain population in Europe."
Corazza Bildt admits the proposal "is not ideal, it's not what we want," but claims it is better than the current situation.
But, rather than going directly to coercion, "one should really try to convince the children in a child-friendly manner in a way that protects their dignity," she adds.
Published on RFI on April 26, 2018