They typically arrive at Spain's airports and coasts accompanied by a woman saying she is the mother, but without the documentation to prove it. The police notice what they see as "strange behavior" between the supposed mother and the child, often babies or small children whose identity cannot be verified.
DNA tests have shown in the past that these minors often prove not to be the children of the women or couples accompanying them. The police, the state attorney's office, the ombudsman, or the Red Cross, all then work together to try to establish the identity of these children, but do not always succeed.
Spain's immigration laws were updated in 2009 to address the issue of minors coming into the country. The law says that when members of the security forces come across an unaccompanied minor with no papers, the child is to be placed at the disposition of the relevant department of the social services in the region concerned. When neither the child's name nor origin is known, then the minor is put in the care of the state, and is eligible to be given residency papers.
The legal requirements are clear, but as Carlos Chana García, the head of the Red Cross's department that tries to place minors with families, points out, the law is not always followed. "It depends on the law of each country, the manner in which the minor has entered the country, the authority in charge of the border crossing, and even the airline, some of which are more sensitive about this question than others. Babies are used as part of migration strategies to apply for family regrouping," Chana explains to EL PAÍS.
Babies are part of migration strategies and applications for family regrouping"
Sometimes children enter the country with adults who are not their parents via airports, while others are couples or single women who cross over from Morocco in small boats with a child that is supposedly theirs, but that sometimes is not. NGOs and other bodies who work with minors caught up in clandestine migration say that the Spanish police detect around 50 such cases each year.
The Red Cross says that the rules governing the movement of minors within the Schengen area are clear. "The difficulties begin when the rules are applied, and the most vulnerable are children involved in migratory processes. Many end up under the care of the authorities, and sometimes, after a few years, a woman turns up saying that she is the child's mother, but the child has already been put up for adoption," says Chana García.
The Red Cross expert adds, however, that the trafficking of such children for money has not been seen in Spain for several years. "There are very good systems and mechanisms for detecting cases of children at risk," he claims.
"What's more, the protocols for international adoption in Spain are very clear, and we keep a close eye on what is going on in the countries of origin. There may be cases of families in say, Tibet, or Ethiopia, for example, where families do not fully understand that they are going to lose all rights to their children if they are given up for adoption. They think that they are giving them a better life, but they do not understand that what they are doing is giving up their children forever. This approach may not be the best, but we explain things to people as best we can, and once the children are given up, the procedures we follow to find them adoptive families are completely legal."
Other cases where minors in transit lack the necessary guarantees are those involving divorced or separated couples where one of the parents decides to take the child or children to their home country without authorization. The difficulty lies in the fact that there is no law against a parent taking their child out of the country, as long as they have a passport. Once the relationship is established, no other documents are required by the authorities to prove custody of the minor and child-protection organizations say that there are probably several hundred Spanish children that have been taken out of the country by one parent or another. The problem is growing as the number of marriages increase where one of the couple is non-Spanish.
That said, the risk can be avoided, as María de los Ángeles Velasco, a senior magistrate specializing in child welfare, argues: "In the case of separation where there is a risk that one of the parents might take the child out of the country without permission, then precautionary measures exist whereby airports are warned not to allow the child out of the country without the authorization of both parents, or a judicial order."
Velasco says that this precautionary allowance is already included in many divorce cases and that there have been instances where the parents have forgotten that they had requested it, and when an adolescent tries to leave the country to study, for example, they have had to go to a judge to have the measure lifted. "This has happened to me on two occasions. On one of them, because the mother had forgotten that she had insisted on this many years before," says Velasco.
Child welfare organizations say that it is vital to increase the relevant authorities' involvement in protecting vulnerable minors who, once in Spain, are able to circulate freely throughout the Schengen area, pointing out that authorities often fail to intervene due to lack of resources. The way to do this, they say, is by having more specialist personnel at airports and other entry points where migrants arrive, clandestinely or otherwise.
Spain's ombudswoman, Soledad Becerril, last month sent a written recommendation to the police asking that all foreign minors arriving in Spain illegally be identified as soon as possible to avoid them being exposed to risk. The recommendation was accepted, which means that from now on, when the police come across an unaccompanied minor, or one who is travelling with an adult that cannot prove they are a parent or legal guardian, or when there is a likelihood of the child being the victim of traffickers, then identifying the minor becomes a priority and the relevant authorities must be informed, says the Ombudsman's Office.
The police's job is to assess the risk that the minor is exposed to. "When an adult says that he or she is the child's mother or father, but has no documents to validate this claim, then that person will be invited to submit to a DNA test, along with the child," says a police spokesman.
So far this year, 124 unaccompanied minors have reached Spain's coastline, while 39 were stopped while traveling with an adult, according to police figures. There are indications accredited by different sources, such as NGOs, security forces, and government departments, that in some cases involving the movement of children by undocumented adults, this is an attempt to hide activities directly related to the trafficking of children or other people. Which is why the police, at the behest of the immigration office and the courts, in February gave instructions on what to do when minors are found in "risk situations." From now on, their details will be documented in a special Unaccompanied Foreign Minors register.
Jesús Palacios, a psychology professor at the University of Seville and an expert in adoption, says that children are at risk in cases involving international adoption: "There are countries where there is no birth registration, or where children are registered at age eight or nine. The child doesn't exist, which makes it easy to create a false identity, or to assign a different mother [to the child]. Children are also at risk as a result of natural disasters, or mass movements of populations. Thousands of children roam the streets and should not be eligible for adoption until it is confirmed that they are an orphan or that there is no other family member or community member that can look after them."
The problem is that demand for children creates pressure for supply"
And even though all the experts agree that Spanish law considerably reduces the possibility of illegal adoption, this is not the case in many other countries.
The Hague Convention establishes when a child is eligible for adoption and when not, but official data reflect the huge number of cases where these rules have not been followed. A report entitled The Grey Zones of International Adoption, published by the International Social Service in 2010, says that adoption procedures based on the Hague Convention in the 10 main countries of origin in the world apply in less than 10 percent of cases. The rest are not covered by any legal guarantees. "This is very alarming: the problem is that the demand for children has generated pressure for supply," says Palacios. "And there continue to be countries, such as the United States, where adoption is independent of any public entity able to control or oversee the process."
"People who want to adopt need to know that Spain not only has legislation to regulate adoptions, but that it has signed up to the Hague Convention," says José Ignacio Esquivias, a lawyer and expert in international adoption. "If people wanting to adopt go abroad, they face the risk that the paperwork will not be accepted by the Spanish authorities, as well as the likelihood that the minor being adopted will not be given full legal guarantees," he adds.
But the Spanish authorities have shown that they are sometimes prepared to provide legal guarantees, even if the adoption procedure does not meet national criteria. "This is about not breaking the relationship with the child, or avoiding that the child ends up in the care of the authorities. But families undertaking such adoptions face tremendous obstacles, because at the end of the day, the child is not theirs legally, nor does he or she have their surname," says Esquivias.