Hundreds of minors missing from Dutch refugee centres

More than 1,800 children left in search of family or abducted by criminal gangs or sex traffickers in past six years

At least 360 unaccompanied minors have disappeared from refugee centres in the Netherlands since January 2022 – bringing the total number of children who have “vanished” from authorised Dutch accommodation over the past six years to 1,807.

Those figures are contained in a new report from Lost in Europe, a journalism collective that investigates the disappearance of child migrants. It estimates that between 2018 and 2021 as many as 18,000 children in total went missing across Europe.

The report says that while some children are thought to have left Dutch refugee centres in search of family they believed were already living in EU countries, a high proportion of the others have been abducted by criminal gangs or sex traffickers.

Given the nature of the problem, reliable figures for the Netherlands are difficult to come by unless minors are reported missing by the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), whose stewardship of the system has been hugely dysfunctional and rived with infighting, said the Dutch courts.


The COA said 4,449 unaccompanied children sought asylum in the Netherlands last year. Like adult asylum seekers, they must first report to at the notorious 2,000 capacity reception centre in the village of Ter Apel in the northern province of Groningen, after which they are sent to asylum shelters.

Many of the children missing since January 2022 have disappeared from Ter Apel, where overcrowding became so bad last year that hundreds of new arrivals were forced to sleep in makeshift tents on the grass outside its gates.

Conditions at the centre have has sparked big concerns from the Red Cross and the Dutch children’s commissioner, Margrite Kalverboer, who warned that two young girls had been forced to sleep in a room with 30 boys and that children were brushing their teeth with their fingers and toilet water. Meanwhile, an investigation is under way into the death of a three-month-old baby at the centre last year.

Locals living in Ter Apel who were surveyed for the Lost in Europe report recounted seeing “dark-skinned boys and girls” being picked up by “older Dutch and German men” outside the centre.

The report also notes that a Vietnamese child who died with 38 other migrants in the back of a refrigerated lorry in Essex in October 2019 had fled from a “secure unit” for vulnerable refugees in the Netherlands.

Between 2006 and 2008, about 140 Nigerian girls disappeared from Dutch refugee centres, several of whom were later found to have been trafficked to Italy where they were working in brothels.

Dutch research published in 2020 showed that 75 per cent of young asylum seekers who ran away were aged between 15 and 17, while 88 were male. At least half disappear within a year of registering at Ter Apel, often before accommodation is found for them elsewhere.

The Dutch national rapporteur on human trafficking, Hermann Bolhaar, has been scathing in his criticism of the refugee system. “It’s incomprehensible that safeguarding measures have not been taken”, he said. “Given the urgency and the vulnerability of the children, it makes no sense.”

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court