25th of May marks the International Missing Children’s Day. This year, we commemorate the occasion under extraordinary circumstances. Restrictive measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic increase the risks for children living in difficult circumstances and lockdowns do not stop them from going missing. Today, Missing Children Europe (MCE) launches its annual Figures and Trends 2019 report and encourages EU Institutions, Member States, foundations, and individuals to support hotline services during these challenging times.
“Hope For Children” CRC Policy Center (HFC) in collaboration with the Association for the Prevention and Treatment of Domestic Violence (SPAVO), operates in Cyprus the European Harmonized Line 116000, whose purpose is to prevent and handle cases of disappearance of children, to provide access to support services for relatives of missing children as well as coordination with authorities and NGOs at national and transnational level. The Consortium has also signed a Protocol of Cooperation with the Ministry of Justice and Public Order and Cyprus Police on the operation of the helpline and the child alert mechanism. The Missing Children Hotline is available 24 hours a day.
In 2019, the 116 000 European hotlines for missing children answered 55,284 calls covering 7582 cases. The majority of new cases concerned runaways with 55%, just under a fourth (23%) were parental abductions, and a small portion of cases reported, over 3%, concerned children in migration (Figure and Trends Report 2019). MCE warns that the current COVID-19 crisis increases the risks for all three categories. HFC and SPAVO participate as members to the European network Missing Children Europe.
Quarantine measures led to increased domestic violence which are the major risk factor for running away. Hotlines testify that children run away despite lockdowns and expect numbers to rise as measures are lifted. Border closures caused new cases of international child abduction and have led to delays, in ongoing and new cases. Social distancing measures further limit migrant children’s access to care and support services, and risk separating them from ill parents or caregivers, making them more vulnerable to traffickers.
The 116000 missing children hotline services play a crucial role in ensuring that all cases are followed up on, and that all children, and their parents, have access to a listening ear. Hotlines now receive the same, or higher volumes of calls, each requiring more time, and human resources, as callers are deprived of other social support. Hotlines have to invest in technology to offer their services remotely and develop chat options and other functions to ensure everyone has equal, and safe access to hotline services. This puts additional strain on their already limited resources.
60% of hotlines who received funding from local and national authorities in 2019, reported that this funding was not sufficient to ensure delivery of the expected standards of service. The European Electronic Communication Code (EECC) places the responsibility to ensure equal access, and that necessary resources are allocated to run the hotlines, with the Member States. As governments are struggling with the financial implications of the COVID-19 crisis, Missing Children Europe fears they will not be able to comply with this obligation. The cost for the operation of the Hotline in Cyprus is fully covered by the own recourses of HFC and SPAVO without receiving any state financial support.
Missing Children Europe calls on Member States, and the EU, to take responsibility and protect children’s right to access social support services, which are key to society. Supporting the work of the 116000 hotlines, ensuring stable funding and quality, is needed to show an active commitment to the rights of all children.
“Like our health workers, food supply chain workers and safety force, hotline operators are key to society.” - Maud de Boer Buquicchio, President of Missing Children Europe.