It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.
According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.
Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.
Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.
We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.
These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.
There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.
Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.
This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:
- Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
- Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
- Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership
The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.
In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.
The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.
- On Transparencia for Belgium: request 1 to the General Directorate of the Administrative Police and request 2 to the Federal Police (‘Total number of arrests at or near the border’)
- On Ma Dada for France: Procès-verbaux de la Police Aux Frontières (‘Border Police reports’) to the Ministry of the Interior
- On WhatDoTheyKnow for the UK: Total number of and reason for charges, checks, requests and/or arrests at the border regarding non EU citizens to the Home Office
- On Imamo Pravo Znati for Croatia: Policijskih izvještaja, izjava, optužbi i/ili zapisnika u vezi s provjerama, pretragama i/ili uhićenjima na granici (‘Police reports, statements, charges and / or records related to border checks, searches and / or arrests’) to the Ministry of the Interior, Zagreb
- On Frag Den Staat for Germany: Festnahme an der Grenze (‘Arrests at the border’) to the Federal Police HQ
- On Handlingar for Sweden: Gränshandlingar mellan 1 januari 2014 och 31 december 2020 (‘Boundary documents between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020’) to the Police Authority
- On Arthro5A for Greece (the first four requests ever filed on the brand new Alaveteli site!) συλλήψεις και αρνήσεις στα εσωτερικά σύνορα της ΕΕ (‘Arrests and denials at the Eu’s internal borders’) to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the Greek Police, the National Coordinating Centre for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum and to the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.
- Requests to the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands had to be made by post, as they don’t accept FOI correspondence digitally.
Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio
Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.
Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.
A platform for consumer complaints
The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.
Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.
As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?
Probing travel expenses
Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.
If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.
The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.
That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.
Today, we hear from Danela Žagar, a journalist by profession and currently working at the Croatian NGO the Centre for Peace Studies. Danela says:
In Croatia unfortunately, there still remains a culture of secrecy, left over from the previous regime when everything connected with the state, public authorities, local governments and public companies was enveloped in a thick veil of secrecy. To a great extent, it still is.
But the paradigm is changing and the public are beginning to demand and expect the important principles of transparency and openness, for data to be available to the public and in an accessible format.
That said, the government still has a fear of citizens as the people who vote them in. It’s clear that many facts are still hidden despite the existence of the Information Commissioner. We still have not reached the level of openness that many other countries enjoy as standard, or at least are on their way towards.
The FOI Act is a valuable tool for journalists, and in Croatia its true potential is just being discovered. We have the right to access accurate information in a timely fashion thanks to the Media Act, but unfortunately it often happens that spokesmen for the public authorities hijack access to information.
FOI allows journalists to obtain this information — and by using the Alaveteli website imamopravoznati.org journalists can follow their own requests, and also track other interesting questions and answers from public authorities.
Since transparency is key to democracy and a fundamental prerequisite for ensuring public confidence in the work of institutions and politicians, the right of access to information is an important tool in all fields of social engagement in Croatia.
Journalists and civil society organisations often expose the bad work of politicians through this tool.
Check the next installment to learn how a journalist in Hungary uncovered a mire of corruption… in Student Unions.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
What problem are you solving?:
Apathy, ignorance and suspicion are the dominant feelings of Croatia’s youth towards domestic politics and politicians, their Balkan neighbors and the priorities and policies of the European Union. The first generation to grow up in an independent Croatia appears discouraged and disconnected, with scant knowledge of the recent past and with little space to develop and express their vision for the future.
Describe your idea:
The platform aims to generate debate on Croatia’s political, social and economic realities and foster a spirit of participation among youth. It would comprise two parts: one for content supplied by professional artists and writers, the other open to groups from schools and universities. Contributors would be asked to use text, photography or video to reflect on what it means to be a Croat, and their vision of Croatia’s future: the subtopics could include anything from identity, war and nationalism, sexual and religious freedom, social justice, corruption, environmental or economic problems, all the way to their fears and hopes over Croatia’s future in the EU. All in the familiar format of social media, it would include opinion polls on current affairs, ratings and comments for all content or project initiatives, bulletins seeking volunteers and sponsors, feeds from blogs and online news outlets, and Twitter-like updates on domestic and EU policy initiatives that affect youth.
What country will this operate in?: Croatia
Who are you?:
The concept originated with a Croatia-based (Greek-born) online agency executive currently doing an MA in Public Policy. It was warmly embraced and developed within a group of Croatian multimedia artists (photographers, video artists, actors, a theatre writer), journalists, commentators and bloggers.
What problem are you solving?:
My-Change is a knowledge and communication platform, which gives committed people the opportunity for directly and quick experience and knowledge transfer. My-Change and its country networks motivate to engagement and provide the users with necessary knowledge and contacts.
The aim is to create a pan-European network and an engagement-wiki of civil commitment which connect the content of the country sub networks (e. g. www.my-change.eu/croatia) and allocate it to the main Anglophone network, My-Change. The European citizens should get the opportunity to share their practical knowledge with each other and to learn from each other.
(This concept is the intellectual property of the foundation Bürgermut. The concepts and ideas must be concerned secretly. Forwarding to third persons is not allowed without an explicit authorization of the initiator.)
Describe your idea:
The transfer of society innovations assumes a fast, direct and encyclopedic transfer of knowledge and experience. The processes of transfer can be organized locally with just one instrument: the documentation of civic successful concepts together with possibility for communication between the players.Such system does not exist until now. Someone who is searching for an innovative and successful solution for a social challenge in his surrounding has to do long research and has no comfortable communication possibilities. On www.my-change.eu committed citizens can find helpful suggestions, concrete descriptions of existent solutions, advises against possible problems, advices to related projects and the possibility to contact other active persons who can answer concrete questions. These active citizens can exchange online the latest changes and develop consequently their state of knowledge. (This concept is the intellectual property of the foundation Bürgermut.)
What country will this operate in?: Croatia
Who are you?:
The foundation “Bürgermut” (www.buergermut.de) was found in 2007 by the entrepreneur and longtime Finance and Economic Minister of the State of Berlin, Elmar Pieroth. He wanted to advance both courage and energy. The ambition of the founder: Someone who wants to work creatively and effectively on her/his surroundings should find the right ideas and experiences, qualified information and communication possibilities seven days a week, 24 hours a day.