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
Despite being home to the beautiful La Fiorita festival, one man still believes the authorities could do more to fix street problems in his part of Italy. Platforms existed in Venice and across other regions of Italy, so a precedent was set.
Thanks to local Claudio Carletti, the La Marche region will soon get its very own FixMyStreet platform, fatequalcosa.it, which translates as Do Something! Claudio has shared his experience of using the mySociety code and his plans for the site.
“I heard about FixMyStreet [after] reading a book called Wikicrazia where the author talked several times about mysociety.org,” Claudio explains. After exploring the mySociety sites he came across a blog post offering free developer time to help people start their freedom of information or street problem reporting projects. “I contacted [mySociety] and told them I wanted to create fixmystreet in Italy, and asked them for help. They responded immediately.”
Claudio explains, “I chose this platform after trying fixmystreet.com and discovering a really well done service and a user friendly site experience.” He tells us there is already an Italian site running a similar service aimed at councils: decorourbano.org. So Claudio’s plan is to target his site at the Italian youth, 14 to 18 year olds. “I think only a cultural revolution that uses concrete tools (like FixMyStreet) can really change the way you think and act, but I think [it’s] mainly young people who must have the tools to do so.” Plus, he tells us, the youth of today will be the older generation of tomorrow.
After an initial Skype chat with mySociety’s international team Claudio felt confident enough to try a basic install of the software himself.
“I’m not a website developer but I could do it,” Claudio explains. “My experience was using the installation through the Amazon web service. So most of the work was already done and I just ran the installation following the tutorial.”
That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. “Most of my issues came from the Ubuntu terminal commands, which I didn’t know how to use. After the release of the 1.2 platform version most of my problems were resolved. One important improvement was the automatic email service set up and the MAPIT_ID_WHITELIST feature.”
But the mailing list service run by mySociety to help self-installs was an invaluable tool for solving these problems. “Matthew [lead developer for FixMyStreet] always wrote back to my emails, spending a lot time helping me understand the problems,” Claudio says.
One of the perks of the FixMyStreet code is that it’s quite simple to change basic design elements of the site, such as colours and logos, so it can look unique from other installations. Claudio tells us, “After understanding the conf/general.yml file everything went smoothly.”
Claudio has recently begun collaborating with another user on this service, and is presenting his idea to the Projetto Kublai platform where he hopes to gain more support through their community. He’ll also be taking the project to a EU meeting in Berlin in the hopes that there might be some funding there. The launch date isn’t set but he has plans for collaboration with local schools and youth organisations. “[The youth] are more familiar with smartphones and they spend more time living in the city’s streets, because they take the bus or walk or cycle, but they don’t use cars.” And Claudio envisions these will be his superusers.
As Claudio tells the community on Projetto Kublai, “If you look at this site http://www.emptyhomes.com you understand how in reality there are no limits to the possibilities of use of the platform.” Other instances in other countries have reported any number of different types of problems. And it doesn’t just have to be email based, FixMyBarangey in the Philippines allows users to report issues using SMS.
The bigger picture behind Claudio’s installation, he tells us, is this: “Let’s say that the platform fixmystreet is a good starting point, because it works and is easy to install and use. I’d like to have the opportunity not only to bring a problem to solve; for example organizing task forces where people will agree to go and clean up an area filled with concrete waste or to sort out a pitch in order to organize a [football] tournament. This will be the site that will give the tips (video tutorial) to fix that problem. Having said so it sounds pretty utopian idea, but I also believe that if you let people participate (and give them the means to do so) they’ll believe in it and do everything they can to achieve it.”
An inspirational idea!
Romantica 2010 by Jukka Heinonen, Artisaniaflorae CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Romina Colman is, in her own words, a Freedom of Information activist from Buenos Aires. She did a great job of recording events at AlaveteliCon, what with blogging for Argentina’s national newspaper La Nacion, copious tweeting, and videos.
Here, Romina speaks to Andrea Menapace from Italy, co-founder of Diritto di Sapere.
In this short clip (1:15), Andrea explains the current situation with Freedom of Information in Italy, and what his nascent organisation hopes to achieve.
Together with Guido Romeo (science editor at Wired Italy) I am the founder of Diritto di Sapere, a brand new organisation working on the Right to Information and Transparency in Italy. I am a lawyer by training and I have been working as a researcher and project manager in human rights and humanitarian organizations. I am currently working as a consultant for international NGOs on digital media and civil society capacity building projects.