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
Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?
In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.
Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.
As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.
This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.
But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.
From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:
- This Google form (in Spanish – but you can fill it in in English if you wish), or
- The hashtag #derechoasaber16 on Twitter, or
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org (Council of Transparency and Good Governance) or email@example.com (Access info Europe and Civio Foundation).
Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.
Last week we saw what it’s like running an Alaveteli site in New Zealand, which has had an established Freedom of Information law for 30 years.
As you may recall from our blog post back in April 2012, Tu Derecho A Saber [Your Right To Know] was launched into a high-octane political environment, to a country where Freedom of Information had been repeatedly promised but not delivered.
At that time, the Spanish government was just about to open a public consultation. 16 months later, what has been the result, and what place has Tu Derecho A Saber found in the Spanish culture? David explains.
“It’s still a very intense political environment around here. The Freedom of Information draft has slowly dragged through Congress, and was approved last week. Now it needs to go to the Senate and come back.
“Once approved, there will be a one-year implementation period, so we expect the law to be effective by the end of 2014.
“We’ve been lobbying to improve the law, which does not meet international standards and has a number of critical flaws. Meanwhile there is a huge mistrust among citizens about politicians and public bodies, mostly because of the growing number of corruption scandals being investigated by journalists and judges, some of them involving the main political parties.”
With legislation that’s still lacking, the site faces a challenge. Take a look at the homepage right now, and you’ll see a link to the site’s 2012 report [in Spanish].
Of the 567 valid requests for information received during 2012, only 13% received a valid response. Administrative silence [is] the greatest obstacle to the right of access to information in Spain.
So, given this environment, what is the biggest difficulty for Cabo?
“The site is running fine, no technical issue at all.
“Our main challenge is trying to keep users motivated in the face of public bodies that clearly don’t care.
“Most people still don’t know much about access to information. The ones that do come and ask questions get easily frustrated about the lack of response (they’re just met with silence, normally), so right now I’d say our users are those citizens who are particularly motivated and conscious.
“Sometimes the administration says that emails are not a valid channel for access to information requests, and asks our users to go via their own web forms. Sometimes we do that (or ask the user to do it himself), and the results are the same: silence, or sometimes an automated acknowledgement that doesn’t go anywhere.
“Opacity is certainly not limited to our website, you get the same by phone or letter.”
You may ask, “Why run a Freedom of Information website in such an unwelcoming environment?”.
We look at it this way: by publishing every request for information – answered or unaswered – Alaveteli creates a transparent and verifiable archive. If requests continue to go unanswered, the evidence grows – and, perhaps, so will the impetus for social change.
mySociety recommends setting up websites that reflect society as it should be, not websites that respond to how the law is today. We never reject a project because there’s no Right To Information in the target jursidiction. Indeed, you might see these projects as the most worthwhile of all.
Under such circumstances, one of the most important things Cabo can do is to foster awareness, of the act and of his website. With the topic being so high-profile in the news, there is also the opportunity for press coverage.
“Some journalists do understand how critical it is for their profession and for our democracy to have a good access to information law. Thanks to them we get the chance to explain in the media the many flaws of the proposed law, and compare the Spanish situation with that of countries around us, sometimes even on prime-time TV.
“In one of my FOI requests, I asked for the Congress budget in detail, but my request was denied repeatedly.
“The information only became public when it was leaked to journalists; we then managed to get a copy of the leaked data, and published it in full, which got some media coverage. This is an all too common example of how public bodies work in Spain: even basic information like a detailed budget is hidden from citizens”.
Social media gives them a platform too:
“We keep a blog that highlights good requests. It also covers bad examples, and you’ll see a lot of legal talk about the FOI draft.”
Run a Freedom of Information website
As we’ve seen above, every jurisdiction is different, and the legal situation can make an enormous difference to what type of challenges you’ll face when running a Freedom of Information website.
But at least you won’t have to worry about the software. Alaveteli has been designed to work anywhere, whatever laws are – or are not – in place. We also have plenty of experience and can help you every step of the way.
If you’re interested in finding out more, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s David Cabo from Tuderechoasaber.es. In another minute-long chat, he explains the environment in Spain, into which the Alaveteli-powered site launched.
“No-one has done it before, so no-one knows how to start.”
David in his own words:
I’m vice-president of Pro Bono Publico – a Spanish association organizing the biggest Open Data hackathon in the country, AbreDatos – and creator of dondevanmisimpuestos.es, a web site for visualizing the annual budgets from Spanish public administrations, developed in collaboration with the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN). I worked with mySociety and Access Info Europe in the development of the EU access to information site, AsktheEU.org. I launched the transparency initiative #adoptaundiputado (Adopt an MP) to crowdsource the parsing of Spanish parliamentarians’ financial disclosure reports, and have collaborated with investigative journalists in the extraction and analysis of public records (Looting the Seas, ICIJ). I’m currently working on tuderechoasaber.es, an access to information site for Spain based on the Alaveteli software and funded by more than 150 small donors using the crowdfunding platform Goteo.
A Right-to-Know site for Spain
Tuderechoasaber.es is Spain’s brand new Right-to-Know site, built on Alaveteli. The project is managed by David Cabo and Victoria Anderica, and it launches against a fascinating political background.
When the project was started, Spain was one of four EU countries with no Freedom of Information law. The subject was, however, on the political agenda – FOI had been promised, but not delivered, by the previous government in both 2004 and 2008. On election in December 2011, the new conservative ruling party again pledged to introduce Freedom of Information, within their first 100 days in office.
Anderica works at the organisation Access Info Europe, which had been campaigning, with the support of NGOs including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, for a Freedom of Information law. Cabo is one of the founders of Civio, a new organisation hoping to emulate the work of mySociety or the Sunlight Foundation, in Spain. The combination of Access Info and Civio’s knowledge – legal and technical – meant that Tuderechoasaber.es could become a reality.
There was such public thirst for these withheld rights that Cabo and Anderica were able to fund their website through crowdsourced donations. They raised €6,000 and the site was built.
Tuderechoasaber (“Your Right to Know”) launched on the 22nd of March 2012, just a day before the Government opened a public consultation on Freedom of Information (just inside that 100-day deadline). Their promise has now been fulfilled and Spain finally has its Right-to-Know law.
Meanwhile, Tuderechoasaber welcomed more than 11,000 visitors during the first two days it was live. 180 requests were sent – never mind that they slightly preceded the Freedom of Information law actually coming into existence.
Practicalities of launching a Right to Know site
Launching a site like Tuderechoasaber might seem an impressive task, and undoubtedly, much work has gone into it – and will continue to do so.
But it may be more achievable than you think. We asked David a few questions, and here are his thoughts on the matter:
How long did the Alaveteli installation/site build take?
It didn’t take long at all. I was familiar with Alaveteli, as I had developed AsktheEU.org already, so the whole technical work was done over a couple of weeks by myself, while campaigning and coordinating other stuff.
Setting up the server took a couple of days max, and I spent a few more days redesigning the front page and a few other things: we want/need to give the site a more dynamic look, including regular news and encouraging people to support other users’ requests. Most people in Spain don’t know what FOI is or how it’s used, and that includes the public servants, so we need to be more aggressive to get responses.
How simple or otherwise did you find it? What were the major hurdles (from a development point of view) that you had to overcome?
Easy. Development-wise there were no big issues; we’ve uncovered a few caching bugs, but that’s about it.
Adding the blog posts and pictures on the frontpage is a bit of a hack right now, but no big deal. 90% of our time has been talking to media and public bodies, before and after the crowdfunding. Oh, and coordinating the translations and volunteers.
How much time is the day-to-day running of the site taking at the moment, and how much time do you anticipate spending, after the initial publicity dies down?
Too early to know how it will look once it’s settled. It’s a week now since launch, and although the media focus has moved a bit away from FOI (there was a general strike today about job market reform) we’re now getting 2K users a day. So far we have 270 requests, which is way more than we expected.
There’re 8000 city councils in Spain, plus the regional and national bodies, so the day-to-day work now – which is taking two people a few hours a day – is finding more contact details. We expect to have a couple of part-time volunteers handling support, and two part-time journalists writing about what happens on the site.
Could anyone take the plunge and run a site like this, or are there certain qualities you think it’s necessary to have?
Legal understanding of the FOI situation in their country seems essential to me. We couldn’t have built this without Access Info. Apart from that, I don’t think the technical or operations requirements are too complex. Of course, being active in civil society and/or having a community of interested users definitely helps to get the site moving.
Would you mind being contacted by others considering building an Alaveteli site?
Sure, that’s fine, happy to talk about it by email or Twitter. [If you’d like to take David up on this generous offer, find him in the first instance on Twitter at @dcabo.]
What is Alaveteli?
Alaveteli websites work like this:
- Users can contact public authorities with requests for information.
- The sites publish those requests, and the resulting responses.
- Or if there is no response, they make that fact known.
No right to Freedom of Information? Launch anyway
The right to Freedom of Information varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: in many countries it is enshrined by law. In others, there is no such law.
In both scenarios, we encourage people to set up Alaveteli sites.
Why? Because one of the core tenets of running an Alaveteli site is that we believe it should reflect how the law should work, not how it does.
As an example, our site WhatDoTheyKnow.com allows users to contact several bodies which are not actually subject to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act – and many of them do reply to requests made through the site.
Additionally, when we launched the site, there was no prior example of putting responses to Freedom of Information requests into the public domain. Because we believe in the benefits of transparency, we went ahead and did so anyway.
WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in the context of the UK having a Freedom of Information law, but there is nothing to stop you from launching a site even where such a law does not exist.
Find out more about Tuderechoasaber
- Visit the site itself
- El Pais article in the original Spanish or translated into English
- El Mundo article in the original Spanish or translated into English
Find out more about Alaveteli