Children at the borders: our shared priority


It is often considered that children are our stars, and we wish for them to grow and shine brightly in a safe environment. When we say children, we hear laughter, we see little hands that are never at rest, and we think about youth creativity and freedom. As much as this image should apply to all the children in the world, the global reality is much darker. The exploitation of children is one of the top crimes and, specifically, cross-border crimes. At Frontex, the idea of prioritising the children in all border operations dates back to 2009, when the first anti-trafficking projects prioritising children were undertaken and bore its fruit in 2015 in the form of the first VEGA handbook focused on children on the move. The book provided border-specific instructions for the border guards to assist the youngest ones, especially if unaccompanied.

“Identifying vulnerable people at border checkpoints is a challenging task. You need to stay alert and know a lot about the emerging forms of exploitation. Border guards are always under pressure to ensure security and check documents, which can make it hard to notice signs of vulnerable individuals, like victims of trafficking or exploitation. To spot vulnerable people, you can’t just look at travel documents — you need to observe how people behave. This is especially crucial for children, who might not be able to express their distress verbally.” Edita Urbanovic, Programme Coordinator, IOM Office in Lithuania

The leading star of VEGA

Everything starts with the change of perspective. Razvan Budeanu, who is Head of Law Enforcement Sector a.i. at Frontex, fully embodies this approach. This former Romanian border police officer often raises the issue of the imperfection of the current methods for dealing with crimes against children: action is taken only when the crime has already occurred. It means that there are already victims, young victims. His Unit cooperates closely with Frontex operational and analytical divisions, Fundamental Rights Office, and Consultative Forum composed of independent international organisations, European institutions, as well as NGO representatives to identify the best ways of countering the crime of trafficking against human beings, particularly the children, before there are any victims. 

“We need to include border guards and train them to spot any suspicious situations concerning the children on the move,” explains Razvan, “Borders may be one of the few places where well trained officers can spot and identify potential victims and help them realise their situation or simply protect them. Even more importantly, this can be the initial point for opening a case that can lead to the dismantling of a trafficking ring”.

Razvan does not build in the void. This need for coordinated and coherent actions stems from Frontex’s original VEGA project. There are three handbooks available:

  1. VEGA Handbook: Children at airports (2015)
  2. VEGA Handbook: Children at land borders (2019)
  3. VEGA Handbook: Children at sea borders (2019) 
“I undertook a VEGA deployment with Frontex in the Skopje International Airport in North Macedonia in July 2023. I received very professional support from the Frontex Consultative Forum on Fundamental Rights Secretariat in completing administrative procedures. I was also provided access to VEGA materials and the Frontex learning management system, helping me to prepare prior to my engagement. Worth mentioning, I found the VEGA handbook extremely useful. I monitored the movements at the airport, primarily observing children that could potentially be at risk. On a daily basis, I collected statistical data by age groups and focused on the children’s behaviour to identify potential indications as per the VEGA handbook. I would like to highlight the professionalism and commitment of the deployed Frontex officers in Skopje International Airport.” Bujar Prebreza, Protection Associate, UNHCR Office Chief of Mission in Kosovo

Each represents a detailed compendium of various border procedures that should be used by the guards to make sure that every child crossing the border is safe and can be tracked easily once on the other side of the border. As Razvan explains, “At Frontex, we train our officers, assess risks, deliver and update knowledge about crimes against children so that our officers in the first and second line are prepared to act accordingly”. However, the VEGA handbooks are not for Frontex only. Quite the opposite. When they were drafted, Frontex offered its premises and resources to many external experts from the EU countries, Europol, Eurojust and international organisations, such us International Organization for Migration (IOM) or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to mention the few, and they all worked together with full engagement and belief in the cause. As for the name, Vega, which is the brightest star in the Lyra constellation, was chosen as it reflects most appropriately the significance of the subject. Children are our shining stars, after all.

“As part of the VEGA Programme, I was assigned for a two-week period at the border crossing point of the Chisinau International Airport in Moldova. This experience provided me with a valuable opportunity to closely observe the operations of border guards, particularly in their interactions with asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, and other vulnerable people. This will also help to adjust the training we offer at UNHCR to border police and understand better their needs in the field. In my opinion, the three top priorities to be implemented in the future would be: 1. Strengthening the tripartite cooperation mechanism between UNHCR - Frontex and Border Police to have a network of experts in the field of protection of vulnerable people; and to comply with relevant international and national standards. 2. Proactive involvement and close cooperation with the representatives of the guardianship authority at both central and regional level, in the event that there are cases involving unaccompanied or separated children. 3. Sharing information between the employees the entities mentioned above. This could help us in the exchange of experiences and best practices, that can go from the everyday work to the involvement in case studies from other EU Member States where Frontex employees operate.” Sabina Sandu, Assistant Protection Officer, UNHCR Moldova

A win-win situation

It is especially important for the NGOs to keep their independent judgement and this way their role is priceless in every undertaking that they participate in. In case of VEGA, the Consultative Forum offers its profound knowledge and professionals who are trained VEGA experts. They go to various border zones to observe the work of the guards and advise them on situations involving the vulnerable travellers, particularly the children. This cooperation with the Consultative Forum has been growing steadily and thanks to the great logistic support and coordination by the Fundamental Rights Office, in 2023, there were over 20 on-the-spot activities in several border areas with VEGA in focus; 26 such activities are already scheduled for 2024. More such activities are needed but it is already a great way of disseminating more knowledge and recommendations in the European countries.

Speaking from his experience, Razvan notes that one of the major issues for law enforcement is that children in general are afraid of the uniform. “Children who were trafficked and/or abused are already quite traumatised. If they see someone in uniform approaching them from a position of power, the game is over, the child will not speak, will not share their trauma. We must cooperate with external experts to adapt our ways and offer the best protection for the ones that cannot protect themselves. In VEGA, we are seeking beyond the police or investigative perspective, and we try to build bridges between law enforcement units and civil society.”

“Before joining IOM, I was involved with various human rights organisations. So, when the chance to participate in the VEGA project came up, it felt like a natural fit. It allowed me to combine the expertise I gained at IOM with the insights and experiences I had from working with NGOs. One of my main contributions was closely observing the processes at border checkpoints to identify areas for improvement. I shared ideas on how to enhance the VEGA handbook to make it more practical and effective for those working on the ground. For example, I emphasised the importance of cultural sensitivity when interacting with children from diverse backgrounds, included information on how to interact with children in the presence of police or service dogs to ensure their comfort and address any potential fears, and prioritized the needs of children at border checkpoints.” Edita Urbanovic, Programme Coordinator, IOM Office in Lithuania
Both UNHCR and IOM experts underline that the best interests of the child must be a primary consideration in all the actions and decisions taken by the stakeholders, especially when they affect children directly or indirectly. This requires close cooperation with the States, the communities and the services acting for the children and the protection of their rights. In Europe, children are never to be detained in the migratory context and other child-friendly alternatives must be ensured and applied. UNHCR, in particular, calls for the harmonisation of the European practices of the age assessment, including psychological and developmental, as it has an enormous impact on further handling of the case and the choice of measures. Such day-to-day cooperation and exchange of expertise, even on the smallest aspects of the topic, is most beneficial and efficient.

VEGA should shine even more brightly

Nine years since the first publication of a VEGA handbook is a long time and Europe has since witnessed a major escalation of the war in Ukraine and massive refugee flows. Unaccompanied children constitute a great percentage in these numbers. Updating the handbooks is now a priority and adding a new VEGA handbook dedicated to return operations is a new identified objective. 

Even though this ready-to-use material is easily available on Frontex’s website, with time and staff rotation, the awareness of its existence has diminished. Frontex standing corps officers are regularly trained on the subject, but it is the Agency’s ambition and goal to spread the know-how across all European border crossing points, so that it serves all border guards and all the children who come their way. Moreover, Frontex embedded the VEGA component in all its joint operations and organises activities with focus on identification of children at risk of trafficking, such as the Cross-Border Crime Action Days or EMPACT Joint Action Days. 

Finally, Frontex has recently set up a Focus Group on Trafficking Against Human Beings (THB) which gathers representatives from various Frontex entities, such as training, risk analysis, international cooperation, Fundamental Rights Office, representative organisations from the Consultative Forum as well as Frontex’s own cross-border crime detection officers. Its task is, among others, to map out the priority areas for vulnerable people on the move and define the most immediate points for action. This is to enhance the Agency's response measures in all areas related to prevention and detection of THB, in particular to protect the children. 

Looking at this phenomenon from different angles is a must. As Razvan says, “Our dream and ambition would be to connect the borders with police operations, so that there’s a circle of information about the children on the move at risk of trafficking – from border police to territorial police and vice versa. When in this big universe all protective entities get connected and start exchanging information on a regular basis, no child will go missing or be exploited. Then the universe will be perfect.”

“The main message concerning children in migration, applicable to all contexts including border situations, is the urgent need for a coordinated and compassionate approach that prioritises their safety, well-being, and rights. Public and non-governmental organisations must work together to create a comprehensive support system that addresses the unique vulnerabilities of migrant children. This involves ensuring access to basic needs such as food, shelter, healthcare, and education, as well as providing legal assistance and psychosocial support. The overarching goal should be to protect children from exploitation, abuse, and neglect, while upholding their dignity and human rights throughout their journey. Children cannot protect themselves, so working with this group in particular requires all organisations to work together.” Edita Urbanovic, Programme Coordinator, IOM Office in Lithuania