LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children who flee to Europe from war-torn regions without their parents have no clear way of escaping abusive or exploitative adults as there are no unified policies in place to protect them, a European Union (EU) agency said on Wednesday.
Conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa has forced some 1.4 million people to head to Europe, fuelling the region's largest migrant crisis since World War Two.
According to the United Nations children's agency UNICEF, nearly one in 200 children in the world is a refugee.
While many children are unaccompanied, others arrive in Europe with an adult who may be an abusive relative, a smuggler or trafficker, said researcher Mónica Gutiérrez, who authored the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) report.
Gutiérrez said the key problem was the lack of coordination between member states, with cities, regions, and even reception centres devising their own protocols to deal with lone child migrants who are at risk.
Children rely on human smugglers, often under a "pay as you go system", making them prone to exploitation and abuse including rape, forced labour, beatings and death, said UNICEF.
But many children arriving in the EU were not informed of their rights, how to seek asylum, or how to report abuse, Gutiérrez said.
"It's very unlikely that a trafficked child will come forward (to the authorities)," Gutiérrez said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said staff working in reception centres were not properly trained to spot signs of sexual abuse, domestic violence or trafficking.
The United Nations said on Wednesday the trafficking of migrants was reaching "appalling dimensions", with the global number of trafficked children more than doubling to 28 percent in 2014 from 13 percent in 2004.
Gutiérrez said there were cases of accompanying adults being assigned as legal guardians without genetic testing or other assessments of the child's best interest.
Child marriage was also contentious, she added, as some states will recognise the union but others will consider the marriage illegal and separate the pair.
"But it may not be in the benefit of the couple. There were cases of girls attempting to commit suicide and there were lots of cases of depression - really difficult situations," said Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez said member states must include child protection officers when processing lone migrant children, and to work towards implementing unified protocols across the region.
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)