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EU boosts child migrant protection efforts

Brussels - The EU has announced steps to better protect child migrants running the risk of abuse as they reach Europe in record numbers, including avoiding placing them in detention centres.

The European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, also called for deploying child protection officers to migrant reception centres in countries such as Greece and Italy.

"The number of children arriving in the EU with or without their families has increased dramatically," Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said.

"Children should be our top priority as they are the most vulnerable, especially when they have nobody to guide them," Timmermans said.

The Commission said around one-third of the asylum seekers in Europe is a child.

According to Eurostat, more than 1.2 million new asylum requests were registered in EU countries last year, after nearly 1.26 million in 2015.

Among the list of new measures, the Commission said "everything must be done to provide alternatives to administrative detention for children".

Human Rights Watch said in September that migrant children were being held in "deplorable" conditions for over a month on average, with some locked up in police cells alongside adults for lack of space.

The Commission called for bolstering the role of guardians for unaccompanied minors, of which an estimated 90,000 entered the bloc last year, according to EU figures.

It said all children should have immediate access to legal aid, healthcare, psychological support and education.

It also called on all member states to set up steps needed to systematically report and exchange information on all missing children.

The European police agency Europol caused a stir more than a year ago when it announced that about 10,000 migrant children had gone missing, raising alarm that many of them could have fallen into the hands of traffickers for labour, sexual or criminal exploitation.

The Commission called for accelerated efforts to trace the relatives of children and reunite them with their families, both inside and outside the EU.

The EU has been grappling for the past two years with the worst migrant crisis since World War II, largely driven by the Syrian conflict and turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa.