Children’s rights at the local level: The European approach to (unaccompanied) children in migration

Children’s rights at the local level: The European approach to (unaccompanied) children in migration

Refugee and migrant children require specific protection and support. Local level initiatives play an important role in their integration. Initiatives promoting early integration, an individualised approach and prolonged support appear successful.

Since 2015 the number of refugee and migrant children and women arriving in Europe outnumber the adult men arriving (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities). UNICEF has estimated that 5.4 million migrant children live in Europe. In 2017, 32,000 children arrived in Greece, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria. At least 54% of them were unaccompanied or separated from their parents.

European developments

The European Commission concluded in 2017 that children in migration require specific and appropriate protection. These children ‘are in a state of particular vulnerability, because of their age, their distance from home and often their separation from parents or carers’. The Communication on the protection of children in migration (hereafter EC Communication) concluded that in order to provide durable solutions, including integration in a Member State, the Member States are encouraged, among other things, to 1) provide equal access to inclusive, formal education, including early childhood education and care; 2) ensure timely access to healthcare; 3) provide support to enable children in the transition to adulthood (or leaving care) to access necessary education and training; and 4) foster social inclusion in all integration-related policies, such as prioritising mixed, non-segregated housing and inclusive education. Moreover, in the case of children’s best interests, the best appropriate course of action should be determined. The Council of Europe states in its Action Plan on the Protection of Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe that in order to protect these children, among other things, the integration of children who remain in Europe should receive particular attention, meaning that refugee and migrant children are provided with education and that they are provided with opportunities to participate in society. Recently, the European Parliament resolution on the protection of children in migration was adopted, as a follow-up to the EC Communication. 28 points of action are listed, urging Member States to adopt and implement a holistic rights-based approach in their child-related policies, including the essential role played by local and regional authorities which are at the forefront of the reception and integration of migrant children.

Urban Agenda Partnership for the inclusion of migrants and refugees

Since 2017, a number of European cities (i.e. Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin and Helsinki), national governments (i.e. Denmark, Greece, Italy and Portugal), the European Commission and civil society organisations have been working together under the Partnership of the Urban Agenda for the EU on the inclusion of migrants and refugees to develop ideas and concrete actions to support the integration of refugees and migrants in Europe. One of the actions of the Partnership concerns the integration and protection of children in migration and the development of policy recommendations to this end. Within the scope of the Partnership, a series of case studies in 14 different European cities has been conducted in collaboration with Missing Children Europe and the Department of Child Law, Leiden Law School. The objective was to map the approaches taken by local governments in Europe to protect and integrate (unaccompanied) children in migration using data obtained from interviews with field workers and policy makers. The 15 case studies represent over 20 different initiatives and services that offer lessons from the ground on protecting the rights and meeting the needs of children in migration. The results of the case studies identified three themes in good practices that should ideally be part of any European city’s approach to unaccompanied children in migration. The main outcomes of this study are presented here.

Early integration, an individualised approach and prolonged support

“In the Netherlands you live for yourself and you are not in touch with your neighbours, you do not talk to anyone. And you do not have family here either, everyone is living by themselves. It is not like in our country” (Quote from an unaccompanied child who arrived in the Netherlands, Kulu-Glasgow et al., 2018).

Integration into the local society should start the day the child arrives (i.e. integration from day 1 initiatives). If integration efforts are initiated only after the child obtains a residence permit, not only is valuable time lost, these efforts will also be less effective because the child’s development is brought to a halt and this can elicit feelings of desperation and demotivation. Secondly, an effective approach is an individualised approach. The assessment of the best interests of the child is one of the vital steps that should take place right at the start of any local government action towards the child. Every child will bring along different experiences and cultural challenges that need to be taken into account when setting up an individual approach. Therefore, safeguarding the participation of children in the process and ensuring that the approach, project or initiative has regard for their specific needs, wishes and level of development, has proved successful. Thirdly, to maximize the long-term effectiveness of programmes tailored for child migrants, the support should be prolonged throughout the transition into adulthood. Since most unaccompanied children arrive in Europe close to their transition into legal adulthood, it is necessary to provide a smooth transition into adult support services. Young people who reach the age of 18 years are often not yet self-sufficient or independent. Prolonged support can be given in many different ways, such as extending systems of assisted living (e.g. foster care, co-housing and/or special group homes for unaccompanied children), guardianship and education, as well as helping young adults in building up a social network, providing traineeships and learning how to search for and secure a job.

In the good practices identified, children’s rights principles such as the best interests of the child (Art. 3 CRC), the right to be heard (Art. 12 CRC) and the right to development (Art. 6) are firmly rooted. This shows that the child rights-based approach advocated by the international and European community, has found its way to the local level (see also the blog post on Children’s Rights Cities). However, the study also shows that the involvement and cooperation of citizens is generally limited and scarce in nearly all the initiatives and cities. In light of the more successful initiatives, significant progress has been made at the grassroots level, but it also clear that true integration and connection with local citizens takes time and requires continued efforts by everyone involved in the protection and integration of refugee and migrant children in host communities.


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