Life in limbo: Unaccompanied children transitioning into adulthood

Life in limbo: Unaccompanied children transitioning into adulthood

More attention is needed for the challenges experienced by unaccompanied migrant children transitioning into adulthood in the Netherlands.

Unaccompanied migrant children in the Netherlands find themselves in a precarious situation: often their legal status is unsure, they have limited access to basic needs, experience social and emotional problems, and have a limited network to rely on. Many of these problems are exacerbated when they reach the age of 18 and formally become adults. These issues were discussed with an expert panel in a webinar on 24 June 2021, organised by the Migration and Borders Working Group, part of the Netherlands Network of Human Rights Research. This blog summarises the discussions that took place as part of this webinar.

In January 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued an important judgment in relation to the legal status of unaccompanied migrant children, on the basis of prejudicial questions posed by a judge in the Netherlands. In the case of TQ v. Secretary for Justice and Security, Netherlands (C-441/19) the CJEU clarified that EU Member States should investigate whether adequate reception is available for unaccompanied children who are issued a return decision in the country of origin upon return. In particular, the Netherlands lacked this investigation in cases of minors of 15 years and older and waited to expel them until they turned 18, at which time it was no longer required to conduct this investigation into the reception conditions in the country of origin. Both practices are not in line with EU law, according to the CJEU. Currently, a decision is awaited from the Dutch Council of State in this case. Moreover, pending return decisions of minors are revoked by the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service. The experts at the webinar agreed that the Dutch policy is not in line with international children’s rights standards, such as the right to non-discrimination (Art. 2 CRC) and the best interests of the child principle (Art. 3(1) CRC). Investigations into the reception conditions in the country of origin should take place prior to issuing a return decision. Unaccompanied children find themselves in limbo because no certainty exists about their legal status and future. Consequently, more clarification is needed in immigration and asylum law on how to weigh the different interests at stake and how much weight should be accorded to the interests of unaccompanied children.

A second main issue under discussion was the transition to adulthood of unaccompanied children who reside in the Netherlands. Becoming an adult formally has a number of implications, and the experts agreed that many young people – regardless of being a migrant or not – are not ready to take all responsibilities alone. Unaccompanied migrants below the age of 18 are placed under the guardianship of Nidos. However, when turning 18 they find themselves in a particularly difficult situation, because they may be deprived of many basic needs, such as housing, (mental) health care, (emotional and practical) support from professionals, and a social network. These problems are even more pertinent for those who lack residence rights. The experts pointed out that at the level of municipalities not enough efforts are being made to support this group of young people, and the decentralisation of youth care in the Netherlands has worsened this situation. To fill these gaps, some organisations, such as Nidos and SAMAH, have set up support groups of ‘experienced experts’ (former unaccompanied children), who provide assistance to young migrants.

A main conclusion emerging from the discussions was that currently there is very little political support to improve the situation of unaccompanied migrant children in the Netherlands. While in theory these children should be entitled to a number of rights, in practice they are victims of discrimination. A similar treatment of children who are legally residing in the Netherlands would arguably result in social discontent. The support of homeless youth or children in care, for example, is far better funded and organised. Moreover, in other legal fields thinking about adolescent (brain) development has advanced already, resulting in a different and specialised treatment of young adults who are not yet ready to stand on their own feet (see for example the adult criminal law and prolonged support for children in care). Therefore, unaccompanied migrant children in the Netherlands – regardless of whether their legal status is regular or not – face different human rights violations, specifically when transitioning into adulthood. To protect these young people from further harm, there is an urgent need to establish better local and national cooperation, prolong support into the initial stage of adulthood, adopt a child rights-based approach and a pedagogical perspective on what a young person needs when growing up.

The webinar was attended by representatives of Nidos, SAMAH, Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, Defence for Children Netherlands, Internationale Schakelklas Ithaka, Ghent University, a Dutch judge and a lawyer.

For further reading see:

E. Berger and M. Alting von Geusau, ‘Het herijkte amv-beleid moet worden aangepast’, A&MR 2021-3, p. 146-152.

European Migration Network, Children in migration synthesis report, March 2021.

Oxfam and Greek Council for Refugees, 'Teach us what is coming. The transition into adulthood of unaccompanied minors in Europe’, 2021.


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