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UNHCR calls for action to improve the situation of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe

Date of Publication: 
18 July 2017

UNHCR, UNICEF and IRC publish roadmap for action

UNHCR calls for action to improve the situation of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe

18 July 2017

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), last week issued a roadmap for action to improve the situation of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children arriving and staying in Europe.

You can read the 31-page document here.

UNHCR says the situation for unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant children has worsened since the large increase of arrivals to Europe in 2015, and they often find themselves confronted with complex, confusing and bureaucratic procedures which do not adequately take into account their best interests.

The roadmap seeks to support European states to improve their response for the protection of such refugee children, and it offers "concrete recommendations on a way forward … for efficient, lean, and harmonized processes which ensure children are protected and can access procedures and solutions in accordance with their best interests."

The recommendations were developed following a broad consultative process led by UNHCR, UNICEF and the IRC, with input from 100 practitioners, including guardians, psychologists, social workers and lawyers, as well as relevant authorities from several European states and the EU, and refugee and migrant children across the continent.

Diane Goodman, Deputy Director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau was quoted as saying: "Many of these children have experienced terrible violence, sexual abuse, trafficking and emotional and psychological pressure not only during their journey but in Europe itself. They deserve better protection and care from Europe. All actions and decisions must have the child's best interests at heart. We can all make this happen and the Roadmap shows us how."

A separate, 4-page 'call to action' document (available here) summarises the roadmap's key recommendations as follows:

"1 Children need to be found and registered through child-friendly procedures.

Unaccompanied children are often scared and under pressure from smugglers, traffickers and sometimes even their families who are counting on their future prospects in Europe. Many have also experienced harm at the hands of border authorities and the police. These experiences have taught them not to trust anyone along the route and avoid any formal processing before reaching their desired destination. However, registration and age assessments are often the only opportunity to access child specific services and protection. It is therefore of utmost importance that children are identified, fully registered, and their age determined by a panel of social, psychological, and medical experts with the child's consent, whenever there is doubt. In order for children to feel comfortable to come forward, they need to be provided with clear information materials in languages and formats that make it easy for them to understand their rights and the procedures; they need the support of cultural mediators from their same cultural backgrounds; and special border authorities trained in child-friendly procedures should receive them. It is critical at this early stage that they are separated from adults and registered and handled by child protection professionals, to assess their needs and initiate family tracing.

2 A well trained guardian needs to take immediate responsibility for the child.

Guardians are key to the children's protection. In the absence of parents or caregivers, the guardian needs to be a reliable, trustworthy person who supports the child in a foreign environment. Refugee and migrant children should always have the support of, and a close trusting relationship with, a guardian who will mitigate the smugglers' influence and ensure targeted and efficient assistance for the child in line with his/her best interests. Good practices in some European countries should be replicated in all European countries as they demonstrate their huge impact on the wellbeing of the children and on cost efficiency.

3 Cultural mediators should be used to bridge cultural gaps and build trust.

The culture shock children experience cannot be underestimated. Well trained cultural mediators from the same cultural background, speaking the same language, can take children by the hand, explain, and help to build trust in the guardian, the system and the host society. Only building this trust can mitigate the influence of smugglers and traffickers.

4 Children need to live in safety and receive assistance geared toward their needs.

Every child is different. Therefore, not all children need a full package of assistance. However, all of them need to be safe. Small, supervised group homes and foster families have worked well in providing this safety and are also more cost effective than large scale institutions. European states need to make legal commitments to minimum quality standards for accommodation and services, which must also be monitored on a regular basis. An assessment of each individual child can help decipher who needs what support. Last but not least, they should have access to services such as health and education, even after they turn 18.

5 Refugee, migrant, diaspora and host communities need to be mobilised to help in protecting the children.

During the height of the crisis, European civil society was actively engaged in the response in their communities; however, refugee, migrant and diaspora communities have not yet been fully engaged. There are examples in Europe and other parts of the world of the huge potential that exists and should be further developed. Foster families from the same cultural background have, for example, been particularly successful, and have improved the children's integration prospects. There are examples in Europe and other parts of the world of the huge potential that exists and should be further developed. Foster families from the same cultural background have, for example, been particularly successful, and have improved the children's integration prospects.

6 Children need to be heard and empowered.

Children and youth are often faced with a stark choice - focussing on fulfilling their aspirations of a better life and better education or wasting months or even years waiting in reception centres for a decision on their future. Education, peer group activities, sport clubs, skills training and the provision of resources to start their own projects are some of the ways in which they can positively channel their efforts, not only for their own benefit, but also for that of their host and new communities. Too many programmes and initiatives have failed because they were planned with a top-down approach while missing the needs of the children. If children and youth are systematically and appropriately consulted, for example through youth advisory groups or complaint mechanisms, a lot of money can be saved and children are better protected.

7 The child's long-term future needs to be defined as early as possible.

Uncertainty about their future while being stuck in limbo for months or even years not only has severe psychological effects on children, but also causes disruptions to the systems and thus costs money. As early as possible and building on the trusting relationship, child protection experts have to identify, together with the child and their guardian, the best long term solution – be it in the country where they are, where their family is, or in another country. This should always include the tracing of their family, and the wellbeing and best interests of the child should always be the determining factor.

8 Every decision on behalf of the child needs to serve his or her wellbeing and best interests.

Dealing with children requires specific expertise. Europe has an abundance of this expertise when dealing with national children. However, too often asylum experts, rather than child protection experts, are the actors forced to take decisions on behalf of children. It is therefore necessary to clearly define and plan the procedures as well as the roles and responsibilities of the different experts. Every decision with a longer-term impact on the child's wellbeing needs to be taken by a child protection specialist, so that their wellbeing and best interests are at the core of the decision. Clear procedures will lead to better use of resources as they will help streamline the different actions, ensure proper coordination among those involved in the decision-making process and prevent duplication."