The European Social Network’s (ESN) Policy Officer Kim Nikolaj Japing undertook two visits to selected member organisations focussing on how public authorities in France and Sweden deal with the integration of unaccompanied children. The County Council of Pas-de-Calais in France and the City of Gothenburg in Sweden both had to cope with very numbers of unaccompanied children in 2015 and 2016. Among the many challenges, the transition into adulthood is a major one as it entails complex changes for young people.

In most Western societies, an 18th birthday is a day of joy for children, as it gives them more freedom of parental supervision. Not so however for unaccompanied children. Instead of a gain in independence, reaching 18 is more associated with a loss of privileges. The 18th birthday implies multiple changes for unaccompanied children, as their access to public services such as housing and legal representation suddenly becomes more difficult.

These difficulties add to a range of challenges that young people within public care already face during their pathway to autonomy and which lead to more abrupt and riskier transitions. Among these challenges are the consequences of lower educational attainment, a less stable upbringing, fewer resources, and discrimination in education and employment. These disadvantages apply more for unaccompanied children who have a cultural, linguistic, and ethnic background. The impact of these challenges lasts well beyond the age of 18. In fact, it can impact on the course of their entire life. To try to give unaccompanied children a fair chance in life, European welfare systems promote support through policy frameworks and guardianship systems.

Legal provisions for aiding transition to adulthood

The support that young people in care may receive after their 18th birthday is called ‘after care’, which refers to their continued access to services.

  • France: The law states that it is possible for child protection services to grant further support to vulnerable young people up until the age of 21. However, the application of these provisions have proven to be incoherent across the country with strong differenences between county councils.
  • Sweden: Targeted legislation for after care up until the age of 21 exists. In contrast to France, the application is more coherent across the country. 

In both countries, unaccompanied children can receive after care irrespective of whether they are in foster care or residential care.

Guardians to represent the child’s best interest

As in most countries, guardianship systems are in place to support unaccompanied children and represent their best interest. The recruitment and selection of guardians differs from one country to another. 

  • In France, social service professionals within child protection departments assume the role as guardians. However, there are special legal counsellors who deal with the complexities of asylum procedures (Administrateurs ad-hoc).
  • In Sweden, a guardian should be a person who is suitably experienced for the role as a custodian for children in vulnerable situations. The person should speak Swedish and know Swedish society, including its relevant migration laws.

Conclusion

Guardianship systems and after care policies are targeted and complementary support mechanisms, however they cannot conceal an uncomfortable reality: unaccompanied children are still very vulnerable. These vulnerabilities are likely to reproduce when they become adults and lose access to services like housing or legal representation. Recognising this risk must be at the heart of professionals’ efforts to ensure their equal chances for participation in society

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