The European Social Network (ESN) actively participated at the European Commission’s 10th European Forum on the rights of the child which had the theme of the protection of children in migration. This high-level forum involved 280 European participants from policy, practice, and research with strong involvement from public social services and ESN members from Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Participants discussed the need to provide a wide range of services that can respond to the multiple needs that unaccompanied children may have.

In recent years, unaccompanied children have been part of a major humanitarian crisis and a serious stress test for Europe’s welfare systems due to unprecedented immigration. Whilst countries across Europe were shown to be affected by varying numbers, the complexity of each case can make even a few unaccompanied children a challenge for local authorities. At the EC Forum, discussions revolved around the existing European and national policy frameworks as well as on practices implemented across Europe.

Unaccompanied children – a journey full of difficulties

Unaccompanied children come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and leave their home countries for varied reasons, but they all suffer significantly during their journey. One of them, Gulwali Passarlay, shared his personal testimony about the multiple hardships during his journey from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. By doing this, he raised awareness of how many unaccompanied children are unaware of their individual rights and the safeguards that they lack. As a consequence of these gaps, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) sheds light on how unaccompanied children can be exposed to severe, repeated human rights violations, hate crime and how their circumstances make them vulnerable to human trafficking.

Guardians – a safeguard that needs to be available, appointed in time, and well-qualified

To prevent the violations of individual rights, European countries install guardianship systems, where an appointed representative acts in the child’s best interest. Across Europe, guardianship systems differ, but they all need to cope with critical tasks such as the prevention of trafficking or guidance in asylum procedures. Social workers often assume the role as guardians and may work for local authorities or can be appointed by them. As many countries struggle with the provision of sufficient numbers of guardians, extremely high case loads (frequently above legally defined limits) have become the norm for guardians in many countries.

Long-term integration – lessons learnt about access to services

Apart from safeguarding unaccompanied childrens’ rights, strategies to facilitate their long-term integration need to be developed and implemented. For an effective integration process, a range of services need to be accessible. As far back as 2005 ESN published a report in which it emphasised the need to ensure access to services such as social services, education, housing, health care, vocational training, and employment.

At the event, Fanny Bertrand from the County Council of Pas-de-Calais underlined the importance of these services when she explained  the four main pillars of their regional integration strategy:

  • Access to education to learn French
  • Access to leisure activities for social inclusion
  • Access to the labour market through partnerships with employers
  • Clarification of the unaccompanied childrens’ legal status

In her summary, Bertrand concluded that these “concrete steps towards integration are taken best when social workers and children are given the power to act jointly.”

 An emphasis on the key role assumed by social services was echoed very strongly at the event. It was also clear that ‘the best interest of the child’ needs to be at the centre of professionals’ attention. To make the pursuit of a child’s best interest a living practice on the ground, relevant policy frameworks and useful practical guidance have been developed across Europe. Sadly, challenges to making these good intentions and tools a reality lie in the lack of political will to commit much-needed resources.