The European Commission Communication reports that the scale of the refugee crisis has placed significant pressure on Member States, who cannot maintain adequate protection for migrants, including, children. This echoes the concerns made by organisations monitoring the crisis.

Statistics illustrate that children represent a significant proportion of refugees and migrants. First-time asylum applications made in the EU numbered 1,257,865 for 2016 and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 25.9% of migrants entering Europe are children, of whom 34% are unaccompanied.

The Communication from the Commission recommends key actions to be carried out by Member States to improve the protection of migrant children. It covers the following topics:

  • Swift identification and protection upon arrival
  • Adequate reception conditions for children
  • Swift decision making on status and effective guardianship
  • Durable solutions to establish long-term stability for children and early integration measures
  • Addressing root causes and protecting children along migrant routes outside the EU

The European Social Network (ESN) is preparing a seminar entitled the ‘Social inclusion of migrant children – Supporting the transition to adulthood’, which will explore the challenges for social services regarding migrant children. It will cover many of the issues raised by the Commission. The seminar will take place in Stockholm on 23-24 October 2017 and more news will be given soon on the event page of this website.

Recent reports by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, have revealed various shortcomings across Europe in addressing the topics covered in the Commission’s Communication.

Identification and age assessment of children

The identification of children is essential for providing access to special protection and assistance measures. However, the Council of Europe has observed inadequate identification measures, which has led to children being treated as adults and placed in detention. Furthermore, delays in the appointment of guardians for unaccompanied children were identified by the Council, without which children are exposed to serious risks such as trafficking.

The FRA’s review cites Poland as an example where child refugees are often placed in detention and it can take three to six months to appoint a guardian.

The FRA also indicates age assessment procedures for children as another area of concern. There are reports of unaccompanied children displaying extreme stress and anxiety related to age assessments and their chances of remaining in their host country once they turn 18. This has been evident from deteriorating mental health and from suicide attempts. The effectiveness of these assessments is also questionable. For example, the FRA points to a conclusion by the Swedish Migration Agency which found that age had been insufficiently investigated in 60% of all cases.

Reception and integration

Once identified, the accommodation facilities available to children are lacking according to the FRA. In Greece, 891 children are on the waiting list for accommodation as of March 2017. Furthermore, the FRA indicates that in Italy and Germany children are often accommodated in facilities which are not adequate for children and where they may have to share with unrelated families and adults.

The Council of Europe highlights that in migration hotspots there are often very limited or no opportunities for education. The FRA notes, for example, that only 29% of children in German reception centres regularly attend school, and that in Slovakia teachers are unprepared to teach refugee children, largely due to language barriers.

Transition to adulthood

Another issue raised by the Council of Europe was the transition to adulthood for unaccompanied children. The Council found that when they turn 18, they may suddenly be transferred to adult facilities with little assistance, or even find themselves homeless.

ESN’s own research on the impact of the refugee crisis on local public social services found that the provision of accommodation, language barriers, information and training for staff and the provision of specialist services for refugees, were the main challenges for local public social services.

Evidence from the FRA and Council of Europe demonstrates that the Communication from the Commission was needed to encourage member states to improve the protection of child refugees and migrants. ESN will be involved in meeting the challenges of the refugee crisis and the upcoming seminar, ‘Social inclusion of migrant children – Supporting the transition to adulthood’ will provide the opportunity for discussion and sharing of best practice. In addition, ESN’s European Social Services Conference taking place in Malta on 26-28 June, will explore the integration of refugees and migrants in one of our panel sessions. Please refer to the conference website to register and for more information.