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Local social services in most European countries have a statutory duty to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and help migrant families integrate into society. More than 160 professionals working in social services in 21 European countries met at a recent seminar organised by the European Social Network (ESN) to discuss the challenges faced by public social services in promoting the inclusion of migrant children and their transition to adulthood. It also addressed innovative solutions and best practice at local level.

The international perspective

ESN chose Sweden for the seminar as recognition of the effort made by Swedish social services to welcome and support unaccompanied children and refugees fleeing war and persecution. Opening the seminar, Minister Åsa Regnér emphasised that ‘’the migration crisis helped us understand the key role that social services play in supporting the most vulnerable’’. Participants heard Febe, an unaccompanied child supported by social services in the UK speak about how he wants to be a nurse to help others. Febe told the audience that social services helped him access education and housing, which have been instrumental in securing his inclusion.

However, MEP Anna-Maria Corazza Bildt argued that ‘’Europe is facing an integration crisis and all Member States should show solidarity and fulfil their responsibility to welcome asylum-seeking refugees’’.  Raquel Cortes-Herrera, from the Directorate General for Employment at the European Commission, suggested the possibility to make the ex-ante conditionality (the conditions that national governments need to fulfil to access EU funds) stricter and linking them with the fulfilment of responsibilities in the field of migration.

Despite international law stipulating that detention should only be used in exceptional circumstances, Astrid Podsiadlowski from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) underlined that children in the hotspots are still detained in so called ‘protective custody’ to ensure that they are safe. As I highlighted in other articles, unaccompanied children need to stay in the Greek islands’ hotspots much longer than initially foreseen due to the lack of shelters in mainland Greece.

When migrant children are transferred to municipal social services they are supported in accessing essential services such as guardianship, healthcare and education. Though public authorities are their corporate parent, guardians (whether a professional or a volunteer) can be instrumental in helping children navigate access to services. Guglielmo Schininà from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) described a recent support programme in Greek camps to support the mental health and wellbeing of unaccompanied children thanks to which 518 children have received psychological support. According to a study with unaccompanied children in the Nordic countries, participation in school is the most important factor in securing their successful social inclusion.

The role of education and employment 

Education and labour market integration play a key role in securing the successful social inclusion of migrant children and young people. We learned about the importance of matching training and skills development with the arrival age of migrant youth, and of innovative approaches in promoting their transition to adulthood. Folk High Schools for secondary school Swedish students have been open to unaccompanied young migrants thanks to specific agreements with municipalities. They provide a mentor as well as advice and wellbeing support for unaccompanied children. In Antwerp (Belgium), Curant is a service funded with the EU’s Fund for Asylum, Migration and Integration (AMIF) pairing young refugees aged 18 to 24 with Flemish young ‘buddies’ to support the refugees in their transition to adulthood.

Vienna’s Youth College is a successful collaboration between Austria’s public employment services and NGOs, with funding from the European Social Fund (ESF). It is open to 1,000 students, 500 of whom are asylum-seekers. They all have an individual plan including German language support, education and labour market support.

Children before migrants 

The problems faced by unaccompanied children are far too often addressed from a migration perspective rather than from a child protection angle. Participants felt that this created challenges for how social services care and protect the most vulnerable migrant children due to delays in appointing guardians, the uncertainty surrounding the outcomes of asylum-seeking procedures, or difficulties in accessing specialist healthcare.

At a moment of crisis, all agencies should pull together to care for children properly. Participants recognised the difficulties in finding placements for all unaccompanied children and with providing adequate support for migrant young people in their transition to adulthood. However, they agreed that getting it right requires putting children at the centre as well as partnerships and cooperation across all agencies involved.

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