“They took me to the police station and took away my shoes… Then they locked me with other people in a cell. We were around 40 people. Children and adults. Some were sleeping on the floor. If you were asking for something, the police officers were beating you or kicking you with their boots.” This is the testimony of an unaccompanied minor making their way to a new life in Europe. In 2020, three out of 10 migrants were children – and 10% of those children were travelling unaccompanied.
These children are often very vulnerable and suffer from trauma experienced before, during and after their transition to their new countries. However, many national governments do not offer the comprehensive support necessary to help these children integrate and achieve their best. The cities of Amsterdam, Leeds, Malmo and Tilburg are among those that are filling the gaps to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children have everything they need to get a fair start in life.
The EU has initiated a number of child-related initiatives, such as the first EU strategy on the rights of the child, adopted in March, aiming at building a new EU policy framework to ensure the protection of rights of all children, and secure access to basic services for vulnerable children; the EU Child Guarantee which provides targeted measures for EU member states to support children in need and at risk of poverty or social exclusion; and also the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027 that sheds a light on service provision to migrant children, in particular when it comes to making education and training more inclusive of cultural and linguistic diversity. In many cases, it falls upon Europe’s cities to ensure that these policies are implemented.
The role of cities
Cities are responsible for receiving and integrating the thousands of migrants who arrive in Europe every year, and thus the discussion of policies and measures focused on cities becomes fundamental. Even more when dealing with minors and unaccompanied minors, which makes the reception and integration process even more challenging.
Minors, particularly those unaccompanied, need additional support that often has to take into account their mental health or traumatic experiences while on the move. Also, they need further support to develop and learn the necessary skills for when they achieve adulthood.
Many European cities have put in place measures to offer support to migrant children and their families, but there is always room for improvement and of course the exchange of experiences and good practices. All of that having in mind the best interest of children and their protection, particularly considering that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges and difficulties this group faces.
“Young refugees don’t fall from the air; they connect European cities through their trajectories,” Ilse Derluyn, professor at the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy of Ghent University, elucidates. Hear her speaking in the Eurocities podcast of her talk below.
Derluyn is the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded childmove.eu project, aiming at understanding how flight experiences influence the wellbeing of unaccompanied young refugees and to create policies focused on minors’ wellbeing. The project focuses on in-depth interviews with young refugees in Libya, Greece, Italy and Belgium and on following minors through their routes in Europe. “All of them have complex trajectories, most of them have long trajectories, taking months and years before reaching a final destination,” she explained.
She noted during her interview that pre-flight experiences severely impact migrant children’s wellbeing, but that little is known about the impact of transit experiences.
The many needs of migrant children
Many of these migrant children have experienced violence “brought by border guards or other people in official positions, but also violence from other civilians, people of the care structure,” said Derluyn.
Also, they are often detained, even though the detention of minors is forbidden, according to Yoomi Renström, Member of the Ovanåker Municipal Council and Member of the European Committee of the Regions.
Renström, who also wrote an opinion on the protection of children in migration for the European Committee of Regions, noted that “the EU needs to put pressure on its member [states] to have strategies to include children’s rights and to include the local and regional level. We must have all levels with a similar point of view.”
Professor Derluyn also mentioned the importance of good and accessible information as speakers of certain languages have less access to information than others. Also, not having access to information in their own language makes it difficult for minors to make informed decisions, such as when to stay in a certain country or to leave and to have full control over their lives. Last but not least, peer support is of the utmost importance — not only locally, but also throughout the journey.
“They really connect to new people and keep those connections. They still try to be in contact with those they meet during their journey. Also, being able to get in touch with family regularly is really important for them,” noted Derluyn. Cities can help unaccompanied minors to create a social network by being places of hospitality where minors have easy access to quality information and can connect with family and relatives.
Cities on the forefront
Derluyn and Renström were airing this research at a meeting of Eurocities’ Working Group Migration & Integration and Working Group Children & Young People on 20-21 of October, where participants heard how cities like Amsterdam, Leeds, Malmo and Tilburg have been working to activate the full potentials of unaccompanied minors.
“All children need special care,” said Rutger Groot Wassink, Deputy Mayor of the City of Amsterdam, adding that “we have specialised parent and child teams, when a child is in a reception centre they act as contact person because we know we have to start the contact as soon as possible to assist families with their issues, with education, health support, trauma treatment, etc.”
“When they are permanent residents, we have youth care specialised in [catering to] young and vulnerable children. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if the person is vulnerable or not, that’s why we have a special unit for that,” Groot Wassink noted.
One of the most pressing issues is language, therefore, said Groot Wassink, “we have transition classes, extra classes to help them get the knowledge of the Dutch language. It’s also important to support parents to get to know the language as well.”
But the biggest issue Amsterdam faces, explained Groot Wassink, is that “we have a national government that thinks fundamentally different than us as a city.” In fact, that’s a common problem faced by several cities throughout Europe: too often there’s a mismatch between the agendas of cities and central governments.
A situation that the city of Leeds, in the United Kingdom, also faces. City councillor Fionna Venner, Executive Member for Adult and Children’s Social Care and Health Partnerships, reminded those present at the meeting that UK cities are working in a hostile environment created by policies coming from the UK government.
Despite everything, Leeds has the ambition to be the best city for children to grow up and, said Venner, “we must ensure for migrants the same conditions to grow up and succeed. We are committed to children having fun and being able to play as a way to overcome the trauma they suffered.”
Tilburg and Malmö are examples
Iris de Kok, Policy Advisor for Asylum and Integration at the Dutch City of Tilburg, explained that “our approach consists of two central elements, the first one is a holistic approach based on monitoring – we want to start early on the process, when they arrive in the city we start monitoring as a municipality along with other stakeholders within the city – and the second is the individual and tailored support, with the right of health care, education, etc.”
The city of Tilburg, she noted, has welcomed 250 unaccompanied minors since 2019, 45% of them from Eritrea and 12% from Syria, and they have a concern to reach out to them early and to have a tailored programme to close the gap between childhood and adulthood and smooth the transition.
Once the youngster reaches 18, they no longer enjoy any kind of assistance from the Dutch government, therefore the city decided to step in. The path the city chose was to monitor minors once they arrive and give further assistance once they become adults.
The city also assists minors through a board with different stakeholders, such as sports coaches, school representatives, NGOs, the social security officer, among others, to exchange knowledge and to offer assistance in addition to what is already provided by the national government. By bringing together different social sectors of the city, it is possible to think of better ways of receiving and integrating migrant minors.
“When one area of life is not well covered there’s a negative and deteriorating effect in other areas of life,” said de Kok.
Also, to ease the transition to adulthood, the city, using its own funds, extends housing arrangements up until migrants are 19 or 20 as a way to avoid homelessness and school leaving – with exciting results so far: the numbers on addictions, public disturbance and debts have dropped, while the numbers on work, schooling and participation within society have increased.
The city has obviously faced challenges. De Kok explained that “we have a lot of post-conflict and trauma health problems that are inevitable, language and communication is very hard when people have a low learnability and we have no national or structural funding, it’s all locally funded, which makes everything a bit unstable and unsure.”
Further north, in Malmö, Sweden, the city has also prepared an “extensive integration plan, and it covers many areas,” explained Maya Rubia Johansson, a Social Worker at the city’s Labour Market and Social Services Department. Unaccompanied minors are hosted in city housing and receive a guidebook with basic information, from how to clean their rooms, to how to do groceries and about social services offered by the city.
Malmö is both a transit city and one assigned to welcome and house asylum seekers and the municipal reception of unaccompanied minors consists of initial housing and care, education, the appointment of a legal guardian. The city offers shared houses with professional social workers, apartments for those ready to be more self-sufficient and family homes.
Then, Johansson explained, “each member of the staff is the contact person for two youths at the housings” and they have meetings every three months to discuss the needs of the youth and the goals set for them. “It is our responsibility to have one to two meetings per week to check how the planning is going and if they need any support with healthcare, homework, cooking, shopping or just small talk. This is first done with a translator over the phone and as the youth learns Swedish all communication is done in Swedish.”
The city also offers a mentorship programme, explains Social Worker Aris Molotis, where “a youth is paired with a member of the society based on their shared interest where the mentor and youth can do activities around the city.” It’s a way for the child to broaden their network outside the shared house and to integrate with the larger community.
Sandra Lundberg, policy officer on migration, City Executive Office, explained that “over 60 thousand unaccompanied minors have sought asylum in Sweden between 2010 and 2020, peaking at over 35 thousand minors in 2015. And in 2015, 41% of unaccompanied minors coming to Sweden stayed in transit in Malmö, in housing provided by the city.
The number of unaccompanied minors has since drastically reduced, she also noted, “because of EU border control and changes in Swedish legislation to be more aligned with the legislation of other EU countries. The Swedish state is responsible for the reception of asylum seekers with the exception of unaccompanied minors, a responsibility that was placed on the municipalities from 2006.”
At the end of 2015, the city of Malmö was responsible for almost 600 unaccompanied minors that were assigned to the city and over 250 lived in shared housing. Today the city is responsible for about 150 minors and like in Tilburg, Malmö’s objective explains Lundberg, “is to create a common thread that runs through the child’s life, from being assigned to the city, residency and later their independence.”
Just like in Tilburg, the challenges are many, but so far both programmes have been successful in integrating minors and helping them transitioning to adult lives, finding a job and completing their education. In her talk on the trajectories of migrants Derluyn referred to the importance for mental wellbeing of a place where unaccompanied children could experience a true feeling of hospitality: “I think in the city, both on the government side and the community side, we can create those places of hospitality.” While integration may still have a long way to go, cities are working to be places that these children can safely call home.