Tailored support and a holistic approach are the pillars of Tilburg’s integration services for unaccompanied minors to enable a smooth transition from childhood to adulthood.
Challenges are not easy to overcome. Minors’ post-conflict traumas entail health problems, and their insufficient Dutch skills impede their learnability. Moreover, the lack of funding from the national level makes the integration depend entirely on the local budget.
Once the youngsters turn 18, it is up to the municipality to accommodate them independently. “The project aims to close the gap with the national system, which is no longer responsible once youngsters turn 18,” says Iris de Kok, Policy advisor for asylum and integration at the City of Tilburg.
And despite all odds, the integration programme became a successful method other cities look up to.
Start by monitoring
“Instead of only providing housing when they turn 18, we set up a holistic and tailored approach to getting to know the minor from the moment they arrive in Tilburg,” explains de Kok.
The holistic approach includes not only housing but also finances, education or work, wellbeing, psychological support and health. The aim is to locate the child in the system’s centre rather than having them adapt to pre-existing structures. That means that, in this alternative method, the approach is based on the youngsters’ needs, abilities and talents to feel safe and respected in Tilburg.
To be able to monitor their development from an early stage and offer assistance in all these areas, the council facilitates a strong collaboration with relevant stakeholders. Tilburg initiated regular dialogues that transitioned into a monthly monitory board to follow up on the youngsters’ integration.
“We put together healthcare specialists, sports coaches, teachers, national organisations for minors, housing associations, non-government organisations, social security officers and municipality representatives from different departments,” adds de Kok.
Boost a social network
Tilburg’s model also relies on a network of civil society actors and partners that have established good and trusted relations with unaccompanied minors.
“We noticed during the project that it’s super important to cover all areas of life,” like sport or hobbies, indicates de Kok. Indeed, she believes that if some things go wrong in any particular area of life, that triggers deterioration in others.
A particularly positive example is a sports coach who works with the youngsters to promote social inclusion and build their confidence and trust. Different events and sports clubs are run for all unaccompanied minors.
According to de Kok, “confidence is built on social relationships and inclusion,” therefore, an active social life is beneficial for their development. Additionally, the inputs from these activities permit identifying what actions will prevent inactivity and exclusion.
Develop tailored support
After the minors turn 18, the council becomes responsible for providing independent housing. That’s the phase in which youngsters have to become self-reliant and proficient financially, maybe changing schools and starting an integration programme.
A wrong approach may result in early school leaving, homelessness, inactivity or debts. For that reason, there are different paths open depending on their relative independence when they turn 18, including extended guidance or foster care, long-term guided housing and independent housing. The aim is, thanks to advice and time, that the first three scenarios will eventually transform into the last stage.
Proof of the triumph of this programme is the percentages of school leaving, drug addiction, homelessness and debts that have been dropping since the integration programme began. In contrast, the numbers of integration and migrant youths employed increased.
Moreover, criminal activities among the youngsters decreased radically.
Learn by doing
This programme has been coincidentally evaluated in time to also include the latest newcomers from Ukraine. The profiles of young women and kids match this programme, which in their case is based on language courses and school enrollment.
The municipality started dialogues with education institutions to ensure kids could attend their nearest school. Additionally, Tilburg is working on one adapted school in the city for Ukrainians so that they can study in their own language.
Since 2018, when the local government took over the responsibility for unaccompanied youngsters, the programme has followed a “learn by doing” approach, trying to build on the minors’ needs, talents and capabilities.
For example, the council envisions three integration paths according to different profiles. Educational if migrants are young enough to catch up with Dutch and can continue afterwards with regular education; employment for those who can enter the labour market; and social activism if they are not ready to work but willing to help.
This early, holistic and sustainable approach is Tilburg’s key to integrating children that turn into adults.