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Teach us for what is coming: The transition into adulthood of foreign unaccompanied minors in Europe: case studies from France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands

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Europe at risk of creating a ‘lost generation’ of refugee youth

New research sounds the alarm on the risks facing young refugees in Europe on their eighteenth birthday. The report looks at how young refugees across Europe are falling through the gaps and into homelessness, exploitation and danger. Looking at the practices of five European countries, it finds that all of them have failed to protect and support this age group. As a result, they struggle to integrate into their new societies. The research pinpoints some of the reasons behind this: incoherent policies, sparsely available essential services like language classes and difficulties finding information on their rights.

While for many children around the world, turning eighteen is a milestone – a moment of joy and independence, the research finds that for refugee children in Europe, this is a moment of massive anxiety. As a refugee child, turning eighteen symbolises losing support due to the sharp nosedive in protective legal frameworks. In the words of one youth: ‘The transition into adulthood didn’t feel like a transition for us. It felt like our whole support system fell away.’ (A., aged 20, from Eritrea in the Netherlands).

Erin McKay, Oxfam’s European Migration Campaign Manager, said: ‘One of the key tenants of EU law is protecting children regardless of their legal status. This protection helps shield them from the high risk of abuse, homelessness and exploitation. Turning eighteen does not mean these risks disappear overnight, yet the protection does. No longer considered children by the law, these young people can find themselves on the streets with no one to turn to.’

European law ensures that children refugees arriving in Europe alone are housed in child-friendly accommodation and are appointed a guardian to deal with administrative and legal matters. The research finds that, when transitioning into adulthood, access to housing varies greatly between European countries. In some countries, such as Ireland, children can be kicked out of foster care on their eighteenth birthday and sent to institutions where they find themselves living in the same room as adult strangers. In other countries, such as Greece, children may find themselves returned to derelict camps or thrown out onto the street. In the words of one youth: ‘You’re not fully an adult at 18, most Irish kids are still living with their parents at 18’ (L., aged 25 in Ireland.)

Another concern for many young people is the administrative maze of obtaining documentation. In Italy, for example, once a non-European child turns eighteen, they face three options for obtaining the documents that would allow them to work or study, each with their own challenges. In France, the uncoordinated and inconsistent management of policies governing refugee youth results in a ‘do-it yourself’ approach.

A volunteer guardian in France said: ‘The CJM contract [a type of grant given to those in apprenticeship training] is difficult to obtain and is often only granted for two months. For example, I have a case of a young man who does not speak the language, has not been placed in a schooling system and by the time he turns 18 years old, it will be difficult to get the CJM. The main inconsistency [is] that the CJM is granted for only two months, without considering that teenagers may be on a one-year apprenticeship contract. How are they supposed to pay for housing, food, and a living?’

Navigating complicated administrative processes would be a challenge for any eighteen-year-old. Even more so for a child who may not speak the language well and has no one to guide them through the bureaucratic hurdles. Yet this could be the most important thing that a young person may have to do in their lives because missing a deadline or filing the wrong document could deny them access to education, the right to work, or even get them sent back to a country where their lives are in danger. As noted by one researcher from the Greek Council for Refugees: ‘The issue is not just that UAM [unaccompanied children] have not been assisted in becoming responsible adults that can take care of themselves. It is rather that they have been forced to learn from a very young age that they need to take care of themselves through any means.’

Another barrier is finding a job or continuing further education or training. In Ireland, only those living in the country for three years can receive student grants – blocking education for many young people. In France and Italy, complicated rules prevent many young people from doing professional training. One person interviewed described the bureaucracy as ‘very particular and difficult’ and spoke of how the French authorities refused to grant a young person a residence permit because he had changed his work contract from an unstable fixed-term contract to a more secure permanent one.

The authors of the report also highlight a few good practices which can bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. One such example is transitionary housing programmes, which help young people get on their feet, and gain autonomy. In these programmes, children about to turn eighteen can move into semi-autonomous apartments where they receive support to gain financial and personal independence. The report also finds that support systems – guardians and community-based programmes – can play a significant role in easing the transition. In some countries, these schemes can be extended beyond the age of eighteen, so that a child is not left on their own, especially if they continue their education or find a traineeship. Another good example is specialised training to staff in contact with refugee youth to improve their understanding of the asylum system.

Erin McKay, Oxfam’s European Migration Campaign Manager, said:

‘With this report, we want to shed light on the traumatic and sudden process of turning eighteen in Europe as an unaccompanied child. You go to sleep as a minor, having a roof over your head, education and security, and the next morning you wake up and you are stripped from all these protections. The life these young people have built in Europe is suddenly toppled.

‘European countries need to step up to their duties to look after refugee youth. They must simplify asylum processes, set up guardianship schemes, create more professional training opportunities in a wide range of professions and invest in transitionary social housing. The EU also has a part to play by introducing best practices for European countries to adopt to help children in migration navigate the shift into adulthood.’

Girls made up a small proportion of the refugee youth at less than 7.5% of refugee youth in four out of the five countries examined. The Netherlands stands out as an exception with girls making up over 14% of its population of refugee youth. Girls and young women face higher risks of sexual violence and are especially vulnerable to exploitation in particular human trafficking. Losing legal status and accommodation or running into financial problems puts them at risk of homelessness, young women may also have no choice but choose negative coping strategies. The Utrecht municipality in the Netherlands and the Dutch Refugee Council set up a dedicated programme to support refugee youth through the transition into adulthood to address these risks.

Notes to editors

Read the report for ‘Teach us for what is coming: the transition into adulthood of unaccompanied minors in Europe’.

Refugee youth in this press release refer to unaccompanied minors – someone under the age of eighteen arriving into the EU without the adult responsible for them by law or by the practice of the EU Member State concerned.

The organisations contributing to this research are Greek Council for Refugees, Dutch Council for Refugees, ACLI France and Oxfam. The research was conducted through interviews with refugees, frontline staff and researchers in France, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland and Italy.

Research on the vulnerability of unaccompanied girls can be found in the European Parliament Briefing on the vulnerability of unaccompanied and separated child migrants.

Oxfam will be hosting an event outlining the findings of the report on 29 June 2021.