Unaccompanied, but not alone

Michael Diedring

In addition to a moral duty to provide protection to refugees, it is in Europe’s self-interest to recognize the opportunity inherent in every individual, particularly those migrant children and youth who are in Europe unaccompanied by a parent or carer. Europe’s social investment in these young people, if properly structured and supported, will yield a social and human return far in excess of its cost. Moreover, the long-term cost of not making that investment is unacceptable.

With this in mind, foundations have come together through EPIM (the European Programme for Integration and Migration) to support the protection and inclusion of unaccompanied or separated children and youth in Europe, with the ultimate goal of fostering independent young adults valued as productive members of their new communities.

Many foundations may not have engaged in this area because they feel intimidated by the complexity of the challenge, or that they don’t have a mandate or the necessary expertise, they feel their individual contribution is too small, or are uncomfortable with the highly politicized nature of the work. Collaboration helps offset all of these issues.

In EPIM, foundations pool their resources, receive expert guidance, benefit from years of experience in migration, and work and learn collaboratively. Moreover, the immense social challenge of protecting and developing unaccompanied migrant children and youth requires work in all areas; whatever your area of expertise, at some point it will touch upon the rights and needs of young migrants.

Children cry as migrants try to break through a police cordon to cross into Macedonia in August 2015.

While migrant children and youth have special needs given their situation, a child should always be treated first as a child without regard to legal status. Therefore, future efforts should combine or expand activities to include all children and youth in need, irrespective of their migratory background.

For those foundations who are currently involved, the first challenge is to provide unaccompanied children and youth with support upon arrival.

Key predictors of the child’s likelihood of staying within the protection infrastructure are proper reception facilities, guardianship systems, foster families, communities and health services, and education and vocational training institutions that seek to protect and empower the development of the child and, importantly, to convey that objective to each child.

While migrant children and youth have special needs given their situation, a child should always be treated first as a child without regard to legal status.

EPIM’s Never Alone collaborative funding initiative supports civil society organizations and their partnerships with administrative entities to provide quality care tailored to each child, while EPIM’s grantees focus on improvements in these areas, as well as on effective advocacy at EU and member state level.

Experience has found that unaccompanied youth are often conflicted. While they feel a responsibility to those left behind (including an expectation of financial support), their new society expects a commitment to language training, education and staying in care.

Experience has found that unaccompanied youth are often conflicted.

As such, good practice considers the family situation and/or personal plan of the child to ensure they see value in remaining in the protection environment.

As youth approach adulthood, more support is required. In Belgium, for example, civil society organizations, working with trained professionals and volunteers, provide in-depth and individualized psychosocial and educational support as well as collective social and educational activities to give young people a sense of responsibility in developing and leading their own life plans on housing, financial autonomy, health, education and work, and their creation of a social network.

Mentoring services address the isolation that many unaccompanied and separated youth face by matching them with a mentor family in the local community.

Last year’s European Foundation Centre (EFC) conference unanimously approved a statement urging foundations to shoulder responsibility for refugee issues, whether a specific part of their mission or not. The successful path to autonomy for unaccompanied youth is one such responsibility.

More involvement by foundations is needed at all levels to ensure that this path leads to long-term benefit for the individual child and European society.

Michael Diedring is director of EPIM. Email: michael.diedring@epim.info

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