This week we participated in a conference organized by the UNHCR and the platform for underage children in exile (Plate-forme mineurs en exil ). Scholars, public entities, NGOs and the tutors who guide the young migrants in their asylum process gathered together to discuss the ways in which we can all work together towards an adequate protection of young people on the move.
During the event it became clear that since 2015 the number of unaccompanied minors (Mineurs en exile non-accompangne, or MENA) , coming from different countries and backgrounds, arriving to Europe has increased. Moreover, even though the international convention on the rights to the child, gives these minors the right to special protection due to their vulnerability, it is clear that those rights and support are being impeded.
The discussion highlighted some of the main challenges that these young people on the move face in Europe. Firstly, police officers who are the first contact of the MENA with the country have not received specific training that can help them have a more amicable entry and recognition as minors in the country.
After they arrive to the country more than half of this youth face a second challenge: proving they are indeed underage. In 2018, out of the 4,407 children who were initially reported as minors 2,455 (more than 50%) were subject to the process of proving that they were under the age of 18. This process is done by the authorities in order to identify if indeed they are minors, and therefore eligible to receive a special protection and support under the convention on the rights of the child and EU protections for individuals under the age of 18.
Most of the MENA that arrived in Belgium last year were between 16 and 17 years old, young people who will age out of the protection regime in 1 or 2 years. This situation requires a long-term strategy in place to prepare them for the moment when they turn 18. In 1 or 2 years, most will become “young adults” before having received a response for their asylum request, but they will no longer be legally considered a child. This age distinction means that they face an uncertain future, with fewer protections, the chance to lose their status, and therefore their international protection.
70% of the young people in this group suffer depression, as many were forced to leave their families and love ones behind, among other emotional pressures of being an adolescent. After a long journey where they encountered countless difficulties they finally arrive to this new country where they are alone and the language, culture, customs, etc are different. Reason why it is extremely important to offer them psychological and social support that can help them manage the post-traumatic stress and other consequences derive from this reality. During SB Espoir activities with the youth we focus on helping them integrate into the Belgian society taking into account all of this factors so that they can start feeling this new country as their home.
Even years after a traumatic experience as an adolescent, as an adult the level of trauma for these individuals often remains high in that day-to-day situations and activities can be triggers of trauma. There are different ways in which we can provide them with support and it is important to recognize that many Belgian organizations such as FEDASIL have implemented a “Buddy” program to help with this situation. However the access to specialized help continues to be a problem for them.
This is only a small sample of the challenges and issues related to the migration journey of a Minor in Europe and especially in Belgium There is still a lack of awareness on their reality and needs, even though measures have been develop there is still a long way to go to attain a holistic approach from all organizations with professional and trained personnel.