Safety on the Move: Asylum Seeking Children in Europe

Danielle Fritz joined the International Centre this year, bringing experience in public international and human rights law. In this post Danielle considers the risks of sexual exploitation and violence facing children seeking asylum in Europe, and how legal security forms the basis of other forms of safety.

By 2015, at least 337,000 children were registered as asylum seekers in Europe.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 90,000 of these children are unaccompanied or separated from their families.  Many migrating children who register with state authorities go ‘missing’ from their legal guardians and the centres where they reside, yet we do not always know where these children have gone or what has happened to them (Sigona and Allsop, 2016).

Children missing from state-organised care placements may have left to reunite with family members in other parts of Europe or to find work opportunities.   Others may have been targeted by criminal organisations seeking to exploit children. We know that migrating children, particularly separated children, are vulnerable to various forms of abuse (ENOC Task Force on Children on the Move, 2016).  Children in need of money to fund their onward journeys are at risk of sexual exploitation, while others are sexually abused in camps and transit centres. However, no reliable data exists to suggest how many children have been exploited, trafficked or otherwise abused (Sigona and Allsop, 2016).  In short, evidence suggests that asylum-seeking children are experiencing abuse during their migration through Europe, but the scale of the problem is unknown.

In a more perfect world, what would ‘safety’ look like for asylum seeking children and separated children in particular?  We know that safety requires more than protection from physical harm (Shuker, 2013; Hynes, 2010).  For migrating asylum-seeking children, safety can be conceived of as a process involving safe passage during migration, legal security in a safe destination country, and then access to meaningful services that will facilitate their relational and psychological safety.

Safe passage

Migration is not itself an inherently dangerous activity.  Children and adults alike take irregular and dangerous migration routes because there are very few options for legal migration. At present, non-state actors—from UN agencies to volunteer-led grassroots initiatives—are working to safeguard migrating children under constrained circumstances and are able to provide children with a minimal level of safety during their migration.

UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are working jointly to expand their ‘Blue Dot’ initiative, which places special support centres along known migration routes.  In these centres children can play and access medical, legal, and psychological support.  Save the Children also works across Europe to meet the immediate needs of migrating children.  The organisation has established child and family-friendly centres where children can access legal advice and other support, registration centres that seek to reunite children separated from their families, and various distribution points where children can obtain food, blankets, clothes and other essential items.

In the camps of Calais in northern France, NGO presence is piecemeal in comparison to need.  A recent census conducted by Help Refugees concluded that there are 651 children living in the camps, of which 423 are separated from their families.  Volunteer-led initiatives have stepped in to provide safe spaces and accommodation for separated children.  Children of Calais is launching a mobile school bus for children to continue their education while living in the camps.  Jungle Canopy converts caravans into living spaces for groups of separated children.  Networks of volunteers have also coordinated the deployment of youth workers to the camps and created a women and children’s centre.

Efforts to provide safe spaces and material goods to children, while laudable and critically important, can only seek to provide basic safety.  And even then, the sheer numbers of migrating children, their varied migration routes, and the efforts of European states to stop migration mean that not all children can access these limited services.  Children need access to legal security.

Legal security

 Vulnerability does not end when children reach destination countries (Hynes, 2010).  For asylum-seeking children, and their adult counterparts, legal status in a safe country is the foundation upon which safety is built (Kohli, 2011).  Without legally secure status, children remain on the margins of society, unable to access many services and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation (Hynes, 2010).  Yet the asylum process itself is often a traumatic process for young people that can undermine their wellbeing.  Children are asked to repeatedly disclose their personal narratives, which are then scrutinised for consistency and assessed against legal categories for protection. Many must undergo age assessments, which can cause children great stress (Pearce et al, 2009; Cronin, Sadhu Kohli et al, 2016).

Access to lawyers who understand the emotional challenges facing young people seeking asylum is an essential part of supporting young people to stay safe during the asylum process (Pearce et al, 2009). Similarly, an evaluation of the Independent Trafficking Child Advocates service in England and Wales suggests that advocates can provide children with ‘clarity, coherence and continuity’ by acting in the child’s best interest across social care, immigration and criminal justice (Kohli et al, 2015).  Children value having someone trustworthy to help them navigate complex processes (Kohli et al, 2015).

A recent change in policy announced by David Cameron suggests that the UK government will soon accept more separated children for resettlement who have already arrived in Europe. This does not mean that these children will receive secure status.  The majority of separated children who reach the UK are granted a temporary form of leave (Refugee Support Network, 2016).  When these children reach seventeen and a half years old, they may apply for an extension of their leave to remain, but these applications are rarely successful, putting them at risk of detention in immigration removal centres and deportation (Refugee Support Network, 2016).

Access to meaningful services

Research suggests that children who are granted asylum then predicate feelings of safety upon finding predictable patterns of living, accessing education, receiving medical attention, and finding adults and peers that are trustworthy and reliable (Kohli, 2011). Similarly, research into the experiences of trafficked and sexually exploited children in foster care suggests that ‘safety’ is multi-dimensional (Shuker, 2013). Safety encompasses physical, relational, and psychological safety.  Children enjoy relational safety when they are able to develop warm and trusting relationships with their carers.  A child enjoys psychological safety when she develops a source of self-identity outside of abusive relationships and experiences.

Europe’s response to asylum seekers has eliminated opportunities for many separated children to achieve a full sense of safety.  The European Union continues to prioritise border protection over child protection.  Yet children will continue to take irregular and dangerous routes in their pursuit of safety. At a minimum, asylum-seeking children need secure legal status. The efforts of volunteers, social services, NGOs and humanitarian organisations cannot effectively meet a young person’s additional safety needs until that child is granted leave to remain in a safe country.