There are children in Europe whose basic rights - such as the rights to education, health, liberty and family – are systematically violated. This is because they or their parents do not have the right paperwork to be in the country they live in; they are undocumented.

Who are undocumented children

Undocumented children are a diverse group, that often change between categories or statuses during the course of their childhood. For example, they may have submitted an application for international protection as a family, which was refused, or applied for an official family reunification scheme through a family member with regular status, but not qualified.

As the child’s status is dependent on their parents’, they too become undocumented if the parent loses their residence or work permit. Children can be undocumented after having entered Europe irregularly and can even be born ‘undocumented migrants’, although they have never moved anywhere, because their parents are undocumented.

Why they become undocumented

There are few provisions in migration policy for child migrants. Some protections have been introduced for certain categories of migrant children in recent years, such as asylum-seeking, unaccompanied, or trafficked children. However, children who do not fit in to these categories are not protected. Moreover, procedures are not yet in place to ensure that children’s rights are actually taken into account. This is especially the case when children are accompanied by their parents or other caregivers.

As a result, children are more at risk of becoming undocumented. Their individual situations are rarely considered in decisions to grant or refuse residence permits or claims for international protection. Their status is linked to their parents’ status, so if their parent loses their status, so does the child.

Denied services and protection

At the same time, undocumented children are usually not considered in public social policies or are specifically denied access to services. Across Europe, undocumented children face legal and practical barriers to pursuing an education, getting the health care they need, and having a decent and stable home.

As for their parents, cases of violence and abuse against children cannot be reported to the police without risking arrest or family separation. This is because police often pay more attention to a victim’s residence status than to the crime they have come to report. This places undocumented children at greater risk of experiencing or witnessing violence, as they and their families are ‘zero risk’ victims.

Detained and deported

Children are also subject to immigration control measures. This means that children are being apprehended, detained and deported. There are children that are awoken from their beds in dawn raids to arrest families. Children are detained, often in prison-like facilities alongside adults. Children are deported to countries they do not know. Child rights law states that children should never be detained for immigration purposes, nor repatriated or separated from their families, unless it is to protect them. Current practice falls far short of these standards.

PICUM’s recommendations

  • A comprehensive and integrated approach: all migrant children’s rights should be addressed and assured in all policy areas, with concrete actions by the different actors and coordination between them, at all levels of governance.
  • Treat all children as individual rights holders – as children, first and foremost – in immigration and asylum procedures, including if they are accompanied by their parents or other caregivers. This should not jeopardise their right to family life.
  • Children should be ensured non-discriminatory access to services, protection and justice. Laws, policies and practices that discriminate against children according to their migration or residence status should be revised to ensure that all migrant children’s rights are explicit in law and accessible in practice. This includes pursuing proactive measures to address practical barriers.
  • Evaluate enforcement regulations and practices – apprehension, detention and deportation – in order to assess the impacts on child rights and redress systematic and individual rights violations.
  • Cease the immigration detention of children and families with children, as well as family separation through detention. Alternatives to detention for families that respect child rights should be developed and implemented.
  • Existing legal safeguards should be ‘operationalised’ – made a reality in practice for children. For example, further guidance should be developed and delivered on how the best interests of the child principle can be applied in practice.
  • Child rights tools that are being developed and implemented for certain categories of children should be adapted and applied to other groups of migrant children, and the promising laws, policies and practices that are improving protection of all children’s rights regardless of status in some countries and localities should be transferred to others.
  • Improve data collection methods, with full respect of data protection standards, establishing a firewall between population data and immigration enforcement. Ensure data is publicly available.

CONTACT: Lilana Keith, Advocacy Officer – Borders, Detention and Children: lilana.keith(at)



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