EU Council adopts Child Guarantee that benefits undocumented children

On Monday 14 June 2021, the EPSCO Council unanimously adopted the Council Recommendation establishing a European Child Guarantee. In a clear signal to both children and governments, the Council’s text states that all children in need must be able to benefit from the Child Guarantee actions, irrespective of their migration status. This momentous step forward cannot be underestimated, as activities supporting undocumented people have long been excluded from EU funding in the past. But with member states now tasked with developing national Child Guarantee action plans, national governments and civil society must make sure that undocumented children in need can and will benefit in practice.

Opening up access to key services

According to the Council Recommendation, undocumented children and children in migration who are “at risk of poverty or social exclusion” should have effective and free access to high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC), education and school-based activities, at least one healthy meal each school day and healthcare. They should also have effective access to healthy nutrition and adequate housing.

As shown in PICUM research, all of these areas of life are rife with difficulties and exclusion for undocumented children and families. Undocumented children and families often live in cramped, unhealthy housing, need to overcome financial or administrative barriers to go to school, are excluded from early childhood education and care, may not be eating healthy because of a tight family budget and, depending on where they live, may only be able to benefit from emergency health care.

The Council Recommendation sets a precedent because with it, member states commit to prioritising children’s needs over their residence status. For children in migration, and especially undocumented children, this recognition is hard-won and far from self-evident. As was made clear in the child guarantee feasibility study, undocumented children face more barriers than other migrant children when accessing the services targeted by the Child Guarantee.

The Child Guarantee could also open the door for undocumented children and families to receive benefits connected to accessing ECEC, education, school-based activities, healthcare and one healthy meal per school day because ‘free access’ is to be understood as services being “provided free of charge, either by organising and providing such services or by adequate benefits to cover the costs or the charges of the services, or in such a way that financial circumstances will not pose an obstacle to equal access.”   

Prioritising children’s needs over their residence status

The European Child Guarantee is part of a broader trend by the EU institutions to prioritise people’s needs over residence status in its social policies. For instance, the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child (2021-2025) clarifies that all children are targets of the strategy and Commission representatives have confirmed that that includes undocumented children. The EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion (2021-2027), too, differs from its predecessor, the 2016 Action Plan on the integration of third-country nationals, by not limiting its scope to regularly-residing people. The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, of which the EU Child Guarantee is a deliverable, also sets the goal of lifting at least 5 million children out of poverty by 2030. This recent trend of inclusive policies is very positive, and we hope it will continue.

However, we see a very different trend in Europe’s approach towards migration. Both at member state and EU-level, the trend towards more detention and fewer safeguards for children and adults continues to gather support. Most concerningly, the 2020 Migration and Asylum Pact does not adequately safeguard or protect children even though key European and global institutions have recognized that migrant children are highly vulnerable members of our society and their best interests overrides migration management considerations.

This contradiction of recognizing a child’s needs and rights over their residence status in one policy field while not doing so in another is not sustainable. Especially when we know that undocumented children’s vulnerability and social exclusion is partly caused by their residence status, restrictive migration policies and the lack of options to regularise their stay. If the proposed Migration and Asylum Pact will prevent migrants from accessing in-country residence procedures, set up a return sponsorship scheme that rips undocumented families from their support networks to drop them in an unknown country, or cause trauma and additional vulnerability through the widespread use of detention – children will not be set up for success. Nor will the proposed Migration and Asylum Pact create the necessary preconditions for a successful integration policy because it erodes migrants’ resilience and trust in the system.

Leveraging EU funds to tackle child poverty and exclusion

Because the Child Guarantee activities would complement existing national-level actions and funding, several EU funds will be financing its implementation. After months of negotiations, the European Parliament, Council and Commission, agreed that member states will earmark an “appropriate amount” of the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) to tackle child poverty and exclusion, and member states with an above-average number of children living at risk of poverty or social exclusion earmarking at least 5%. For the 2021-2027 financing period, these countries are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Romania, Spain and Sweden.

It will soon become clear how committed member states are to lifting children out of poverty. A clear indicator will be seeing what member states consider an “appropriate amount” and whether they target more difficult-to-reach populations, like undocumented children and families.

Going beyond the recommended actions

Member states should understand the recommended activities listed in the Council Recommendation as a first step. For instance, regarding access to healthcare, the Council only recommends to member states that they facilitate early detection and treatment of diseases and developmental problems; implement accessible health promotion and disease prevention programmes targeting children in need and their families; and provide targeted rehabilitation and habilitation services for children with disabilities. It is evident that these do not, alone, equate to effective and free access to health care for children in need. That is why member states must go beyond what is recommended by the Commission or the Council and consider the effective needs of children and what hampers them from enjoying these services.

Member states should immediately appoint a national Child Guarantee Coordinator. Member states now have until March 2022 to present national actions plans that are adapted to national, regional and local circumstances, and identify children in need and the barriers they face in accessing and taking-up the services above.

Member states cannot do this alone, however. Because they are often invisible, there is a lack of understanding of the barriers undocumented children and families face, what they need and even how many undocumented children are living in specific country. It is up to civil society, specialists and migrant-led organisations to assist member states in developing national action plans that target and effectively benefit undocumented children. And it is up to member states to ensure they are consulted and involved in the drafting of the plans.

As PICUM, we are glad to see the route taken by this Commission and the Council with their recognition that children’s interests are primordial – including when children have irregular migration status. We hope that the national action plans will reflect the intent of the Parliament, the Commission and the EPSCO council and ensure that undocumented children can fulfil their potential.

Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (EPSCO)

A.o. by the European Court of Human Rights in Mubilanzila Mayeka and Kaniki Mitunga v. Belgium and Tarakhel v. Switzerland.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, underlined that “non rights-based arguments such as, those relating to general migration control, cannot override best interests considerations.” in General Comment no. 6, Treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin

Cover: Unsplash – Mi Pham