Spain: over 16.000 young migrants obtain residence permits thanks to 2021 reform

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In October 2021, the Spanish government passed a law to facilitate access to residence and work permits for unaccompanied children and young people who turn 18 and transition into adulthood. This blog collates official figures about its impact, and integrates comments from Jennifer Zuppiroli, Advocacy Officer at Save the Children Spain, one of the organisations that advocated for this reform.

The 2021 Spanish reform facilitates access to residence and work permits for all unaccompanied children, including those who arrived as children and were between 18 and 23 years old in October 2021 as well as those who age out in the future.

In the words of the Spanish government, “the reform aimed to reduce administrative, social and work-related vulnerabilities by making it easier for unaccompanied children to reach adulthood with documents, by allowing them to access the labour market from the age of 16, as well as preventing them from almost automatically becoming undocumented when they turn 18, as was the case previously.”

(Note that under Spanish law, any unaccompanied child cared for by the state is automatically considered to reside regularly in Spain, but that they were not always issued permits in time.)

Impact on children and young people

The reform has had a huge, positive impact on the lives of thousands of unaccompanied children and former unaccompanied children (now young adults), according to both the government and civil society.

Official figures from November 2022, a year after the reform came into effect, show that 16.716 unaccompanied children and former unaccompanied children were able to obtain a permit, exceeding the government’s predictions by 10%.

In the month of November 2022:

  • 889 former unaccompanied children who had had a residence permit before turning 18 had a permit in adulthood too (compared to 384 people in November 2021). This is a twelvefold increase.
  • 659 former unaccompanied children who did not have a residence permit before turning 18 did have a permit in adulthood (compared to 295 in November 2021). This is a ninefold increase.
  • 540 unaccompanied children (16 and 17 year olds) had a permit that gave them the right to work, compared to 225 people in November 2021. This is a twentyfold increase.

Behind these numbers are young people who are now able to continue their studies, work with a regular contract, and have easier access to housing. In short, they finally have a chance to thrive. Thanks to this reform, 19-year-old Achraf has been working in a factory for several months, and living with three other former unaccompanied children in an apartment in Guadalajara, managed by the NGO Accem.

Without this reform, the majority of these 16.000 children and young people would have become or stayed undocumented, which meant interrupting their education, working at the mercy of exploitative employers, and ending up in the street.

According to official figures, 99% of all documented unaccompanied 16-and-17-year-olds were issued residence permits that explicitly permitted them to work. The employment rate of young people (16 to 23 years old) rose from 33% at the time of the reform to 54% only one year later.

Most (former) unaccompanied children are employed in the hospitality, agriculture, livestock, and fishery industries, and in administrative work.

The government has not seen an increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Spain since the reform. In other words: enabling access to a secure residence status has not created a pull effect.

What civil society thinks of the reform

The reform was very much welcomed by Spanish civil society for several reasons. Firstly, it responds to various legal and practical gaps in the protection of unaccompanied children, including their access to a secure residence status or permit.

Secondly, and crucially, the reform recognises the extreme vulnerability of unaccompanied children, and shifts the institutional narrative around this group, from “dangerous children” to “children finding themselves in a dangerous situation.”

Thirdly, the reform reminded public institutions that they are responsible for granting residence permits to unaccompanied children and holds them accountable for all those cases where unaccompanied children were not able to regularise their stay in Spain.

Fourthly, its retroactive effect means that young people who had aged out in the last couple of years could also benefit from the reform. This only applies to former unaccompanied children who were between 18 and 23 years old at the time of the reform but ensures that some past wrongs are righted.

Notwithstanding this globally positive impact, Save the Children Spain, and other civil society organisations who advocated for this reform, see room for improvement in two key areas.

One area has to do with regional differences: the implementation of the law depends on the “foreigners’ offices” at provincial level (administrative divisions of the autonomous communities), that can have different interpretations of the eligibility criteria to access the residence and work permits.

The other area has to do with a general criterion of residence permits in Spain: not having a criminal record.  As multiple civil society organisations have underlined, people may have a criminal record precisely because they could not access a residence and work permit, and therefore make a living.

Children and young people may have seen themselves in the need to engage in survival crimes, or may have been forced to by adults. Forbidding people from accessing a residence and work permit is effectively a double punishment as it comes on top of whatever sentence they may be serving or have served.