The impact of growing up undocumented in Europe

Undocumented children are part of our communities and share the hopes and dreams of any other child. But their lives and the lives of their families are characterized by uncertainty and instability due to their irregular residence status. PICUM’s new report, Navigating Irregularity: The Impact of Growing up Undocumented in Europe, looks at how their residence status affects six areas of their lives: housing, access to services, income and socio-economic status, residence procedures and immigration enforcement (including detention), school life, and family life.

Many undocumented children were born in or have lived for many years in Europe, most often with their parents. Sixty-eight percent of undocumented children whose parents were surveyed in Ireland, were born there, for instance. According to Eurostat, about one in ten people that were found to be irregularly present in the EU in the past decade were children.


Where children live affects their present and future. While undocumented parents do their utmost to provide stable, quality housing to their children, they are often unable to offer them the same housing conditions as other parents. They often lack income or face discrimination on the housing market. Similarly, where unaccompanied children are excluded from reception facilities, they end up homeless, in squats or temporary settlements.

Children’s risk of ill-health and disability increases by up to 25 percent during childhood and early adulthood when they experience multiple housing problems. Mental health problems are also more prevalent among homeless children who may have lower levels of academic achievement that cannot be explained by differences in ability.  An inadequate housing situation or homelessness also impacts their social life and their ability to make lasting friendships and maintain social networks.

Access to services

Although child rights are applicable to all children, irrespective of their residence status, undocumented children have limited access to social services, including education, health care, early childhood education and care and protection when they are a victim of crime. And when service providers report undocumented migrants’ personal data to immigration authorities, undocumented children and parents hesitate to reach out and seek help.


Income is a key social determinant of health and inextricably linked to children’s well-being and life chances. Income affects the community in which children live, the quality of life, the food available to them, the type of housing they live in and the sense of security they experience. Although very few studies exist on the household income of undocumented migrants, it is safe to say that they face high levels of poverty as their irregular migration status relegates undocumented workers to the informal economy, where they are systematically underpaid and exploited. Many others are completely dependent on handouts and informal support networks, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made their situation more precarious.

Undocumented children living in poverty often go hungry or eat a poor diet. Undocumented parents face challenges in offering their children decent shoes and clothing, necessary school supplies, internet at home, toys or even essentials like shower gel and shampoo. Yet unlike other families that live in poverty, undocumented parents are not eligible for support such as unemployment assistance or minimum income.

Residence procedures

Children across Europe – both accompanied and unaccompanied – are involved in residence procedures. Sometimes they are forced to step in to fill the gaps of our migration systems. For instance, when no interpreter is available and parents do not know the country’s language, children are tasked with translating letters for their parents or accompanying them during residence permit interviews, visits to the family’s lawyer or social and health services.

Going through residence procedures is a nerve-wracking experience, for adults and children alike, and telling one’s story over and over can retraumatize them. When the residence application is denied, the person’s mental health greatly deteriorates. Sometimes, children simply give up and go into an unresponsive state. Many children fear the police, detention and deportation.


In the face of these challenges, the school environment can function as a mediating factor in undocumented children’s lives. It provides a social safety net or ‘protective layer’ around them, while they navigate other challenges in their day-to-day life. Enabling undocumented children access to education, including early childhood education and care, extra-curricular activities and internships, is therefore key to nurturing a child’s resilience and a safe and secure future.

However, undocumented children are often not explicitly included in countries’ education laws. This means that they may not be able to enrol in school and classes, or not be able to participate fully. When raised in poverty, as many are, undocumented children are likely to have a disadvantage in the formal education system even before starting school.

Family life

Family life and family dynamics are impacted by residence status. When children grow up in a warm, loving family and develop a secure attachment to their primary caregiver, they receive a strong foundation for success and resilience later in life. Experiencing love and safety protects the child’s mental health. Reversely, long-term deprivation of a child from their primary caregiver (due to a caregiver being detained, for example) is likely to cause cognitive, emotional and social damage.

For undocumented parents, managing the day-to-day difficulties caused by irregular residence status and experiencing discrimination can force them to be less available for interaction with their children. Due to the accumulation of problems such as poverty, debt, social isolation and uncertainty about the future, many undocumented children and young people grow up under stress, which can lead to high risks of cardiovascular disease, cancers, asthma and depression when they are adults. In some families, children take up roles that are usually filled by parents. This ‘parentification’ of the child can adversely affect their socio-emotional development and mental health.

The need to find durable solutions

“I think about what it would be like to have a residence permit. I think about that every day,” says a 12-year-old boy who grew up in the Netherlands.

All children can reach their potential if they are given the resources and environment needed to thrive. A secure residence status is part and parcel of such an environment, and a precondition for undocumented children and young people to reach their full potential. This is why it is important for governments to develop best interests procedures that result in durable solutions for undocumented children, foresee in-country residence procedures based on child rights, ensure full access to services for undocumented children, and evaluate and reform policies and practices that might harm undocumented children and their families.The report is also available in French and Spanish.Cover image: Adobe Stock –