EU’s Child Rights Strategy: how to support undocumented children and their transition into adulthood

Children enjoy special rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, regardless of their residence status. However, the transition of undocumented children into adulthood often comes abruptly: rights and basic services are no longer guaranteed and measures are not taken to support undocumented young adults in their new reality.

The European Commission is currently developing the EU Child Rights Strategy as part of its agenda for 2019-2024. The strategy aims to protect and promote children’s rights in the EU and to mainstream child rights in all relevant EU policy areas. It will serve as a policy framework that will cover all existing and future child rights policies under one umbrella. As President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen emphasized in her mission letter to Vice-President Šuica: “We need to invest more in the future of our children. ensuring that children have access to the services they need and are supported through to their adult lives”.

One of the policies proposed to reach this goal, which will receive funding as part of the EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027, is the Child Guarantee. This instrument is led by the Commission and backed by the Parliament, and will result in a non-binding Council Recommendation asking Member States to ensure “affordability, accessibility and availability of inclusive quality services for children in need.By urging Member States to provide children and their parents access to essential services, such as healthcare, education and housing, the Commission aims to tackle poverty among children in need and improve their wellbeing and development.

If the aim of both the Strategy and the Guarantee is to establish a solid foundation for children that will provide life-long benefits, they should also address children’s transition into adulthood.

This is necessary because a clear binary approach can be observed in and practice at EU and Member State level upon a child’s 18th birthday, when they no longer receive the protection and assistance they received until that moment. This approach is especially detrimental to undocumented children, children in migration and other children who are particularly vulnerable to poverty and marginalization and who need additional support and care from birth to ensure their development and wellbeing.

This can be seen in Belgium, where unaccompanied children can obtain a residence permit if the authorities find that residence in Belgium is in their best interests. However, if the Immigration Office has not determined the durable solution before the child turns 18, the procedure stops. A durable solution can be either integration in the host country, transfer to a third country (for example for reasons of family reunification) or return to the country of origin. From the moment the child turns 18, the now-young adult needs to prove that they fulfill the requirements (art. 61/24) for one of the regular pathways to residence, while they also lose their right to essential services and assistance such as education, healthcare, housing and financial support. In practice, these regularization pathways are further limited due to complex and ambiguous procedures and high application fees and costs for legal assistance.

This precarious transitioning of migrant children into adulthood is also referred to as “ageing out.” The term comes from the child protection context and generally refers to the situation where children lose rights and protections when they turn 18.

The Commission rightly acknowledges in its 2017 Communication on the protection of children in migration that children in state care should receive support to prepare for the transition to adulthood (i.e. thereby having to leave the state care facilities). However, both unaccompanied children and children living with their families – whether they are living in state care or not – age out as they lose the various rights and protections they were granted as children, including access to certain residence procedures. A systematic coaching mechanism is therefore essential, to ensure that all children (whether accompanied or unaccompanied) are supported during a transitory period, to prepare them for adulthood.

To ensure that the Commission’s Strategy on the Rights of the Child supports undocumented children in a sustainable way, PICUM calls on the Commission to:

  1. Guarantee that the Child Rights Strategy and related policies and actions will benefit all children irrespective of residence status, to enable them to have the best possible start in life. As with other children, this includes preparing them for their transition to adulthood.
  2. Ensure that both the Child Guarantee and the Youth Guarantee allow undocumented children who are about to age out to have continued access to extended services, including education, housing, healthcare and psychosocial support. Ensuring continued access to essential services will facilitate further social inclusion and help prevent them from becoming marginalized and exploited. During a transitory period, which should start before and continue after a child reaches the age of majority, all undocumented children should receive coaching to support them during their transition into adulthood.
  3. Use EU funding for projects that support and coach children with a temporary or irregular residence status during a transitory period, to prepare them for adulthood. An example of this is the current call for proposals from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, which includes a specific line on “migrant children’s transition to adulthood”.

PICUM has joined 27 international child rights organisations and Unicef in signing a joint position and addressing key recommendations to EU institutions and member states for the upcoming Child Rights Strategy, focusing amongst others on children in migration. You can read the full position paper here.

Image: Adobe Stock – Jacob Lund