Turning 18 and undocumented: ensuring a safe transition into adulthood

© Melania Messina

For thousands of migrant children and young people in Europe, turning 18 means transitioning into an uncertain future, with too few resources to navigate this phase of their life.

The safeguards that international and EU law guarantee to children, regardless of their residence status, no longer apply once they turn 18. Children lose, for example, preferential access to essential support and services like health care, specialised social workers, schooling and training, or a guardian.

This loss of child rights, called ‘ageing out’, is a fact for all children who turn 18. But for hundreds of thousands of children with a precarious residence status, ageing out not only means losing the fundamental rights they held as children, but also becoming undocumented on their 18th birthday. And, without a secure residence permit, undocumented young people, whether unaccompanied or in families, are prevented from doing most of the things that their peers do, like studying, working, or getting a driver’s license. Often, they must leave wherever they were living, and risk becoming homeless.

Unaccompanied children also lose the little protection they had from deportation. Most (16 of 27) EU member states protect unaccompanied children from deportation, either by issuing a temporary residence permit until they turn 18 or by not implementing return orders while they are underage. But, unless the child has secured a residence permit that lasts into adulthood, these protections fall away when they turn 18.

Crucially, too few countries have policies and procedures that prevent children from ageing out into undocumented adulthood. Too few provide access to longer term residence permits to children and young people transitioning into adulthood. Even when residence procedures do exist, they may be incredibly hard to access in practice. For instance, undocumented young people may not be able to meet the conditions for a long-term residence permit, like working full-time (Sweden) or proving that they spent at least half of their life in the country (UK). Procedures to apply for long-term residence permits may also be too expensive for children and young people to afford.Positive initiatives supporting children and young people ageing out do exist, but most are local and small-scale, and they often focus on (former) unaccompanied children who are either seeking asylum or have been granted asylum. These limitations mean that many children and young people do not receive the support they need.

In our new report Turning 18 and undocumented: Supporting children in their transition into adulthood, we provide an overview of how European countries (with a focus on Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) facilitate or hinder access to secure residence status for children and young people ageing out. In addition, we highlight promising policies and practices in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and The Netherlands, and recommend ways forward.

In particular, we find it crucial that EU institutions, national and local governments:

  1. Improve residence procedures and facilitate access to them to prevent children from ageing out into undocumented adulthood. This includes developing guidance on how to support a safe and smooth transition into adulthood, regardless of residence status; clarifying and strengthening in law the requirement to assess whether return is in the best interests of a child before issuing and implementing a return decision; and designing migration law and residence procedures that safeguard children from harm, including mental ill-health.
  2. Build an evidence base to better understand the reality faced by children transitioning into undocumented adulthood. This includes fostering connections between all actors working with children and young people transitioning into adulthood, and funding research.
  3. Provide support, services, and funding to enable a smooth transition, irrespective of residence status. This includes developing and providing tailored support to migrant children and young people who require it, irrespective of residence status and starting well before the 18th birthday; and ensuring undocumented young people can access support and services, including housing, mental health care and specialised support services, based on need.

More detailed recommendations are included in the report and executive summary. The report also exists in French and Spanish, and the executive summary also exists in French and Spanish.