Undocumented children in Europe: between rights and barriers

This blog post was co-authored by Laetitia Van der Vennet, Advocacy Officer at PICUM, and Jennifer Zuppiroli, Advocacy Officer at Save the Children Spain.On Friday 11 June 2021, PICUM and Save the Children Spain co-organised the webinar “Growing up undocumented in Europe” which brought together speakers from Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Platform Minors in Exile (Belgium), Save the Children Italy, Save the Children Spain, the European Commission, and the Council of Europe. Below you can find the conclusions of the event, including links to the presentations given and a recording of the event at the bottom of the page. The full programme is available here.Across Europe, undocumented children face legal and practical barriers to pursuing an education, getting the health care they need, and having a decent and stable home. However, as the representative from the Council of Europe pointed out, international bodies stress the importance of treating undocumented children as children only.

This struggle to access their basic rights impacts every aspect of undocumented children’s lives. The impact of the stress, fear and lack of perspective for the future cannot be underestimated. As a society, we cannot look away when we hear how children and youth are not fully recognized as citizens in our societies. We cannot look away from the fact that they are unable to imagine or plan their future because of their residence status. Young activists from across Europe are doing amazing work to lift the voices of undocumented children and youth. For instance, Young, Paperless and Powerful have long been campaigning to make their voices heard in Ireland. Knowing that after a decade of collective campaigning, the Irish government will be regularising undocumented children, families and adults is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching. Heart-wrenching because people who have lived in Ireland for years but have only recently lost their residence status risk falling between the cracks.

We also note the difficulties to come to specific figures on the number of undocumented children across Europe. No reliable regional estimate exists, but some trustworthy national-level estimates do. For instance, between 190,000 and 241,000 undocumented children are estimated to have been living in the UK in early 2017, and nearly 147,000 undocumented people younger than 19 were living in Spain according to 2019 municipal censuses which Save the Children and PorCausa Foundation consulted. Approximately half of them were younger than ten years old and about 55,000 children were younger than five. Good data is necessary to develop effective and targeted public policies that respond to the needs of undocumented children and their families, and we hope to see more good-quality national estimates in the future.

This lack of data is worrying because institutions and legislation at EU and member state-level can, and do, make the difference for undocumented children and their families. We heard several examples of this: the prohibition to deport undocumented children in Italy and their right to stay, measures taken by Spain to avoid Venezuela nationals who seek protection but who do not fulfil the criteria of the Geneva Convention from becoming undocumented or the newly announced regularisation programme that offers the chance to regularise to children and their families after three years in Ireland. We also got to know two laws that benefit unaccompanied children, specifically: the Italian Zampa law adopted in 2017, and the procedure to identify a durable solution for unaccompanied children in Belgium. The first strengthens the protection of unaccompanied children arriving in Italy and simplifies the issuing of a residence permit to those unaccompanied children who do not seek asylum, while the latter has the guardian propose a durable solution in the best interests of the child to the Belgian Immigration Office.

These national-level residence schemes are important, as children and their parents migrate for many reasons (not only fleeing from war), many children are born on EU soil to undocumented parents, and these procedures provide complementary pathways for stay based on children’s rights and needs. As explained by the European Commission, the Return Directive explicitly grants member states the freedom to provide anautonomous residence permit or other authorisation offering a right to stay for compassionate, humanitarian or other reasons” to any undocumented person on their territory. And, in line with international law and guidance, countries should find a durable solution that is in the child’s best interests and serves their long-term wellbeing.

We did hear many limitations as well – the Belgian procedure simply lapses once the child turns 18, for example, and the now-adult must then try to regularise their status another way or be deported. The 18th birthday represents a difficult transition because the child loses the protection and support they enjoyed as children, and service providers are often unable to extend the support they provided. Transition into undocumented adulthood results in exclusion and seeing your classmates build their dreams while you are stuck. The impact on mental health cannot be underestimated, and the years it can take before the young person can regularise their stay can never be regained. Durable solutions must be found before a child turns 18, and children supported in their transition into adulthood.

Even in the most polarized context, a child does not cease to be a child. All other considerations, whether they be administrative, political or concern migration management, are less important than that fact.

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