After months of negotiations, in October 2021, the Spanish government adopted a decree to facilitate access to residence and work permits for unaccompanied children as they turn 18 and transition into adulthood. This reform to the Regulation of the Aliens Act (Reglamento de la Ley de Extranjería) is expected to improve the lives of young migrants and is welcomed by civil society organisations and associations who have long advocated for such a change.
The decree came into effect in mid-November.
Who benefits from this reform? How?
The reform facilitates access to residence and work permits for unaccompanied children, as well as those who arrived as children and aged out (known in Spanish as Extutelados) and are now between 18 and 23 years old. The change is expected to improve living conditions and integration prospects for thousands of young people. According to government’s data, approximately 15,000 people will benefit from this reform, of which 8,000 are children and 7,000 young people older than 18 years old.
For unaccompanied children the reform:
- simplifies bureaucratic procedures to access residence and work permits before they turn 18, in terms of documentation required and involvement of different public bodies;
- extends the validity of residence and work permits to two years, which can be renewed once for a period of three years as long as they’re underage. Previously, permits had to be renewed every year, which led to the saturation of courts and administration;
- ensures that their documentation process starts within three months of arrival. Previous legislation set this period at nine months, which put lots of children in situations of great uncertainty for a much longer period of time. It also helps reduce the number of children who turn 18 without this documentation;
- allows them to work when they are 16.
Former unaccompanied children currently between 18 and 23 (Extutelados)
For those who recently became adults and are younger than 23, the reform:
- extends the validity of the residence permit they had as an unaccompanied child for another six months;
- grants them access to the Spanish basic income scheme (“minimum vital income”, around 470€ per month), which was set up in 2020 to prevent poverty and social exclusion;
- allows them to get a work permit if they can prove a monthly income, from subsidies or other sources, of 470€. Under previous legislation, aged out unaccompanied children were not automatically allowed to work, even if they had a residence permit. To obtain a work permit, they had to find a full-time job for at least one year, an extremely difficult task.
- makes it easier for undocumented aged out unaccompanied children to regularise their status, on the condition that they have an income of at least 470€ per month.
What are the weaknesses of the reform?
In general, the reform has been welcomed and celebrated by the regional governments, NGOs, human rights defenders, civil society and the Spanish Ombudsman.
However, civil society has also expressed concerns. First of all, undocumented extutelados who have a recent criminal record cannot access the residence permit, even if they meet all other requirements. Civil society organisations point out that this is problematic, as many young people were pushed into survival crime by the previous legislation that denied them access to residence permits and viable support systems.
Secondly, current age assessment policies will leave many young people behind. For instance, young people who were never part of the child protection system will not be able to benefit from the reform. This is especially hard for those that were mistakenly assessed to be adults, even though they had birth certificates and official documentation stating otherwise. There are also important backlogs, especially in the autonomous communities that see more arrivals than others. In the Canary Islands, for instance, 1,100 people are still waiting to have their age assessed; if the final decision is not reached in time, they won’t benefit from the reform.
Thirdly, the documentation given to the unaccompanied child is not fully secure. It does not prevent the child from being returned to their country of origin, if the government finds that it would be in their best interests to be repatriated to their family or even returned to child protection services. PICUM members are waiting to see what this will mean in practice.
Even though these concerns exist, the Spanish reform is a good example of how simplifying procedures and realistic regularisation criteria can protect children and young people from harm. It also responds to the very real challenges aged out unaccompanied children face and, by facilitating their access to a residence permit, will certainly ease their transition to adulthood in safety and dignity.
Cover photo: DTIBERIO – Adobe Stock