The numbers may for now have peaked, and the story may have slipped from the headlines but, the social inclusion of unaccompanied children remains a key issue for social welfare states across Europe.
The rise in child migrants in Europe in 2015 represented a fourfold increase on figures for 2014. Almost 90,000 unaccompanied children applied for international protection in EU member states in 2015. This has presented an unprecedented challenge for social services in the countries dealing with the highest numbers – such as Sweden, Germany, and Austria. The most worrying aspect is that because of the inadequate and disjointed response by government agencies, children who flee poverty and war are falling prey to traffickers. Europol, the EU police intelligence agency, speaks of 10,000 unaccompanied children who have vanished since they arrived in Europe.
These were some of the issues discussed at an event organised by the representation of the city of Hamburg in Brussels, to which European Social Network’s Policy Director Alfonso Lara Montero was invited to speak alongside local authorities’ representatives from Gothenburg (Sweden) and Vienna (Austria). Addressing the event, Mr. Montero argued that: “countries like Sweden and Germany have been proactive in seeking to protect unaccompanied children” He added: “With so many disappearing off the radar, it is essential that governments across the EU fulfill their responsibility and support other member states in relocating these vulnerable children”.
Attendees heard how social services in local authorities are increasingly moving beyond ‘catching up’ in trying to meet the needs of thousands of asylum-seeking unaccompanied children and on to the implementation of social inclusion programmes. In Vienna, local social services are responsible for coordinating an integrated programme of services including accommodation, counseling, education and assistance, with a focus on ensuring that children under 14 are placed with foster families. A significant part of the assistance provided is related to psychological support, particularly a ‘buddy’ (peer to peer) programme, which seems to be successful in helping young people overcome their traumatic experiences. In Gothenburg, the municipality is responsible for ensuring that every unaccompanied child goes to school, is housed in a children’s home or with a host family and has access to health and social care. In both cities, all unaccompanied children are assigned a representative to support them in the asylum procedure.
Discussions at the event also focused on the increasing climate of hostility towards refugees and some of the consequences, such as the introduction in Sweden of a return policy and the establishment of border controls with Denmark. In Sweden, changes in the way the municipalities are funded to work with refugees is likely to have a large impact on how they work in future. An increase in anxiety coupled with a decrease in mental well-being is also a growing factor among young migrants seeking asylum, in particular as it takes longer for asylum applications to be processed. On the bright side, a new piece of legislation seems likely to come into effect soon and the majority of asylum seekers will be given permission to stay as long as they participate in high school education.