Cities and the Protection of the Most Vulnerable Migrants: The Fate of Unaccompanied Minors in Europe

Over one thousand unaccompanied minors live in the Calais ‘jungle’ camps, which are to be demolished this week. The fate of the residents of the camps, especially the unaccompanied minors, after the demolition is uncertain. Where will these vulnerable children go?

The minors in the Calais camps are not adequately protected and have no access to legal services. The closure of the camps, however, would expose them to an even greater risk of exploitation. The lack of emergency mechanisms to cater for the needs of the children could make many of the children homeless. Many might disappear and fall prey to traffickers. Urgent action is therefore needed to speed up the process of ensuring the protection of their fundamental rights. The inhumane situation in Calais also serves as a clarion call for more direct support for European cities, which play a crucial role especially in receiving the most vulnerable.

The use of deterrence measures is the city of Calais’ approach towards reducing the number of people wanting to cross the border to reach the United Kingdom. Immigrants have been denied shelter, and the local police has evicted many individuals and destroyed dwellings, often involving mass arrest or severe violence. It is estimated that around 600 minors living in the ‘jungle’  have a legal right to enter Britain. Children who have family members in the UK have a right to join them; the Dublin III Regulation obliges the UK to handle their asylum claims. Even if that link is absent, unaccompanied refugee children have a right to be transferred and supported under the Dubs Amendment to the UK Immigration Act. Despite the existence of legal protection, little has been done to handle and register asylum claims. The UK’s Home Secretary’s promise to relocate as many refugee children as possible from Europe to the UK has not resulted in an effective mechanism to carry out the transfer. In addition, there is uncertainty about the fate of unaccompanied minors who do not fall within the said protection mechanisms.

In advance of the site’s demolition, children became sick, developed serious depression, became prone to self-harm, and even died waiting. The French and UK’s neglect of these children amounts to serious violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which State parties are obliged to ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of children under their jurisdiction. A recent Red Cross report states that the processes in place to look after and transfer unaccompanied children are inaccessible, unsafe, restrictive and not sustainable. Children have restricted access to asylum services, lack appropriate information, and suffer from a shortage of accommodation and safeguarding provisions. Such acute distress and insecurity harm children’s development and adversely affect their ability to integrate into a new host society.

With priority given to interests focusing on controlling migration and securing borders, the unaccompanied minors’ vulnerability tends to be neglected. Their protection cannot be left to the efforts of civil society alone. Despite the existence of an EU Action Plan concerning unaccompanied minors, the situation in Calais’ camps shows that action is being taken too late. The Mayor of Calais has accused the central government of not providing adequate support to the city and its local population, leaving her to manage the migrants by herself. Regardless of tensions between certain Member States of the EU, the pivotal role that cities play becomes particularly apparent with regard to unaccompanied minors, who often deserve very acute protection, and for whom the precarious conditions in refugee camps are especially harmful.

An encouraging example in this context is the city of Malmö in Sweden. Malmö received nearly 15.000 unaccompanied minors in 2015, almost ten times more than the year before. Despite the financial burden, it became clear that the response at the local level can be much faster than at the national level. Two thousand people were recruited to provide homes for the children, and twenty schools have been planned, as Malmö recognizes education as an important route to integration. Malmö is one of many European cities calling for direct EU funding for integration. Cities and municipalities need to be empowered as first points of arrival, transit hubs and ultimate destinations of refugees. This was pointed out in the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum in Athens on 17 October under the slogan “Welcoming refugees: a city challenge”.

The cases of unaccompanied children need to be given priority, and for this purpose, they need to be provided with adequate legal support. Long waiting periods in unsafe camps have to be avoided at all costs. Wherever a transfer to family members is not possible within a short time period, and the minors cannot be returned, children should be given shelter. To further this aim, cities and towns receiving newcomers need more support at the national and EU level. Considering that the numbers of unaccompanied minors have never been this high and are continuously increasing, the focus needs to shift from ineffective control of immigration to protection of the most vulnerable.

The international workshop on Migration Governance, to be held in The Hague on December 8 and 9, 2016 as part of The Hague’s Institute’s Global Governance Reform Initiative is an opportunity to further explore the role of cities with regard to human security of the most vulnerable migrants. It will also build on the long-term work of the institute on City Responsibility: The Role of Municipalities in Conflict Prevention.

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Migration, Europe

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