The growing challenge of children and adolescents travelling illegally to Europe requires a "coherent system" that should aim at providing "normality and stability" for them, whether that involves integrating or resettling them in Europe or returning them, the European Committee of the Regions has said. The recommendations adopted on 11 October by the EU's assembly for local and regional politicians would have implications for the guardianship, legal access, accommodation and integration of migrants and would entail a sharper focus on child migrants in the work of local, national and EU officials.
The proposals – contained in an opinion drafted by Yoomi Renström (SE/PES), member of Ovanåker Municipal Council and also the rapporteur on the reception of migrants for the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – are a response to efforts by the European Commission to address one of the gravest and most delicate aspects of the refugee and migration challenge, with more refugees and illegal migrants under the age of 18 dying en route, arriving, and going missing within Europe.
"The European Union needs a coherent system with local, national and EU policymakers and officials working towards common objectives as we face this urgent, growing and long-term challenge," said Ms Renström. "We know what we have to do – we must keep fully to the spirit as well as the letter of international law – and we have the legal tools, but the broader aim has to be to provide them with a sense of normality and stability in the short and long term. It is not easy to provide protect, integrate and educate vulnerable migrating children at a time when there is a dramatic increase in their number, but there are local governments and national governments that have developed good practices and that show that small targeted interventions can make a huge difference. There is much that could and must be improved. The fact that some children live in prison-like conditions is not acceptable".
She continued: "A proper system of guardianship, for example, is essential. Guardians provide protection, reduce the chances of children going missing, and increase the chances of integration. Guardians should be well-trained professionals who look after only a limited number of children. That is not the case across Europe. My own country Sweden has a system of guardianship, and – even if we also have to improve and strengthen the system – we know the benefits for the children of having a guardian".
The recommendations of the European Committee of the Regions would mean that each reception centre would have a child-protection ombudsman and different accommodation for young arrivals, with detention ruled out. Children would be treated as priority cases, with individualised assessments that would establish their specific protection needs. The recommendations underscore the dangers of long-term marginalisation, disadvantage and vulnerability to exploitation that young arrivals face, and stress that integration is vital and that "prompt and reliable access to inclusive formal education" is "critically important".
The opinion draws attention to a range of gaps in the approach towards reform of the Common European Asylum System, including a failure by the European Commission's paper on the issue of children in migration "to consider the circumstances and conditions faced by local and regional authorities" and inadequate funding and support for cities and regions. It highlights a lack of criteria for identifying and assessing a child's "best interests" and welcomes EU plans to fill the gap, and calls for a "legally watertight age assessment" to address existing differences across the EU. It also emphasises the importance of improving data, so that data are comparable and provide basic information such as the gender of the migrant child.
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