#14 movement
Thomas Berthold

A 21st-Century Childhood

Thomas Berthold is a spokesperson for the German Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees (Bundesfachverband Unbegleitete Minderjährige Flüchtlinge e.V, UMF). Children and adolescents make up a particularly vulnerable group within the worldwide flows of refugees that is often overlooked. In our interview, Berthold tells us about the numerous perils these kids have to face during their flight, why they leave home, and what they hope for in the future.

DDD: Could you start by telling me something about the association and your work? I would be interested to hear exactly who is considered an “unaccompanied minor refugee”.

Thomas Berthold: The Federal Association for Unaccompanied Minor Refugees was founded in 1998 by people involved in social work with refugees, from refugee councils, guardians and solicitors who all said the same thing: “We need an organisation that can speak for the special needs of unaccompanied minor refugees.” The association began with the support of volunteers. Now it is a full-fledged association with a head office and full-time employees. Its mission has not changed though: We communicate our practical experience to politicians and the public, while also providing information and offering conferences, thus creating a network to improve work in the area of unaccompanied minor refugees. Unaccompanied minor refugees are a group, ultimately a very small percentage of overall global flight patterns, of young people travelling without their parents or a responsible guardian. Unaccompanied does not mean they are necessarily completely alone, in the sense that they have travelled alone from their point of departure all the way to Europe. Minors often travel with a group of people they have met along the way, perhaps even relatives. But they are not in the company of a guardian. These young people do not have an adult who is directly responsible for them.

What countries do the adolescents and children you work with come from?

In Germany Afghanistan has been one of the most common countries in recent history. That is because the conflict has been raging there for so long, that the number of refugees from the region has been correspondingly high for years. At the moment, a lot of young people are coming from Eritrea, Syria, Iran, and Somalia, countries, in other words, in which conflicts have erupted and where children and adolescents fall victim to serious oppression at times.

You already mentioned that the group is not large. What percentage of overall refugees would you estimate unaccompanied minors account for?

In recent years, the approximate percentage of unaccompanied minors accounts for around 2.5% of all asylum applicants in Germany. It varies though. Sometimes it is 4%, sometimes 2.5%. The number is slightly lower in overall global migration.

Whether the accompanying adult drowns in the Mediterranean, gets detained by the border police, jailed and the like, unaccompanied minors often become unaccompanied during their flight.

We often find that many unaccompanied minors are separated from their families in transit. Whether the accompanying adult drowns in the Mediterranean, gets detained by the border police, jailed and the like, unaccompanied minors often become unaccompanied during their flight. So their number tends to be somewhat higher percentage-wise here in Europe than in a country closer to their point of departure.

I see. So in the so-called third countries, families might still be intact, and then get separated in transit.

Exactly. We have often been told that in Greece, for example, families have to separate because they can only transit out of Greece separately. This is a classic example that we experience quite frequently.

What can you tell us about the most common reasons people are fleeing their homelands right now?

Refugees flee for extremely different reasons. This is just part of the whole “migration and flight” issue. On the one hand, we have a large group of children and adolescents who come from what I would call classic civil war areas, like Syria or Afghanistan, and are trying to escape the dangerous situation there.

So you can see that the reasons children and adolescents have for fleeing their homelands are very, very diverse.

These include children and adolescents who are vulnerable to forced recruitment, such as by the al-Shabaab militias in Somalia that recruit large numbers of child soldiers, and where children and adolescents try to escape and take refuge here in Europe. Then we have children and young people who I would say are looking for a better life. Maybe their parents sent them away because they have no future prospects in their homelands. We have children and adolescents whose parents are politically active and who have had to leave their homelands so they will not be in danger themselves, whether from revolutionary groups, ruling dictatorships, or violent conflict. And of course we have a group of young girls running from forced marriages, from gender-specific persecution, such as female genital mutilation or similar acts. So you can see that the reasons children and adolescents have for fleeing their homelands are very, very diverse.

What sort of process do minors go through once they have reached Europe? You already noted that many families are not separated until they arrive in Greece, for example.

Getting to Europe, as a great number of reports in the press have indicated, has gotten very, very difficult for refugees. And if refugees arrive in Europe, then they often arrive in countries in which the reception facilities for asylum seekers are catastrophic. Greece is the best known example, but in countries like Cyprus and Malta, massive numbers of asylum seekers are jailed.

When they enter the European Union, when they have managed to get past all the border controls, when they have survived the Mediterranean, they discover that no one in Europe extends a hand and says: “Welcome, you will be safe here.”

The reception facilities for families in Italy, according to a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, are incapable of meeting the standards they should be held to. Many refugee families end up living on the streets. This is, of course, what refugee children experience too. When they enter the European Union, when they have managed to get past all the border controls, when they have survived the Mediterranean, they discover that no one in Europe extends a hand and says: “Welcome, you will be safe here.” The situation they experience instead is similar to what they have gone through in many of the transit countries. So they have not reached a target country and have to keep travelling inside Europe to find safety. As such, the goal of many refugees and migrants is not Greece or Italy. They want to continue on to Central and Western European countries, to Germany, Norway, Sweden, Great Britain, France, Holland. Destinations vary and issues like a family connection and other similar concerns play a role, knowledge about a country, familiarity with the language, the things that drive refugees to keep travelling. When refugee families or unaccompanied minors arrive in Germany, the situation varies widely in the different federal states. That is because there are no unified standards for dealing with unaccompanied minors in Germany. We have a clear statement that they are to be taken into custody – as is the case for child and youth welfare in general – that they should be cared for, but this happens in very, very different ways. We have no standard method for determining someone’s age or identity. The guardianship process goes very slowly, which makes it very hard for children and adolescents to be assigned a legal representative. And there are serious quality concerns for the whole procedure, even though there are a lot of legal guarantees. This is what children and adolescents experience in the beginning as well. They have finally arrived and there are people who say “yes, we are responsible for you”, but there are not enough spots available and not enough services to allow us to really take good care of all the newly arrived unaccompanied minors.

And what happens when an asylum application for a minor is not successful, are there other approaches?

Yes. In addition to applying for asylum, there is also the possibility of regularising residency status through so-called “successful integration”. The asylum process sometimes takes years and during that entire time, many unaccompanied minors attend school. Some even start professional training. For people who are well integrated, and have successfully completing training for example, there are other options for getting permanent residency status in addition to applying for asylum. With many unaccompanied minors, we experience that they apply themselves to school with great dedication and really try to find a trainee position and complete their training because they want to make a life for themselves here. This is something children and adolescents bring from their flight, of course, a kind of independence and the will to achieve certain goals.

It is really nice to hear that you do not solely describe the situations of these young people in terms of deficits, that this kind of life can also lend a certain strength and power.

Yes, I think there is a little of both. On the one hand, many young people have gone through a lot of very hard years and I think this is important to explicitly acknowledge, because many have had truly traumatic experiences. On the other hand, they bring a lot of good qualities too. Which does not mean that we can simply say: “OK, they are useful here because they are so productive. They know how to make their own way and could really benefit the economic system here in Europe.” They have rights by virtue of the fact that they are here, because they are children. And they must be treated accordingly.

Like all children and adolescents, they are interested in creating something here, in gaining experience and moving forward.

But what we experience is that they are often very interested in settling in. Every project involving unaccompanied minors has shown that if you give them the opportunity, they fit in at school very quickly and complete their educations quite rapidly. Not because they are all gifted and talented, but because like all children and adolescents, they are interested in creating something here, in gaining experience and moving forward. In our work we see this very clearly time and time again with unaccompanied minors. Of course many children and adolescents discover in transit how important the asylum process is. They don’t arrive here knowing nothing at all. And the knowledge making the rounds in the networks is: “The asylum process is important and it is your big opportunity”. So of course they want to know how the process is going to end as quickly as possible. The fact that there are other ways of achieving permanent residence status is naturally very abstract for children and adolescents and seems very far away. If you know you need to finish two or three years to get a certificate of secondary education, then maybe complete an apprenticeship first; a time frame of five years is very, very hard for a 16-year-old to understand. And especially hard to keep pushing though.

What unique problems arise when you work with minor refugees? Are there factors that are particularly problematic with this group?

There are two problems. One the one hand, we find it difficult to enforce their legal rights, even though these are clearly set out in the law, or in international standards. The right to an education is one example, or the right to basic child and youth welfare services, a qualitative asylum process, and other similar things. We repeatedly see the system fail, and these basic rights are not really upheld. This is compounded by a second, more abstract level, namely an overall lack of quality. This is due to the fact that the reception facilities and process is not extensive enough. There is no coherent, stringent, well-thought out admission policy for unaccompanied minors. Much of it is piecemeal, there is no one guiding principle that unifies it and that would make it possible to say: “We want to deal with unaccompanied minors according to this principle.” If we look at it at a practical level, then the situation at the moment – especially since we have experienced a rising number of unaccompanied minors in the last three years – our experience has shown that many people who work in the youth welfare offices can no longer cope with the situation. There is serious understaffing, not enough people to take care of these young people. There are too few spots in youth facilities. The guardians, who often try very, very hard to help these children and adolescents, find it very difficult to get the training they need that would allow them to offer young people truly qualified assistance.

Not everything happening right now is bad. But there is no well-thought out strategy behind it all.

We repeatedly experience positive developments in the asylum process, but we also repeatedly see that these hearings are very, very hard on many young people because their cases are not being heard properly. One fundamental thing we have noticed when it comes to all the issues around asylum and residency rights is that there is still not enough focus on the child-specific reasons for flight. We are not seeing enough debate on why unaccompanied minors come to Germany in the first place and why this does not automatically translate into refugee status in accordance with the Geneva Convention, for example. The group is small and debate around it is theoretical. Sometimes it is mentioned by the media and then a lot of effort is invested, this is fair to say from the perspective of a non-governmental organisation, and not everything happening right now is bad. But there is no well-thought out strategy behind it all.

Maybe in closing we can talk a little more about the families. How often are families successfully reunified? Are efforts being made here on a European level under Dublin III when family members sometimes live scattered in different European transit and target countries?

The Dublin III regulations emphasise the importance of making it easier to reunify families. This promotes child welfare. The interesting thing is that the EU no longer applies a so-called “narrow” definition of family as we do in German law, but rather works with an expanded definition of family. This means that when an unaccompanied minor arrives in Germany and has an uncle in London, the EU expects it to be possible to reunify the family there as well. I don’t have any current figures because the process is currently still developing. A quick look at the policy in practice shows that while there is a clear desire to make these procedures fast; there have been very few processes to date that have actually resulted in reuniting a family in this sense. This happens more in the case of Greece. There are increasing numbers of cases of unaccompanied minors who either bring their parents over or where parents bring minors from Greece who might already be there. It is working a bit better already, but the process is still being developed.

We feel the positive effects that Dublin III can have on reuniting families are not being promoted and acknowledged enough.

Ultimately it is very, very important that we have fast, good procedures in place here that prevent children and adolescents from having to take clandestine paths that are very unsafe and often involve a great financial burden, that quite simply represent a high level of personal risk. But the first small steps are being taken. At the moment, Dublin III is mostly associated with a program that would move refuges back and forth within the European Union. From our perspective, we feel the positive effects that Dublin III can have on reuniting families are not being promoted and acknowledged enough.

Does the UMF work in international partnerships with other NGOs in this area?

Yes, we are part of the "Separated Children in Europe Programme". This is a NGO comprising organisations from 31 countries that work on the issue of unaccompanied minors. We are in something of a unique position because there is no other NGO in the world that only works with unaccompanied minors like we do. It is an associated issue in other, larger refugee organisations. Naturally we work with them on such issues as family reunification as well.

Interview by Patrick Delaney

Thomas Berthold was a speaker at the conference “Future of Children’s Rights. 25 Years of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Photo by Leonard J Matthews (flickr)

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