By Ana Fontal, Global Refugee Coordinator at SOS Children’s Villages International. A new report by SOS Children’s Villages and Eurochild presents 16 case studies bringing lessons from the field on the protection and integration of refugee and migrant children in Europe.
A child going to school is no news or should be no news in Europe. A child going to a classmate’s birthday party is an ordinary Sunday plan for many families. Parents supporting their teenage children when struggling to find their place in the world of increased responsibilities that come with adulthood is also a reality in many European households. When things turn out well, it is tempting to think that we have done this all by ourselves, but to develop our potential and overcome difficulties when growing up, most of us have relied on caring families, supportive communities of friends, sometimes neighbours, sometimes teachers, sometimes a sports coach, a colleague or a boss, all the people who were there to believe in us, support us and inspire us. Many of us in Europe have had the chance to go to school, to go to the doctor when needed, nobody has put us in jail for no reason, there were no laws forbidding us to work, we haven’t had to go into a huge debt and deal with ruthless criminals to reach a place where we feel safe.
Nobody can grow up alone and when children and young people have had to cross an international border in order to have a future, it is likely that things will get even harder, let alone when their families are thousands of kilometres away. For these children, avoiding the risk of going missing, dropping out of school, becoming victims of abuse, turning to prostitution, drug dealing and other dangerous activities in order to survive, giving up hope on the future, falling into depression and distrusting everyone is an achievement in itself and without strong support few will make it.
While it is easy to agree on an abstract level that children are children and that their new societies should treat them as such, there are practical barriers that are impeding migrant and refugee children from accessing the care and protection that European children can access. Civil society can support local authorities to adjust services to meet the needs of refugee and migrant children and overcome such barriers and there are inspiring examples of practices that are working.
For example, in Hungary where national legislation provides foster care for all children without parental care under 12 years of age, this type of family-based care has not been available for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children, despite the strong consensus that individualised care tailored to every child and reflecting the diversity of their aspirations, needs, skills and strengths is more conducive to the development of a child than large-scale reception centres.
SOS Children’s Villages has initiated a pilot project to recruit, select, train and monitor certified foster parents for unaccompanied and separated children. A 12-year-old boy from Afghanistan, who left Hungary’s institution for unaccompanied children to live with his Hungarian-Iranian foster mother has become the first unaccompanied child to be placed in foster care in the country. SOS Children’s Villages has also started to support the Child Protection Services of Budapest, for them to begin recruiting and training foster parents for unaccompanied and separated children.
This experience also illustrates that there are resources in our societies and we should use them. Since the initiative was launched, over 100 people have showed their interest in becoming foster parents. Some of them have been trained as foster parents, some have become mentors for refugee families, helping them to connect with people in their communities and navigate daily life in a foreign country.
The other side of the coin in ensuring that refugee and migrant children are able to access mainstream services is that the local population, including people lacking resources, should also benefit from the investments made to refugee programmes.
This is key if we are to avoid conflicts caused by the perception that refugees and migrants are treated better than locals or that the response to the needs of migrants and refugees prevents services from adequately responding to the needs of other marginalized groups, such as homeless citizens.
In Serbia, for example, SOS Children’s Villages mobile team ‘Super Bus’ enables all children in the community, and not only refugee and migrant children, to access recreational and informal education activities. They go there to meet up, laugh and play together.
A third key element to facilitate inclusion is opportunities for local population and newcomers to meet and establish relationships. We fear what we don’t know.
Above all, access to mainstream services, like schools, is essential to establish these shared spaces where people can meet and, as underlined, civil society can play an important role in supporting public services to adapt their approach to reach refugees and migrants. Civil society organisations that are well respected and have strong roots in the local community are also in a good position to facilitate dialogue with local communities and promote mutual understanding.
In some locations in Serbia, for instance, some sectors of the local community were protesting when refugee children were enrolled in regular schools. SOS Children’s Villages, together with Unicef, took the time to engage in dialogue with parents whose kids were in local schools, schools directors, teachers and other staff to discuss the challenges faced by the new students and the contribution they could bring to their new schools. Not only are the children being supported and getting good grades, which helps to fight stereotypes, they are making friends and getting invited to the homes of the local families. This might not be measurable through statistics, but that is a vital success on individual and community level.
The response to refugees and migrants seeking to rebuild their lives in Europe has been characterised by a lack of unity and political leadership. The short-sighted and twisted idea that migrants are a burden and a problem rather than people who can contribute to Europe’s social, economic and cultural development have led countries and EU institutions to panic and enter a race to the bottom to evade their own responsibilities and point fingers towards each other in a blame-game that doesn’t seek real solutions and where we all lose.
Panic is not a good guide to policy-making, it misplaces the causes of people’s difficulties and it offers simple but false solutions. We can find a much better inspiration on the ground: newcomers, authorities, civil society and local communities sometimes managing to come together to implement workable solutions for people to access their rights regardless of whether they carry the ‘refugee’ label with all its connotations.
We know that when our own children need us, we don’t leave them on their own and justify ourselves thinking that we did what we could. If we truly believe that children are children, also beyond our own homes, our support to refugee and migrant children becomes a moral obligation.
If we know that a child struggling in the streets of our cities and getting into trouble is no different from a child who, with the right support, can pursue their studies, realise their dreams and grow into someone strong and self-confident enough to help others, then our support is also an investment in our future.
If people are people and children are children then what should prevent us from working together?
ECRE publishes op-eds by commentators with relevant experience and expertise in the field who want to contribute to the debate on refugee rights in Europe. The views expressed are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect ECRE’s positions.
Photo: (c) Eurochild, SOS Children’s Villages, December 2017