We don’t know how many undocumented children are living in Europe. We don’t even know how many children are currently locked up in detention because of their own or their parents’ immigration status. While the European Union requires precise data collection in numerous sectors – we know how many dairy cows there are in the EU and the UK, for example – the lack of data and visibility of undocumented children seems a political, rather than a technical, void.
Being born in Europe is not enough to prevent a child from becoming undocumented, if they are born to undocumented parents. No European country grants citizenship solely based on birth in the national territory. Others in the ranks of the undocumented moved to Europe as kids and have spent most of their lives here. For them, Europe is home. But policy hasn’t caught up with this reality.
But the lack of interest in or attention to this group – some of whom have told their remarkable stories in a Guardian series this week – combined with the political treatment of irregular migrants, result in daily violations of children’s rights. In many EU countries, undocumented children cannot register with a family doctor or access preventative or specialist health services.
More than two decades of common EU migration policies have been led by a hardline policing approach to irregular migration, focusing on border controls, detention and deportation, at the expense of children’s rights. Migrant children who accompany their parents are often treated by authorities like their parents’ luggage, or a footnote in their immigration files.
Despite being European in all senses but on paper, these young people are pushed to the margins of society, with often heavy consequences on their mental health. A landmark study following 150 undocumented young people in Los Angeles for 12 years found that they experienced chronic headaches, chronic toothaches, sleeping disorders and suicidal thoughts, due to the constant stress of living with irregular status.
Having an irregular or precarious status can also give rise to issues around identity and belonging, and limits planning for the future at a critical time in young people’s development. At around the age of 18, when friends are exploring their autonomy and opportunities as new adult members of society, these young people transition to a life where there are very few possibilities to pursue higher education or develop their careers.
The pandemic has exposed – and risks further widening – these inequalities. Now more than ever, undocumented children and young people need to be fully included in all public service provision. A basic starting point would be to ensure meaningful access to all levels of education and training, and to health and social services.
Beyond that, it is time to improve migration policies. Many undocumented children could have a right to reside in the country where they live, based on their attachments to the country, and do eventually regularise their status and even become citizens. Yet they only get to put their case forward after they are in deportation proceedings, after years of anxiety and deprivation, and even then only if they have good lawyers.
We need to ensure that children’s rights and wellbeing are at the forefront and considered before decisions on their future are made. We need to reform the failures in systems of residence and work permits that push children and young people into an irregular situation in the first place. And to implement procedures so that they can proactively apply for and access a secure residence status.
Some European governments at national and local level are taking steps to support young undocumented people. While no one country has all the answers, we can take what works and build on it. A number of European countries have regularised undocumented children, young people and families in recent years. In France, they are now entitled to full health coverage free of charge, without any administrative requirements, except to prove their identity. In Spain, the law specifically states that undocumented children can go to school, access subsidies for low-income families, and do internships. Ireland does not detain any children for immigration purposes.
The EU has also taken important steps: two policy documents in 2017 focused specifically on the rights of children in migration, setting out actions to promote their rights at EU and national level. Two upcoming EU strategies – the Migration and Asylum Pact and the Child Rights Strategy – are major opportunities for the EU to bring these commitments in from the sidelines and meaningfully promote policies that are inclusive of all children, regardless of status.
Hafidh, who has lived in France since he was 16, was arrested at the age of 21 by immigration authorities for not having a valid residence permit. He said later:
“I would not have thought that this country was not attached to me as I am attached to it, because all my roots and all those I would never stop fighting for are in this country.”
Like Hafidh, many young people live in constant fear that one day their lives and families will be torn apart, that they or a family member will be deported to a country they do not even know.
Undocumented children are already a part of our societies. Let’s treat them as such.
Michele LeVoy is director of PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants.