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A Shared Challenge: Europe and the United States Confront Significant Flows of Unaccompanied Child Migrants

A Shared Challenge: Europe and the United States Confront Significant Flows of Unaccompanied Child Migrants

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Unaccompanied migrant youth are detained on the Greek island of Lesvos. (Photo: Thomas Andre Syvertsen/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children were among the waves of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict, persecution, and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia who arrived in Europe during 2015 (see Issue #1: Migration Crisis Tests European Consensus and Governance). The flow mirrors a similar trend in the United States: 2015 marked the second highest year on record for unaccompanied minor arrivals, following last year’s crisis-level surge. For such children and receiving governments, arrival in Europe and the United States may signal the end of often perilous journeys, but also marks the beginning of a complex set of processing and integration challenges occurring against the backdrop of heated public debate.

Issue No. 8 of Top Ten of 2015

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Arrival and Asylum Trends 

Physically exhausted and often needing medical or psychological support, unaccompanied children have flooded into Europe in unprecedented numbers. Sweden expected between 29,000 and 40,000 children traveling alone would arrive by the end of 2015, while Germany estimated it would receive as many as 30,000. Proportionally, both Germany and Sweden were on track to receive more unaccompanied children in 2015 than arrived in the United States during the peak of the 2014 child migration crisis. From 2011 to 2014, the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe—largely from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Somalia—doubled from about 12,000 to more than 23,000, and the steep upward trend continued in 2015 (see Figure 1). Sweden and Germany have received 50 percent of all such asylum claims, and have struggled to accommodate the increased flows.  

Figure 1. Unaccompanied Minors Seeking Asylum in Germany, Sweden, and the European Union, 2008-14

Source: Eurostat, “Asylum applicants considered to be unaccompanied minors by citizenship, age and sex, Annual data (rounded),” last updated May 14, 2015, available online.

Across the Atlantic, following often-hazardous journeys through Central America and Mexico, nearly 30,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol in fiscal year (FY) 2015, second only to the 52,000 who arrived at the U.S. border in FY 2014 (see Figure 2). The decrease is largely credited to Mexico’s ramped-up immigration enforcement at its southern border, which has resulted in the apprehension and deportation of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children. Amid criticism that the United States has pressured Mexico to increase its enforcement, some have accused the United States of deferring its protection obligations to this vulnerable group.

Figure 2. Unaccompanied Central American Minors Apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico Border, FY 2009-15

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) calculations of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children,” accessed November 1, 2015, available online.

The impact of unaccompanied minors is felt most acutely at the local level: Munich was expecting up to 10,000 migrant children by the end of 2015; Berlin an estimated 3,000. Malmö has received more unaccompanied minors than any other Swedish city—up to 100 arrivals per day. In the United States, more than 4,000 unaccompanied children were sent to Houston last year, while Los Angeles County took in 3,000.

Systems Overwhelmed

Children traveling alone to Europe or the United States face similar dangers and are particularly at risk of abuse and trafficking (for more on human smuggling trends see Issue #4: Big Business of Smuggling Enables Mass Movement of People for Enormous Profits). Though the United States and European Union have systems in place to receive such children, the rising flows have overwhelmed accommodations as well as legal and integration processes.

Under U.S. law, unaccompanied children are released into the least restrictive setting while awaiting immigration court decisions; about 85 percent are reunited with relatives already in the country. Navigating the complex immigration court system has proven one of the biggest ordeals, however, as one year on from the 2014 surge, more than 60 percent of children are still awaiting hearings. Though many have recognizable protection claims, few children have the legal representation critical to articulating their cases—between October 2013 and August 2015, 90 percent of unrepresented children were ordered deported, compared to 18 percent of those with counsel.

Children traveling alone to Europe are less likely to immediately reunify with parents who have undertaken separate journeys. Although Germany and Sweden provide generous benefits for unaccompanied children, including a guardian, housing, health care, schooling, language classes, counseling, and a small stipend, the overwhelming numbers have severely stretched shelter capacity and made difficult the assurance of quality care. Sweden has resorted to housing children in sports halls and elderly care homes, and with social workers scarce, has delayed guardian appointments.

Public opinion in some European cities has turned hostile toward child migrants, with critics citing fears of criminality and abuse of benefits. The influx of largely male youth in Hamburg, for example, led to negative media portrayals and heated debate in the city’s mayoral elections. In Malmö, some politicians expressed concern about adults posing as children to abuse Sweden’s generosity, and lamented increased competition over housing (for more on the political rhetoric surrounding the refugee crisis see Issue #6: Refugee Crisis Deepens Political Polarization in the West).

Responding to the Surge

European governments have had to react quickly, implementing new policies to deal with the inflow. Germany passed a law effective early 2016 to distribute unaccompanied minors more evenly across the country, drawing concern from rights groups that children would be sent to cities unprepared to receive them. The federal government also pledged to increase the budget for the care of unaccompanied minors by 350 million euros in 2016.

In Malmö, the rapid increase in child arrivals prompted local officials to declare a humanitarian emergency. Yet even as Sweden tightened its asylum laws, protections for unaccompanied children have remained generous. If approved as refugees, children receive immediate permanent residency, while adults traveling alone receive a temporary right to stay. Critics say this decision encourages families to send their children so they can petition for family reunification.

The United States has increased its reception and processing capacities, opened new shelters, authorized new law enforcement operations to crack down on smuggling networks, increased exchanges with Central American governments, and launched media campaigns to discourage children from undertaking the journey. The Obama administration has also created limited legal pathways for Central American children to come to the United States via a refugee in-country processing program if their parents already are present in the United States under certain conditions. As of November, 5,400 applications had been filed, though due to the long adjudication process only six youth had arrived in the United States (for more on President Obama’s immigration actions, see Issue #3: White House Uses Many Levers of Power to Effect Change as Obama and Congress Remain Deadlocked on Immigration).

An Increasingly Transatlantic Challenge

Faced with thousands of children arriving alone in European and U.S. cities, those on the integration frontlines, including mayors and school principals, are struggling with similar questions: How best to support teachers faced with an inflow of students with rudimentary language skills and months or years of interrupted schooling? Which psychological services do children who have experienced trauma fleeing war or gang violence need? And how can cities relieve community tensions when unaccompanied children compete for limited resources with other vulnerable groups?

With more and more children fleeing conditions in their home countries globally and with tension over migration in Europe and the United States increasing, the flows of uniquely vulnerable unaccompanied child migrants will continue to push policymakers to find answers to this shared challenge in 2016 and beyond.


MPI Research


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