Image of North African unaccompanied minors is too one-sided

There is a group of unaccompanied minors (UMs) that leads a nomadic life in Europe and has a variety of problems. These minors in general come from North Africa and usually do not qualify to receive a residence permit after applying for asylum. Their multiple problems include problematic behaviour at and outside the accommodation centres, which results in this group having a negative image within Dutch society. However, at the same time, they are also vulnerable children who often had a problematic childhood. In order to survive in Europe and earn money, they often become involved in criminal activities, where they are possibly being exploited. WODC (The Dutch Research and Documentation Centre) researchers therefore concluded that these nomadic youngsters should not only be seen as perpetrators, but also as victims.

Knowledge about these nomadic UMs with multiple problems was limited and fragmented. The aim of this study was to learn more about the background and motives of these youngsters and also to find out how other countries deal with them. Interviews were held with researchers and professionals from various European countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Spain) and from Morocco. 

Listen to explanatory information given by the researchers in the Podcast below (Dutch spoken).

WODC Podcast Alleenstaande Minderjarige Vreemdelingen

Thema: Deze aflevering gaat over het onderzoek naar rondreizende alleenstaande minderjarige vreemdelingen (AMV's).

Taal: Nederlands

Host: Carlissa Remmerswaal

Gastsprekers: Isik Kulu Glasgow en Manon van der Meer

What are the findings of the study?

The study shows that minors leading a nomadic life in Europe and have multiple problems, had a poor starting position in their country of origin. They frequently come from socio-economically disadvantaged families in which serious rifts physical violence and drug abuse exist. Social networks, especially social media, create a false image of opportunities in Europe. Youngsters are under the impression that in Europe they are able to realise their aspirations for a European life and their desire to help their parents financially.

However, in reality, in many European countries they have no chance of finding legal work or being granted a residence permit. They end up leading a nomadic existence, often on the streets, and they struggle with mental health issues, behavioural problems and drug abuse. In addition, they frequently become involved in criminal activities which becomes a part of their survival strategy. There are indications that they are exploited while involved in these activities. This exacerbates the problems that they already encountered in the country of origin. Consequently, they find themselves in a vicious circle that is hard to break.

How do other countries in Europe deal with this group?

In countries where the immigration policy for UMs is based on asylum such as in the Netherlands, these minors have limited future perspectives. Returning to the country of origin is seen as the obvious option, but in practice this is not easy to achieve. UMs can only be sent back if they have family or accommodation facilities that can care for them. Moreover, the minors often do not want to return to their home countries and leave the accommodation centres with an unknown destination. In addition, countries of origin do not always cooperate in the return of rejected asylum seekers.

The Southern European countries of Italy and Spain have a different approach than the Netherlands. UMs there do not have to apply for asylum to receive a residence permit. They enter the child protection system in which they are not considered as asylum seekers. Because of their age, the minors are granted a residence permit until the age of 18, with possibilities to extend the permit beyond the age of legal adulthood. Their guidance is aimed at inclusion in the society and they are provided with opportunities to work legally after turning 16. In Spain, a few years ago reforms were introduced among others, to prevent (ex-)UMs ending up in an irregular existence and to earn money by engaging in criminal activities.

According to the researchers, the situation of nomadic UMs with multiple problems raises challenging issues. It calls for integrated solutions from different domains, such as regular care, supervision in the accommodation and justice system. Moreover, it is not only a concern for Dutch policy, but for Europe in general.