“Listen to our needs, fears, hopes and dreams!”
A two-day European conference titled “Integration for Unaccompanied Minors: Α multidimensional approach by PROUD project” was organised by METAdrasi on the 13th and 14th of April in Athens. A large participation showed how crucial the subject of the integration of unaccompanied minors in Europe is.
In her opening speech, the President of METAdrasi Lora Pappa stated: “The PROUD project is not only an international program for the exchange of expertise. In the last two years we have succeeded in applying pilot schemes, such as mentoring, to create tools and export know-how, promoting successful alternative methods of housing and practices of integration in Europe. A characteristic example is that Spain, through the PROUD project, started the model of Supported Independent Living (SIL), based on the experience of Greece and the Netherlands.”
The conference, which took place on the occasion of the completion of the PROUD two-year project, was attended by Deputy Minister of Migration and Asylum Ms Sophia Voultepsi, who spoke about the steps taken by the state concerning the protection of unaccompanied minors, mentioning amongst other things the abolition of protective custody of minors in police stations. Following her, Mr Heracles Moskoff, Special Secretary for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors, pointed out that the protection and successful integration of unaccompanied minors remains a priority of the Special Secretariat, and spoke of the importance, in its efforts, of the involvement of the Society of Citizens. Finally, the representative of the European Commission Mr Matthias Oel spoke about the importance of the PROUD project for the evolution of good practices, both in the SIL program and in the pioneering mentoring program which has been successfully applied in Greece.
A special note was the participation of Bahram, who arrived in Samos as an unaccompanied minor in 2016 and was first welcomed in the accommodation facility of METAdrasi, from which, after 1.5 years, he was transferred to a SIL apartment. He graduated from school, and improved his English language skills; he attained his majority, and with the continued support of METAdrasi, he now stands on his own two feet as a mature 19-year-old who considers Greece as his second country. Participating in the conference panels as well as in the second day workshops, Bahram posed the fundamental questions and problems that beset unaccompanied minors, setting the basis for successful integration into local society: “Listen to our needs, fears, hopes and dreams!”
With Bahram’s words as a guide, as well as the study presented by the representative of the Centre for European Constitutional Law, and the programs in place in Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany, good practices emerged which are in accordance with the specific needs of unaccompanied minors and which contribute to their smooth integration and transition to adulthood.
Supported Independent Living (SIL)
“The SIL apartment was the best solution for me. I wish I could have gone there earlier.”
The representatives of organisations and institutions unanimously recognised that Supported Independent Living (SIL), is not just a method of housing unaccompanied minors, but a pioneering alternative model which substantially contributes to the children’s smooth integration into local society. After discussion and exchange of views, the necessity was pointed out of reducing the age of acceptance into the SIL apartments from 16+ to 15+, as is already the case in some European countries, this giving the children enough time to prepare themselves for adult life. And while in Greece a pilot scheme with the first SIL apartments was set up by METAdrasi in 2018, the model seems to be expanding and includes further innovations, such as the inclusion of Greek children, via a program promoted by the Greek Ministry of Employment, for adolescents and young adults from 16 to 24 years of age.
The need to support unaccompanied minors after they come of age
“What will happen when I am 18?”
There was a general acknowledgment of the lack of support, in most European countries, for children once they have attained their majority. As was pointed out by the Nidos representative from the Netherlands, “No child becomes a major on the day of their birthday!” The abrupt exit from a framework that provides safety and protection, into the hostile environment of adult life, has deleterious results in later years and causes these children to suffer constant anxiety from the age of 16.
A safe environment for the children: legal residency in the country until the age of 21
“I received the first rejection for my asylum request, why should I continue to learn the language and go to school if I will not remain in this country?”
The case of Saïdou – a former unaccompanied minor who is threatened with deportation despite his high level of integration into Greek society – which was presented in the social media lately, served to highlight the problem faced by thousands of children. In the first panel, led by the Deputy Ombudswoman for children’s rights Ms Theoni Koufonikolakou, the participants were impressed by the presentation by Fundació Idea from Spain of the new law enforced in the country, by which every unaccompanied minor arriving in Spain gets automatic legal residence until the age of 21, independently of the asylum process which is optional. The Nidos representative stated: “This law, which is also in force in Italy, “frees” a child from the immense psychological pressure and uncertainty caused by the unstable framework of legality in the country.” This huge pressure felt by the children due to the complicated bureaucratic procedures and the uncertainty regarding their legal status, is a major disincentive to their efforts towards integration. It is also one of the main causes of illegal movement via traffickers from one European country to another, with major risks for the safety of the children.
Education and career training
“I started school with great enthusiasm, but I was soon disappointed.”
The incomplete or entirely non-existent knowledge of the language of the host country, long absence from school or even illiteracy are the basic challenges that were discussed at the second panel, led by Ms Gelly Aroni, Head of the Unit for Integration and Support of Unaccompanied Minors at the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. One of the basic reasons, amongst others, that children abandon school is their being placed in a class with age as the sole criterium, or being kept away from the other children at the school. There was a discussion on the practice of “Welcome Classes” which aim to teach Greek in an accelerated manner, together with participation in normal lessons with the other students; also, about the “International School” in the Netherlands, via which children soon forge their own way, either by continuing their studies, or by training for a job. In Spain as in the Netherlands, the opportunities for unaccompanied minors to train immediately for a job through practical experience are successful models which ease their way into adulthood.
The programs for non-formal education and employment advice organised by the Citizens Society and supported by international institutions (UNHCR and UNICEF) are fundamental for the integration of the children not only into Greek society but also into the job market. This panel also pointed out the necessity of extending support for two or three years after the children reach majority, so that they have time to complete their studies and training, given that most of them have been away from an educational framework for more than two years.
“I wish to thank my mentor who helped me find my way”.
At the conference the pilot scheme of mentoring was presented; this has been implemented with great success in Greece during the two years of the PROUD project. One hundred Greek volunteers were trained and each was paired with one child with the aim of easing their integration into local societies and their transition to autonomy. In this framework the Mentoring Protocol was described and is to become a reference for its implementation in Greece, as well as in other European countries.
In conclusion, Lora Pappa declared, “We hope the conclusions of the conference will be adopted by those who define integration policies. And we are certain that, combined with the promotion of a compulsory mechanism of responsibility sharing amongst the European countries, second-, third-, and even fourth-tier movements of children from one country to another will stop. The only thing these children want is to be accepted and put down roots in some country, so that they can ‘blossom’.”