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Let children be children – a moral obligation and an investment in our future

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, providing lessons from the field on the protection and integration of refugee and migrant children in Europe.

A child going to school is not news or should not be news in Europe. A child going to a classmate’s birthday party is an ordinary Sunday activity for many families. Parents supporting their teenage children, when struggling to find their place in a 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 in order to develop our potential and overcome difficulties when growing up, many of us have relied on caring families, supportive communities of friends, sometimes neighbours, teachers, 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 and to the doctor when needed. Nobody has imprisoned us for no reason, there weren’t any laws forbidding us to work, we haven’t had to go into huge debt or deal with ruthless criminals to reach a place where we feel safe.

Nobody can grow up alone. 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. Without strong support, few will make it.

Finding inspiration on the ground

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 local 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 support has not been available for unaccompanied refugee and migrant children. This happens 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 a Hungarian 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 child protection services in Budapest to enable them to begin recruiting and training foster parents for unaccompanied and separated children.

This projects 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 and some have become mentors for refugee families, helping them to connect with people in their communities and navigate daily life in a foreign country.

Additionally, while ensuring that refugee and migrant children are able to access mainstream services, 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 conflict 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 marginalised groups, such as homeless citizens.

A third key element to facilitate inclusion is creating opportunities for the local population and newcomers to meet each other and develop 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 previously emphasised, 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 protested when refugee children were enrolled in mainstream schools. SOS Children’s Villages, together with UNICEF, took the time to engage in dialogue with parents from the local schools, school 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 fight stereotypes, but they are now making friends and getting invited to the homes of the local families. This might not be measurable through statistics, but it demonstrates a crucial achievement on an individual and a community level.

In need of a better European response

The response to refugees and migrants seeking to rebuild their lives in Europe has been characterised by short-sightedness and a lack of unity and political leadership. Migrants can contribute to Europe’s social, economic and cultural development. However, the opposite narrative, portraying migrants as an undesirable burden, has led countries and EU institutions to panic and even compete to evade their own responsibilities. This further leads to finger pointing and a blame-game that doesn’t seek real solutions and where ultimately, we all lose.

If we know that a child struggling in the streets of our cities and getting into trouble is no different to 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 prevents us from working together?

This article was originally published in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin on 8 December 2017