Unaccompanied refugee children

Pediatric outpatient clinic

One of the patients Sarah meets at the pediatric outpatient clinic is Ahmed, who is 17. He comes with a social worker and an interpreter. With the help of the interpreter Sarah learns that Ahmed left his home country when he was 16 1/2 years old. War had been raging for several years, and when one of his friends was forced to fight for the rebels, his parents decided that it would be safer for him to leave the country. They used their savings to pay the journey for him, but could not afford to pay for his siblings or themselves. So he left alone. The journey took several weeks and there were many times on the way when he thought he would die. However, he managed to arrive alive in Germany where he was placed in a home for unaccompanied minors. The social worker explains that he had been eager to go to school and had expressed hope that his family could join him. However, shortly after his arrival, the government declared that for the next two years no family reunions would be granted. This means he will be over 18 and not automatically entitled to family reunion any more when this period is over. The social worker says his teachers are worried because he had seemed like a very bright student and eager to learn at first, but he now seems increasingly depressed and at times aggressive and she thinks he needs mental health care. Sarah asks Ahmed how he feels and he responds: “I can’t sleep at night and I struggle to concentrate at school. I keep thinking about my parents and young brothers who are still at home in a city under attack. Do I deserve to be in a secure place when their lives are in danger? I wish I could help them!”

As this story reflects, unaccompanied refugee children are a particularly vulnerable group of refugees. They lack the protection of and guidance from their parents and their extended family. Adolescence itself is a vulnerable phase in life, even without any refugee context.

There may also be a burden of expectations from the family back home to serve as an »anchor«, so that the family can follow once the child has a legal permit or for the child to make money that can be sent back home.

How do you think unaccompanied refugee children can best be taken care of in the host country? Please share your opinion and any best practices you have seen below.

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