Worldwide, the number of child refugees has more than doubled in the last decade. Nearly one in every 200 children in the world today is a refugee (UNICEF, 2016a). In Europe, one in four asylum seekers is a child (800 per day) (European Commission, 2016). Although in 2016 the number of asylum seekers in the Netherlands did not reach the peaks of 2014 and 2015, the percentage of children of the total number of asylum seekers has increased. Between October 2015 and July 2016 the number of children rose from 28% to 42% of the total amount of people applying for asylum in the Netherlands (CBS, 2016).
In the context of migration, refugee children are the most vulnerable group facing many challenges: they experience a dangerous journey and often lack access to essential necessities such as food, shelter, medical aid and a healthy and stimulating environment for growing up. Moreover, refugee children are highly dependent on adults; they easily fall victim to abuse and harm during their journeys and they face poverty and exclusion while in the destination country (UNICEF, 2016a; UNICEF, 2016b; Council of Europe, 2016).
Refugee children arriving in the destination country face many difficulties when seeking asylum, such as frequent moves, lack of education, insufficient access to healthcare, etc. (UNICEF, 2016b; Working group Child in Asylum-seeking centre, 2016). Moreover, several recent studies indicate that refugee children are not sufficiently enabled to participate in the predominantly adult-oriented asylum procedures (Working group Child in Asylum-seeking centre, 2016; Smyth, 2014; Mannion, 2016; FRA, 2016). Information about their rights is generally aimed at adults. When children are accompanied by parents it is assumed that it is sufficient if the adult is informed and heard within the asylum procedure (ENOC Taskforce children on the move, 2016).
Since refugee children find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position, often having experienced traumatic events that cause insecurity and anxiety, they have a lot to gain from being regarded as active agents in legal procedures (Van Os et al., 2016; Kalverboer et al., 2016; Derluyn & Broekaert, 2007). Being able to participate empowers children and helps them to better understand and accept the decisions that are made (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2007; Tyler, 2006). While children’s skills in reasoning and expressing their views increase when learning to participate (Saywitz et al., 2010; Fitzgerald et al., 2009), a lack of regard for children’s agency has the opposite effect of promoting ‘a self-fulfilling cycle of learned helplessness,’ since children feel as though they are not being taken seriously (Lansdown, 2005, p. 24).
Rejected asylum claims
A recent example of neglecting the right to participation of refugee children is the rejection of asylum claims made by children dispersed from the Calais Jungle in October 2016. Hundreds of children filed asylum claims in the UK after the refugee camp in Calais was demolished. Last December several children, residing in French reception centres, were verbally told that their asylum claims had not succeeded, but no written reasons from the UK government were given to these children. A 15-year-old Eritrean boy told the Guardian:
“I was in Calais for two months and have been in this centre for more than one month. There are 14 of us here who have received this bad news. The British government and the Home Office have been playing games with us” (The Guardian, 16 December 2016).
The fact that the children had to wait for nearly two months and in the end did not receive any written reasons explaining the rejection of their asylum claim, fails to recognise these children as rights holders and active agents in the procedure. This can be seen as contradictory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which advocates the view that children are autonomous subjects and full bearers of rights. A one-sided view of refugee children as vulnerable objects is not in line with international children’s rights standards. However, their vulnerability calls for a strong legal position in asylum procedures. Effective participation in legal procedures – based on child-friendly and age-appropriate communication, adaptation of procedures to their age and level of maturity, and taking children seriously – can strengthen the legal position of refugee children and contribute to the perceived fairness of complex asylum procedures and outcomes.