Do you remember your younger days? Imagine: you are a minor and you had to flee your country alone. You end up in Belgium, after having suffered many traumas on the way to exile. You are on your own. This is the situation in which many young people find themselves. Many of them are in transit through Belgium to the UK; they are called “UAM in transit.” In a “survival mode”, they often do not trust anyone and keep a low profile, avoiding any contact with the public authorities, whom they distrust. These young people come mainly from Eritrea, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and are in very diverse legal situations. “Many have passed through Libya, for example, where they were subjected to sexual violence, slavery… Terrible and very traumatic mistreatment. It’s far from over in Europe: many report police violence and theft of their personal belongings,” says Manou Ballyn, head of the Xtra MENA project (CAP Brabantia – Caritas International branch).
>> READ THE REPORT: Unaccompanied minors in transit in Belgium and the need for pre-reception (FR)
LIFE ON THE STREETS AND DISAPPEARANCES
Left to their own devices, these children and adolescents are at the mercy of people who may be malicious. Avoiding to report to the authorities, they do not have access to the protection that is their right as minors. The information they receive at their departure, during their journey and in Belgium is often contradictory, incomplete or incorrect. “We notice that these young people are on the road for longer and longer periods – one and a half years, sometimes even two years – and pass through many countries that apply different rules” explains Manou. However, they are particularly vulnerable, many of them sleep on the street and disappearances are frequent. It is not uncommon for them to be victims of human trafficking or other illegal practices. “Without any reference points or solutions to survive, some are forced to do desperate things, such as prostitution,” says Manou. “At the moment, Fedasil applies vulnerability criteria, according to which a young person can or cannot access the formal reception system outside of opening hours (after 3pm). This system has to stop because if a young person does not receive a shelter place after having been very reluctant to come forward, there is a good chance that we will lose track of them” she continues.
>> ALSO READ: Assistance to young migrants in transit
© Image illustrative – Canva
A CONTINUOUS AND GROWING PROBLEM
The Xtra MENA project team has been working for years with these young people in the places where they live, and has developed an expertise in the obstacles and difficulties they encounter, and seeks to respond to their needs. Today, the situation is clear: more and more young people, more and more vulnerable, and a crying lack of support and places to welcome them with dignity. It is urgent: structural solutions must be found to respond to a problem that is no longer temporary, but permanent. “All the associations that work with UAM spend a lot of time responding to their primary demand: find a roof over their heads for the night. We no longer have time to support them in other ways: to support them psychologically, to inform them about their rights… Housing is such an emergency that it takes precedence over everything else,” says Manou. “It is not possible to let these children exhaust themselves, be cold, be hungry, sleep in the street. . .”
A PRE-RECEPTION SPACE IS NEEDED
Based on its expertise and in consultation with other actors, the Xtra MENA team of CAW Brabantia – a Caritas International branch – makes a clear recommendation: there is an urgent need to open pre-reception spaces without formal registration so that these young people can finally rest, start to rebuild themselves, and reflect on their future. This place should allow them to access services that meet their basic needs, so that once they are out of survival mode, they can absorb the correct information given to them, at their own pace. They could then be guided to officially register in Belgium, if they so wish, and enter the formal protection system for UAM. Depending on their situation, each young person could apply for international protection in Belgium or for family reunification in the country where they have family, for example the United Kingdom. “Setting up this pre-reception system is essential and urgent. We need a structural response to this structural problem, anchored in the long term” insists Manou. “We know that many young people are on the migration routes right now and will arrive in the coming months… We are talking about boys and girls, sometimes pregnant, and extremely vulnerable. Winter is coming.”