Today’s post comes to you from Golden Gate University law student Sharon Brenner, the winner of Legal Language’s first immigration article contest! Brenner is studying immigration law and hopes to make that her career. Her analysis of the troubles facing refugee children in the US and ideas to assist this immigrant population earned her the $500 grand prize.
Unaccompanied refugee minors are a distinct class of immigrants with a complex set of needs. Providing legal assistance to this group requires simultaneous consideration of psychological, logistical and legal issues that impact decisions to be made in the child’s best interests.
The United Nations (UN) defines “unaccompanied minors” as “persons who are under 18 years of age or under a country’s legal age of majority, are separated from both parents, and are not with and being cared for by a guardian or other adult who by law or custom is responsible for them.”1 After UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) designates such a child as an unaccompanied refugee minor, the child may be accepted into the US refugee resettlement program. The US identifies unaccompanied refugee minors as “refugee children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the US, but do not have a parent or a relative available and committed to providing for their long term care.”2 This program was initiated in the 1980s with the goal of “providing appropriate care … for unaccompanied minor refugees and entrants and to prepare them for productive lives in the United States.”3 Countries of origin of unaccompanied refugee minors vary greatly.4 Common means by which a minor becomes unaccompanied include escape from armed conflict, kidnapping and forced military recruitment, child trafficking, and internal displacement.5 Given the intensity of these experiences, one can often assume that unaccompanied refugee minors are indeed an at-risk population of immigrants.
While there are many services that assist unaccompanied refugee minors and help them gain access to resettlement programs, such existing efforts are inadequate.6 Achievement of the US goal of caring for refugee minors and preparing them for productive lives in the US cannot be realized without giving more aggressive attention to this vulnerable immigrant population.7
Primary sources of support for unaccompanied refugee minors include UNHCR and UNICEF, legal aid agencies abroad that assist minors with UNHCR-related matters, and countries with well-established refugee resettlement programs who will accept the minors and place them in foster care.
However, despite these resources, unaccompanied refugee minors still face extreme challenges in accessing legal services. In addition to inherent psychological vulnerabilities, the child may also face local government obstacles such as forced detention, an inability to communicate with the law enforcement authorities, and a lack of knowledge as to the child’s rights and available legal services.8 Even once legal services are accessed, the minor may become frustrated and agitated with the process, flee to another country, or put himself in other high-risk situations.
We are left with the lingering question of how the legal community can ensure that unaccompanied refugee minors receive greater attention during the initial stages of refugee processing in order to achieve effective legal assistance and limit psychological trauma.
The solution exists in a more comprehensive and cooperative approach to legal aid. For instance, in a country that detains refugee youth while they await refugee processing, in-house psychological services are imperative to help the child cope with the inherent trauma associated with migration. Access to education is also essential. Without daily routines, immigrant youth who linger in countries for months or years before being accepted to a refugee resettlement program become easily and intensely frustrated. This is especially relevant to teenage refugee populations who are more readily independent and mobile. Finally, international laws relating to the treatment of children and particularly, to their right to expedited and liberal adjudication procedures, must be more strictly enforced.9 Without serious compliance with legal instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, unaccompanied refugee minors are being denied rights that are imperative to the adjudication of their cases.10
Combining legal and logistical efforts such as these will generate more efficient and effective adjudication of unaccompanied refugee minors’ cases. The legal community must look beyond the boundaries of the laws themselves and give attention to the comprehensiveness that legal services to this community necessitate. By accounting for additional considerations such as psychological treatment and education, and working in cooperation with one another, legal service providers, local governments and inter-government agencies will be more successful in their efforts to provide legal aid to this intensely vulnerable immigrant population.